Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?

An unruly market may undo the work of a giant cartel and of an inspired, decades-long ad campaign

The diamond market had to be further restructured in the mid-1960s to accomodate a surfeit of minute diamonds, which De Beers undertook to market for the Soviets. They had discovered diamond mines in Siberia, after intensive exploration, in the late 1950s: De Beers and its allies no longer controlled the diamond supply, and realized that open competition with the Soviets would inevitably lead, as Harry Oppenheimer gingerly put it, to "price fluctuations,"which would weaken the carefully cultivated confidence of the public in the value of diamonds. Oppenheimer, assuming that neither party could afford risking the destruction of the diamond invention, offered the Soviets a straightforward deal—"a single channel" for controlling the world supply of diamonds. In accepting this arrangement, the Soviets became partners in the cartel, and co-protectors of the diamond invention.

Almost all of the Soviet diamonds were under half a carat in their uncut form, and there was no ready retail outlet for millions of such tiny diamonds. When it made its secret deal with the Soviet Union, De Beers had expected production from the Siberian mines to decrease gradually. Instead, production accelerated at an incredible pace, and De Beers was forced to reconsider its sales strategy. De Beers ordered N. W. Ayer to reverse one of its themes: women were no longer to be led to equate the status and emotional commitment to an engagement with the sheer size of the diamond. A "strategy for small diamond sales" was outlined, stressing the "importance of quality, color and cut" over size. Pictures of "one quarter carat" rings would replace pictures of "up to 2 carat" rings. Moreover, the advertising agency began in its international campaign to "illustrate gems as small as one-tenth of a carat and give them the same emotional importance as larger stones." The news releases also made clear that women should think of diamonds, regardless of size, as objects of perfection: a small diamond could be as perfect as a large diamond.

DeBeers devised the "eternity ring," made up of as many as twenty-five tiny Soviet diamonds, which could be sold to an entirely new market of older married women. The advertising campaign was based on the theme of recaptured love. Again, sentiments were born out of necessity: older American women received a ring of miniature diamonds because of the needs of a South African corporation to accommodate the Soviet Union.

The new campaign met with considerable success. The average size of diamonds sold fell from one carat in 1939 to .28 of a carat in 1976, which coincided almost exactly with the average size of the Siberian diamonds De Beers was distributing. However, as American consumers became accustomed to the idea of buying smaller diamonds, they began to perceive larger diamonds as ostentatious. By the mid-1970s, the advertising campaign for smaller diamonds was beginning to seem too successful. In its 1978 strategy report, N. W. Ayer said, "a supply problem has developed ... that has had a significant effect on diamond pricing"—a problem caused by the long-term campaign to stimulate the sale of small diamonds. "Owing to successful pricing, distribution and advertising policies over the last 16 years, demand for small diamonds now appears to have significantly exceeded supply even though supply, in absolute terms, has been increasing steadily." Whereas there was not a sufficient supply of small diamonds to meet the demands of consumers, N. W. Ayer reported that "large stone sales (1 carat and up) ... have maintained the sluggish pace of the last three years." Because of this, the memorandum continued, "large stones are being .. discounted by as much as 20%."

The shortage of small diamonds proved temporary. As Soviet diamonds continued to flow into London at an ever-increasing rate, De Beers's strategists came to the conclusion that this production could not be entirely absorbed by "eternity rings" or other new concepts in jewelry, and began looking for markets for miniature diamonds outside the United States. Even though De Beers had met with enormous success in creating an instant diamond "tradition" in Japan, it was unable to create a similar tradition in Brazil, Germany, Austria, or Italy. By paying the high cost involved in absorbing this flood of Soviet diamonds each year, De Beers prevented — at least temporarily — the Soviet Union from taking any precipitous actions that might cause diamonds to start glutting the market. N. W. Ayer argued that "small stone jewelry advertising" could not be totally abandoned: "Serious trade relationship problems would ensue if, after fifteen years of stressing 'affordable' small stone jewelry, we were to drop all of these programs."

Instead, the agency suggested a change in emphasis in presenting diamonds to the American public. In the advertisements to appear in 1978, it planned to substitute photographs of one-carat-and-over stones for photographs of smaller diamonds, and to resume both an "informative advertising campaign" and an "emotive program" that would serve to "reorient consumer tastes and price perspectives towards acceptance of solitaire [single-stone] jewelry rather than multi-stone pieces." Other "strategic refinements" it recommended were designed to restore the status of the large diamond. "In fact, this [campaign] will be the exact opposite of the small stone informative program that ran from 1965 to 1970 that popularized the 'beauty in miniature' concept...." With an advertising budget of some $9.69 million, N. W. Ayer appeared confident that it could bring about this "reorientation."

N. W. Ayer learned from an opinion poll it commissioned from the firm of Daniel Yankelovich, Inc. that the gift of a diamond contained an important element of surprise. "Approximately half of all diamond jewelry that the men have given and the women have received were given with zero participation or knowledge on the part of the woman recipient," the study pointed out. N. W Ayer analyzed this "surprise factor":

Women are in unanimous agreement that they want to be surprised with gifts.... They want, of course, to be surprised for the thrill of it. However, a deeper, more important reason lies behind this desire.... "freedom from guilt." Some of the women pointed out that if their husbands enlisted their help in purchasing a gift (like diamond jewelry), their practical nature would come to the fore and they would be compelled to object to the purchase.

Women were not totally surprised by diamond gifts: some 84 percent of the men in the study "knew somehow" that the women wanted diamond jewelry. The study suggested a two-step "gift-process continuum": first, "the man 'learns' diamonds are o.k." fom the woman; then, "at some later point in time, he makes the diamond purchase decision" to surprise the woman.

Through a series of "projective" psychological questions, meant "to draw out a respondent's innermost feelings about diamond jewelry," the study attempted to examine further the semi-passive role played by women in receiving diamonds. The male-female roles seemed to resemble closely the sex relations in a Victorian novel. "Man plays the dominant, active role in the gift process. Woman's role is more subtle, more oblique, more enigmatic...." The woman seemed to believe there was something improper about receiving a diamond gift. Women spoke in interviews about large diamonds as "flashy, gaudy, overdone" and otherwise inappropriate. Yet the study found that "Buried in the negative attitudes ... lies what is probably the primary driving force for acquiring them. Diamonds are a traditional and conspicuous signal of achievement, status and success." It noted, for example, "A woman can easily feel that diamonds are 'vulgar' and still be highly enthusiastic about receiving diamond jewelry." The element of surprise, even if it is feigned, plays the same role of accommodating dissonance in accepting a diamond gift as it does in prime sexual seductions: it permits the woman to pretend that she has not actively participated in the decision. She thus retains both her innocence—and the diamond.

For advertising diamonds in the late 1970s, the implications of this research were clear. To induce men to buy diamonds for women, advertising should focus on the emotional impact of the "surprise" gift transaction. In the final analysis, a man was moved to part with earnings not by the value, aesthetics, or tradition of diamonds but by the expectation that a "gift of love" would enhance his standing in the eyes of a woman. On the other hand, a woman accepted the gift as a tangible symbol of her status and achievements.

By 1979, N. W. Ayer had helped De Beers expand its sales of diamonds in the United States to more than $2.1 billion, at the wholesale level, compared with a mere $23 million in 1939. In forty years, the value of its sales had increased nearly a hundredfold. The expenditure on advertisements, which began at a level of only $200,000 a year and gradually increased to $10 million, seemed a brilliant investment.

Except for those few stones that have been destroyed, every diamond that has been found and cut into a jewel still exists today and is literally in the public's hands. Some hundred million women wear diamonds, while millions of others keep them in safe-deposit boxes or strongboxes as family heirlooms. It is conservatively estimated that the public holds more than 500 million carats of gem diamonds, which is more than fifty times the number of gem diamonds produced by the diamond cartel in any given year. Since the quantity of diamonds needed for engagement rings and other jewelry each year is satisfied by the production from the world's mines, this half-billion-carat supply of diamonds must be prevented from ever being put on the market. The moment a significant portion of the public begins selling diamonds from this inventory, the price of diamonds cannot be sustained. For the diamond invention to survive, the public must be inhibited from ever parting with its diamonds.

In developing a strategy for De Beers in 1953, N. W. Ayer said: "In our opinion old diamonds are in 'safe hands' only when widely dispersed and held by individuals as cherished possessions valued far above their market price." As far as De Beers and N. W. Ayer were concerned, "safe hands" belonged to those women psychologically conditioned never to sell their diamonds. This conditioning could not be attained solely by placing advertisements in magazines. The diamond-holding public, which includes people who inherit diamonds, had to remain convinced that diamonds retained their monetary value. If it saw price fluctuations in the diamond market and attempted to dispose of diamonds to take advantage of changing prices, the retail market would become chaotic. It was therefore essential that De Beers maintain at least the illusion of price stability.

In the 1971 De Beers annual report, Harry Oppenheimer explained the unique situation of diamonds in the following terms: "A degree of control is necessary for the well-being of the industry, not because production is excessive or demand is falling, but simply because wide fluctuations in price, which have, rightly or wrongly, been accepted as normal in the case of most raw materials, would be destructive of public confidence in the case of a pure luxury such as gem diamonds, of which large stocks are held in the form of jewelry by the general public." During the periods when production from the mines temporarily exceeds the consumption of diamonds—the balance is determined mainly by the number of impending marriages in the United States and Japan—the cartel can preserve the illusion of price stability by either cutting back the distribution of diamonds at its London "sights," where, ten times a year, it allots the world's supply of diamonds to about 300 hand-chosen dealers, called "sight-holders," or by itself buying back diamonds at the wholesale level. The underlying assumption is that as long as the general public never sees the price of diamonds fall, it will not become nervous and begin selling its diamonds. If this huge inventory should ever reach the market, even De Beers and all the Oppenheimer resources could not prevent the price of diamonds from plummeting.

Selling individual diamonds at a profit, even those held over long periods of time, can be surprisingly difficult. For example, in 1970, the London-based consumer magazine Money Which? decided to test diamonds as a decade long investment. It bought two gem-quality diamonds, weighing approximately one-half carat apiece, from one of London's most reputable diamond dealers, for £400 (then worth about a thousand dollars). For nearly nine years, it kept these two diamonds sealed in an envelope in its vault. During this same period, Great Britain experienced inflation that ran as high as 25 percent a year. For the diamonds to have kept pace with inflation, they would have had to increase in value at least 300 percent, making them worth some £400 pounds by 1978. But when the magazine's editor, Dave Watts,tried to sell the diamonds in 1978, he found that neither jewelry stores nor wholesale dealers in London's Hatton Garden district would pay anywhere near that price for the diamonds. Most of the stores refused to pay any cash for them; the highest bid Watts received was £500, which amounted to a profit of only £100 in over eight years, or less than 3 percent at a compound rate of interest. If the bid were calculated in 1970 pounds, it would amount to only £167. Dave Watts summed up the magazine's experiment by saying, "As an 8-year investment the diamonds that we bought have proved to be very poor." The problem was that the buyer, not the seller, determined the price.

The magazine conducted another experiment to determine the extent to which larger diamonds appreciate in value over a one-year period. In 1970, it bought a 1.42 carat diamond for £745. In 1971, the highest offer it received for the same gem was £568. Rather than sell it at such an enormous loss, Watts decided to extend the experiment until 1974, when he again made the round of the jewelers in Hatton Garden to have it appraised. During this tour of the diamond district, Watts found that the diamond had mysteriously shrunk in weight to 1.04 carats. One of the jewelers had apparently switched diamonds during the appraisal. In that same year, Watts, undaunted, bought another diamond, this one 1.4 carats, from a reputable London dealer. He paid £2,595. A week later, he decided to sell it. The maximum offer he received was £1,000.

In 1976, the Dutch Consumer Association also tried to test the price appreciation of diamonds by buying a perfect diamond of over one carat in Amsterdam, holding it for eight months, and then offering it for sale to the twenty leading dealers in Amsterdam. Nineteen refused to buy it, and the twentieth dealer offered only a fraction of the purchase price.

Selling diamonds can also be an extraordinarily frustrating experience for private individuals. In 1978, for example, a wealthy woman in New York City decided to sell back a diamond ring she had bought from Tiffany two years earlier for $100,000 and use the proceeds toward a necklace of matched pearls that she fancied. She had read about the "diamond boom" in news magazines and hoped that she might make a profit on the diamond. Instead, the sales executive explained, with what she said seemed to be a touch of embarrassment, that Tiffany had "a strict policy against repurchasing diamonds." He assured her, however, that the diamond was extremely valuable, and suggested another Fifth Avenue jewelry store. The woman went from one leading jeweler to another, attempting to sell her diamond. One store offered to swap it for another jewel, and two other jewelers offered to accept the diamond "on consignment" and pay her a percentage of what they sold it for, but none of the half-dozen jewelers she visited offered her cash for her $100,000 diamond. She finally gave up and kept the diamond.

Retail jewelers, especially the prestigious Fifth Avenue stores, prefer not to buy back diamonds from customers, because the offer they would make would most likely be considered ridiculously low. The "keystone," or markup, on a diamond and its setting may range from 100 to 200 percent, depending on the policy of the store; if it bought diamonds back from customers, it would have to buy them back at wholesale prices. Most jewelers would prefer not to make a customer an offer that might be deemed insulting and also might undercut the widely held notion that diamonds go up in value. Moreover, since retailers generally receive their diamonds from wholesalers on consignment, and need not pay for them until they are sold, they would not readily risk their own cash to buy diamonds from customers. Rather than offer customers a fraction of what they paid for diamonds, retail jewelers almost invariably recommend to their clients firms that specialize in buying diamonds "retail."

The firm perhaps most frequently recommended by New York jewelry shops is Empire Diamonds Corporation, which is situated on the sixty-sixth floor of the Empire State Building, in midtown Manhattan. Empire's reception room, which resembles a doctor's office, is usually crowded with elderly women who sit nervously in plastic chairs waiting for their names to be called. One by one, they are ushered into a small examining room, where an appraiser scrutinizes their diamonds and makes them a cash offer. "We usually can't pay more than a maximum of 90 percent of the current wholesale price," says Jack Brod, president of Empire Diamonds. "In most cases we have to pay less, since the setting has to be discarded, and we have to leave a margin for error in our evaluation—especially if the diamond is mounted in a setting." Empire removes the diamonds from their settings, which are sold as scrap, and resells them to wholesalers. Because of the steep markup on diamonds, individuals who buy retail and in effect sell wholesale often suffer enormous losses. For example, Brod estimates that a half-carat diamond ring, which might cost $2,000 at a retail jewelry store, could be sold for only $600 at Empire.

The appraisers at Empire Diamonds examine thousands of diamonds a month but rarely turn up a diamond of extraordinary quality. Almost all the diamonds they find are slightly flawed, off-color, commercial-grade diamonds. The chief appraiser says, "When most of these diamonds were purchased, American women were concerned with the size of the diamond, not its intrinsic quality." He points out that the setting frequently conceals flaws, and adds, "The sort of flawless, investment-grade diamond one reads about is almost never found in jewelry."

Many of the elderly women who bring their jewelry to Empire Diamonds and other buying services have been victims of burglaries or muggings and fear further attempts. Thieves, however, have an even more difficult time selling diamonds than their victims. When suspicious-looking characters turn up at Empire Diamonds, they are asked to wait in the reception room, and the police are called in. In January of 1980, for example, a disheveled youth came into Empire with a bag full of jewelry that he called "family heirlooms." When Brod pointed out that a few pieces were imitations, the youth casually tossed them into the wastepaper basket. Brod buzzed for the police.

When thieves bring diamonds to underworld "fences," they usually get only a pittance for them. In 1979, for example, New York City police recover stolen diamonds with an insured value of $50,000 which had been sold to a 'fence' for only $200. According to the assistant district attorney who handled the case, the fence was unable to dispose of the diamonds on 47th Street, and he was eventually turned in by one of the diamond dealers he contacted.

While those who attempt to sell diamonds often experience disappointment at the low price they are offered, stories in gossip columns suggest that diamonds are resold at enormous profits. This is because the column items are not about the typical diamond ring that a woman desperately attempts to peddle to small stores and diamond buying services like Empire but about truly extraordinary diamonds that movie stars sell, or claim to sell, in a publicity-charged atmosphere. The legend created around the so-called "Elizabeth Taylor" diamond is a case in point. This pear-shaped diamond, which weighed 69.42 carats after it had been cut and polished, was the fifty-sixth largest diamond in the world and one of the few large-cut diamonds in private hands. Except that it was a diamond, it had little in common with the millions of small stones that are mass-marketed each year in engagement rings and other jewelry.

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