Read: Marriage has become a trophy
A singular person can achieve moments of perfection: a 100 on a spelling test, a just-cleaned house, straight teeth, a just-cut gem. But even then, as soon as it’s attained, it’s dulled by the end of the pursuit, or overtaken by the anxiety of maintaining it. Perfection is harder to affix to a relationship, like a paper label sliding down an oily jar. If perfection is defined in part by its transience, then it seems anathema to something as permanent, and common, as marriage. The perfect diamond is a promise of the perfect relationship, because love is supposedly rare and so is this stone. We want the story that tells us our relationship is special. And we don’t want to accept that rarity isn’t all that meaningful.
Until the 19th century, diamonds were rare. But by about 1870, they were at risk of becoming ordinary. Huge diamond mines were discovered in South Africa, flooding the market, making the gem available, and slightly more affordable, to anyone who wanted one. This was no way to run an industry that relied upon rarity, so the major investors created De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd., a group that took control of the diamond trade to ensure price stability for the exporting countries and companies, which is to say they owned every aspect of the industry, including how many diamonds were allowed on the market, in order to perpetuate the illusion of diamond rarity—and keep prices high.
“Diamonds had little intrinsic value—and their price depended almost entirely on their scarcity,” wrote Edward Jay Epstein in his seminal 1982 article for The Atlantic, “Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?” In it, he outlines how De Beers orchestrated a dual lie: that the diamond is rare, but also that the diamond is a symbol of commitment and love that no relationship should be without. In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, diamonds were seen as a luxury, and most women thought it absurd to spend money on one when so many more practical things could be had. De Beers hired the ad company N. W. Ayer & Son, which explicitly set the goal of creating “a situation where almost every person pledging marriage feels compelled to acquire a diamond engagement ring.” The diamond ring, which was not a thing, became a thing. The slogan “A diamond is forever” became fact, and by 1951, eight out of 10 brides in the U.S. were the recipients of diamond rings.
Read: Have you ever tried to sell a diamond?
But De Beers knows that diamonds are worth only what they mean to the buying public, and diamonds may be in crisis again. Americans are waiting longer to get married, and progressive social politics have opened up the idea of who can get married, and made people question whether or not marriage needs to be the end point of a committed relationship. The recession once again spooked a generation out of such an impractical investment. De Beers knows, maybe better than we do, that perfection is a moving target.