Diamonds Aren’t Special and Neither Is Your Love

We’ve coupled love to marriage and marriage to gems, and all three thrive on the assumption of rarity. What would it mean for love to be common?

photo of diamonds
Nina Westervelt / The New York Times / Redux

In South Africa there are mines full of more diamonds than humanity could ever want or need. You won’t get the chance to see most of them; few are flawless enough to enter the jewelry market. As the stones are excavated, carved, and judged by the four C’s—color, carat, cut, clarity—they are whittled down until only the most perfect remain.

The book jacket of Crystal Clear by Jaya Saxena
This article has been adapted from Saxena’s new book.

Only about 20 percent of mined diamonds are of gemstone quality, and of those, a significant portion still have visible “flaws” or discolorations. Based on these statistics and these rigorous criteria, the diamond you might be inclined to think of, the one shimmering in the window of Tiffany’s or on a newly engaged woman’s hand, indeed seems rare. After all, it’s the perfect stone, meant to represent the perfect relationship. How often would that come along?

“Perfect” diamonds may be less common than their colorful, pockmarked counterparts, but diamonds are abundant. The criteria used to keep some from market were created to serve the diamond industry and change whenever there’s a need to unload product (think of every celebrity who has sported a yellow or pink engagement ring instead of a white one). And most people can’t tell the difference between a real diamond and something like cubic zirconia anyway. A diamond’s perfection and rarity wind up being arbitrary.

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.

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.

There was no first conversation about marriage with my partner, Matt. It had always been there, the assumed outcome from the moment we got together for the third time. The first time was in high school, so it didn’t count. The second time, at 21, I felt the weight of forever bearing down on my shoulders. It seemed obvious that this would be the ending, and I didn’t want to go down that road yet, so I left on one of those around-the-world trips that are supposed to stuff you with enough “life experience” in six months to let you skip over the hard work of growing up. Matt left a key for me for when I returned, and I waited in their bed, eating boxed cookies they had left and listening to a playlist they had made, until my eyes rolled shut. I woke to Matt sliding into bed and enveloping me, and to the thought that I would never have to do anything else. Maybe I was like one of those chickens that needs a new chicken to be introduced to the coop while they’re asleep, otherwise they’d be too aware of change and run away. But by morning we both knew where we were going.

Years later, I gave my partner a diamond ring. The diamond had been passed to me by my aunt, and was passed to her from my great-grandmother—a bit of luck since we were each the eldest or only granddaughter of our generations. My aunt had it reset in a yellow-gold ribbon-esque setting, too big for me, but it sat in my jewelry box, ready for me to do whatever I wanted with it.

hand wearing a diamond ring
Nina Westervelt / The New York Times / Redux

It didn’t even occur to me that proposing was what I was doing when I walked over to Matt’s side of the bed, ring outstretched, and said that I wanted them to have this for whenever they were ready, because I was ready. As the woman, it felt like there was no way my ask was the real one.

Over the next few months I joked that if Matt didn’t propose soon, I would, as if that would be the most absurd outcome of our relationship, and as if I hadn’t already done so. A proposal—the right kind, the one in which I was being asked—would not change our relationship or our commitment to each other, but I wanted it all the same, and was deeply uncomfortable with that knowledge. I wanted something beautiful and special, and now I was scared I wouldn’t get it, or that it wouldn’t be as wonderful as I had been led to expect.

A proposal isn’t necessarily a bad thing to want. As silly as the presentation of a diamond ring could be, occasion marks intention in a way a series of small conversations just doesn’t. Asking someone to say yes or no in a life-changing situation grants the other person an awesome power. They’re not being asked to go along with a suggested plan; they’re being asked to decide. Still, eventually Matt proposed, and now I’m a woman who was proposed to with a fucking diamond ring. Just the way De Beers wanted it.

We’ve coupled love to marriage and we’ve coupled marriage to diamonds, and all three thrive on the assumption of rarity. What would it mean for love to be common? For marriage to become irrelevant as its benefits are made available to all? I say this as someone in love and in a marriage, who gets fiercely defensive of those things. But I could easily have married my college boyfriend if the terroir were right. I could have married anyone, which is not something I’m supposed to think about. We know that love is not perfect, that it’s arbitrary and common, that if we grew up a state away or spoke a different language, we might not have fallen in love with the person we currently love. But to admit that would be to break the spell and rebuild our relationships on … what exactly? I don’t know how to value things if they are not unique. I don’t know how to care about something if it’s not special, and though I feel like my relationship is the only one of its kind, I don’t know why that is.

I have told myself my marriage is different—unlike everyone who crows about it in Instagram captions, we are actually best friends, we actually have been through thick and thin and know more about each other than we know about ourselves. Surely, all other married couples must be kidding on some level. They must have something to go through the rigmarole of staying together for so long, but no one has what we have. We are the only ones who got it right.

In reality, your marriage will never transcend the institution, but you want it to feel like it will. Marriage is special, so special, but also so common, and to reach the state where it starts sounding like a good idea and not a prison, it has to feel different from the mere idea of marriage. It has to feel like the two of you cracked something open and are scamming the system, and yes, you’re technically getting married, but clearly this is something grander and deeper than the law ever scratched. There’s no way, you tell yourselves, this thing you’re doing, that billions of people have done before, is ordinary. And getting to that point takes effort, not happenstance and coincidence.

The love that you build a marriage on is lying at the back of every cave, amply dull, waiting for someone brave enough to make the journey and bring the right tools. Diamonds, the perfect stones, are not scarce, and neither is love. It can show up in any size, hidden under any mantle, forged in the worst and weirdest conditions. What if diamonds were more special the more we had, and seeing one on someone else only confirmed to both of you how wonderful your shared accessorizing was? I’m trying to let my diamond make me as common as it is, part of a world in which caves overflow with unimpressive pebbles just waiting to be shined up and sold. I do not want my sense of self to be based on what others do not or cannot have. I want to feel the true abundance of love.

This article has been adapted from Saxena’s new book, Crystal Clear: Reflections on Extraordinary Talismans for Everyday Life.