Diamonds are forever

How movie stars and a real-life Peggy Olson put a ring on it  

Diamonds are a rare and eternal symbol of romantic love and fidelity. Or are they? The idea of a diamond as a symbol of eternal love was actually created by a diamond company and an advertising agency.

The diamond industry became flooded when a vast supply was discovered in South Africa when Victoria still ruled the British Empire, leading to a panic among the bankers and other concerns in the mining industry.

This is the story of how De Beers, the company that controlled almost all the world’s rough diamond supply, turned to an advertising agency to turn that problem into one of the biggest, most profitable monopolies in history. In the process, they transformed how the world’s couples express their love and commitment.

Marriage is a contract, and throughout the last half of the 20th century, the deal was most likely sealed with a diamond ring. Today, more than 75 percent of brides in the U.S. sport a diamond engagement ring, and diamonds are seen as the ultimate symbol of love, commitment and prestige. But that wasn’t always the case.

When supply gets out of control, the only way to protect your position is to increase demand. In addition, a market with fluctuating supply needs stabilizing. A market without competition from resale is a market that can continue to grow.

In the turbulent years leading up to World War II, diamonds had lost their sparkle. Americans were already buying diamonds for engagement rings. They just bought cheap ones, and with the Depression in full force, the diamonds were getting smaller and cheaper. After World War I, the total amount of diamonds sold in America had dropped by half.

De Beers was convinced that Americans could be persuaded to buy more expensive diamonds. They just needed help to figure out how.

In 1938, De Beers approached advertising agency N.W. Ayer to research and craft a campaign to create a new image for diamonds in the American market.

In their research, Ayer uncovered an opportunity to convince young men who were already buying engagement rings that the larger the diamond, the more it expressed their love. It had to happen both with those who bought diamonds – the young, besotted men—and those who would be the receivers.

The campaign’s signature line, “A Diamond is Forever,” was created by Frances Gerety, the female copywriter at Ayer. They loved it, and De Beers was her main client for 25 years.

Gerety partnered with Dorothy Dignam on PR. Movie stars were given (large) diamonds to present to their beloveds and to wear in movies and at their many public appearances. Dignam made sure the press all knew about it by feeding them stories and writing guest columns. The agency arranged to lend jewels to stars and socialites.

The campaign was a smash, and the price of diamonds continued to climb for decades. A one-carat D loupe clean diamond that cost $2,700 in 1960 went for $25,000 in 2010.

“A Diamond Is Forever” was named the slogan of the century by Advertising Age, and De Beers. Over the years, the campaign evolved to include “education” about the “Four C’s,” the rule of thumb that an engagement ring should cost two months’ salary, and appeals to women to buy diamonds for themselves and for their men.

There are many lessons here for marketers—one that particularly strikes me is how a little research can uncover that nugget of insight that can literally change society.