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Forever Diamonds

A powerful company, a catchy slogan, and how they forever changed the way we value diamonds.
By Barry B. Kaplan

A magazine advertisement from
the 1952 "A Diamond is Forever"
De Beers campaign.

Birth of a Legend

The prestigious US magazine, Advertising Age, in its January 1999 edition, proclaimed "A Diamond is Forever", the most recognized and effective slogan of the twentieth century. Today, diamond engagement rings are commonplace, but were it not for a single company and its drive to dominate the diamond industry, history would have turned out differently.

Diamonds are not as rare as many people think; they are certainly not the rarest of gemstones - that honor goes to rubies - but they are the hardest. The illusion of diamond scarcity and its instant association with the concepts of romance and affluence can be traced back to a successful meeting in New York between Harry Oppenheimer and the president of N.W. Ayer & Son, Gerold M. Lauck, in September 1938.

Harry Oppenheimer was the son of the founder of the company that would become the most successful cartel of the twentieth century - De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd. The South African company incorporated in 1888, during the burgeoning local diamond rush. At its formation and over the ensuing years, De Beers would successfully acquire countless interests in diamond mines and production facilities throughout the world.

The gift of love

N.W. Ayer & Son, a leading advertising agency in the United States, and the young Oppenheimer,encouraged by his bankers, sought to reverse the declining price of diamonds with a well-funded advertising campaign. Europeans were not yet taken with the idea of purchasing engagement rings featuring diamonds as the gemstone of choice. Moreover, impending war in Europe forced Oppenheimer and his bankers to promote their interests in their biggest market - the United States. At the time of the meeting with Ayer, three quarters of the cartel's diamonds were being sold there. But difficulties beleaguered this market too; diamonds were of an inferior quality to those sold in Europe, and prices were low - an average of $80 per stone.

Oppenheimer told Ayer that De Beers had not approached any other agencies and that if Ayer's plan was accepted, it would become the exclusive agency for promoting De Beers' interests in the United States. This shrewd tactic proved to be a strong motivating factor for N.W. Ayer, and after extensive research, the agency proposed a campaign to "channel American spending toward larger and more expensive diamonds".

To achieve this goal, Ayer further recommended strengthening the association of diamonds with romance. Young men, who purchased 90% of engagement rings, would be bombarded with the idea that diamonds were the gift of love. The first campaign aimed at men was launched in 1939 emphasizing the male's business savvy. Women, too, would be targeted with the idea that no courtship would be complete without a sparkling diamond. Famous houses of worship were featured in follow up advertisements, establishing a link between diamonds and the sacred tradition of a religious wedding.
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