What’s the secret behind a diamond’s allure?
Diamonds are not as rare as you might think. In 2012, the Russian government stunned the world when it revealed that it had discovered “trillions of carats” of diamonds in a desolate, abandoned mine in Siberia. The diamond cache lies within the Popigai crater, formed 35 million years ago when an asteroid crashed into the frozen plains of northern Russia. The force of its impact created a 100km-wide crater, and formed enough impact diamonds to supply the world diamond market for the next three millennia.
What’s more, there are diamond deposits scattered throughout the world – from the Rio Tinto-owned Argyle mine in Western Australia, which produces 20 Mega carats of diamonds a year, to De Beers’ Jwaneng diamond mine in Botswana, currently thought to be the world’s richest. There’s even a massive planet made of diamonds orbiting another star in the Milky Way.
So if the universe is awash in diamonds, what makes them so special? For one thing, mining them (on Earth) is labour intensive, with many tonnes of dirt needing to be mined per carat found. Then, gem-quality diamonds are relatively hard to find, with the odds of finding a high-grade 1-carat diamond approximately (and literally) one in a million.
From myth to marketing
Diamonds have also long been sacred to many cultures. As early as 3,000 BC, Egyptians placed diamonds representing the sun – in the sacred ankh hieroglyph. The Romans and Greeks thought the stones were the tears of the gods, and that Cupid’s arrows of love were tipped with diamonds. Hindus believed that diamonds attracted lightning bolts, and that the stones’ stunning brilliance was a symbol of invincibility.
By the Middle Ages, diamonds were even thought to have the power to cure, simply by being placed on the body. It wasn’t until 1532 when Pope Clement VII died from a dose of powdered diamonds that the cure began to lose its lustre. Throughout history, diamonds have also been used to adorn rings. Medieval Italians dubbed it “the stone of reconciliation”, while European mystics claimed a diamond ring worn on the left hand warded off evil influences and attracted good fortune. But the popularity of the diamond ring as an engagement ring can be traced to an ingenious campaign by De Beers.
A slogan is forever
From its inception in 1888, De Beers quickly came to dominate all aspects of the diamond industry, but lacklustre sales after the Great Depression, coupled with an astonishing boost in supply (thanks to the discovery of a rich seam in South Africa), had the company on the ropes.
With Europe on the brink of war, De Beers decided to focus on stoking demand among American consumers. It teamed up with NW Ayer & Sons, an advertising agency, to find ways to boost the popularity of the diamond as an engagement ring. From celebrity endorsements (even Queen Elizabeth wore a De Beers diamond) to lush print advertisements, Ayers and De Beers focused on defining the diamond as a symbol of eternal love. In 1950, inspired by a picture of two honeymooners, a De Beers’ copywriter coined the slogan “A diamond is forever” – perfectly capturing the romantic essence of the gem – and a marketing classic was born.
On the back of its marketing success in America, De Beers focused its energies eastward. In partnership with multinational ad agency J Walter Thompson, it managed to convince post-war Japanese to cast off 1,500 years of tradition and embrace the diamond engagement ring. In a breath-taking 14 years, Japan became the second-largest market after the US for the sale of diamond rings.
Fast-forward to today, and our love affair with diamonds still endures. Not only are diamonds forever, they are a girl’s best friend. We love them so much we mined 130 million carats of diamonds out of the ground last year, and spent more than US$80 billion on diamond jewellery worldwide. And they still shine as bright as ever.
Diamonds are still mined in war zones, often by child labour in brutal working conditions, and illegally smuggled into the tiny Indian town of Surat, where more than 90% of all rough diamonds are processed, graded and sold. With few adequate safeguards amid the chaos of the buying process, clean and dirty stones are co-mingled, and it becomes difficult for ethical wholesale buyers to be sure of the origins of their gems. If you’re in the market for one, there are ways in which your purchase can help more than harm:
- SHOP WISELY
Reputable diamond retailers have ethical diamond policies that try to source gems from conflict-free zones that observe international labour standards. Wedding website The Knot suggests trying Tiffany and Co or Brilliant Earth.
- HELP DIRECTLY
Consider spending a part of your diamond budget on supporting organisations that help small-scale ethical diamond operations, such as Diamond Development Initiative International.
- GO SYNTHETIC
You can avoid ethical issues if you opt for a diamond grown in a laboratory. As technology improves, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish a lab diamond from the real thing. Speciality labs now offer memorial diamonds crafted from hair or cremation remains, giving you a truly unique way of remembering a special someone.
THE 4CS OF BUYING DIAMONDS
This determines the size of a diamond. One carat equals 0.2g. But size is by far the least important attribute, as brilliant clarity, colour and cut can make a smaller stone outshine a larger, duller one.
This is the most important factor of all – the cut is what gives a diamond its sparkle. According to Tiffany and Co, the round brilliant cut is the most popular. This is the brightest cut and returns the most brilliance, fire and scintillation.
A diamond’s colour grade is based on its lack of colour and the untrained eye cannot detect a difference between most stones graded D (totally colourless) to G (colourless). At around H, there might be some “warmth” to the stone. To assess a diamond, check it against a bright white background.
Tiny irregularities, blemishes and inclusions can mar a stone. FL diamonds are completely flawless (and exceedingly rare). IF diamonds are internally flawless, VVS1-2 diamonds contain flaws that can only be seen by an expert using a 10x microscope, and VS1-2 diamonds will not have any imperfections visible to the naked eye.