Ramblings & ephemera

The diamond scam

From The Atlantic‘s “Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?” (February 1982):

The diamond invention – the creation of the idea that diamonds are rare and valuable, and are essential signs of esteem – is a relatively recent development in the history of the diamond trade. Until the late nineteenth century, diamonds were found only in a few riverbeds in India and in the jungles of Brazil, and the entire world production of gem diamonds amounted to a few pounds a year. In 1870, however, huge diamond mines were discovered near the Orange River, in South Africa, where diamonds were soon being scooped out by the ton. Suddenly, the market was deluged with diamonds. …

The major investors in the diamond mines realized that they had no alternative but to merge their interests into a single entity that would be powerful enough to control production and perpetuate the illusion of scarcity of diamonds. The instrument they created, in 1888, was called De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd., incorporated in South Africa. As De Beers took control of all aspects of the world diamond trade, it assumed many forms. In London, it operated under the innocuous name of the Diamond Trading Company. In Israel, it was known as “The Syndicate.” In Europe, it was called the “C.S.O.” — initials referring to the Central Selling Organization, which was an arm of the Diamond Trading Company. And in black Africa, it disguised its South African origins under subsidiaries with names like Diamond Development Corporation and Mining Services, Inc. At its height — for most of this century — it not only either directly owned or controlled all the diamond mines in southern Africa but also owned diamond trading companies in England, Portugal, Israel, Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland.

De Beers proved to be the most successful cartel arrangement in the annals of modern commerce. While other commodities, such as gold, silver, copper, rubber, and grains, fluctuated wildly in response to economic conditions, diamonds have continued, with few exceptions, to advance upward in price every year since the Depression. …

The diamond invention is far more than a monopoly for fixing diamond prices; it is a mechanism for converting tiny crystals of carbon into universally recognized tokens of wealth, power, and romance. To achieve this goal, De Beers had to control demand as well as supply. Both women and men had to be made to perceive diamonds not as marketable precious stones but as an inseparable part of courtship and married life. To stabilize the market, De Beers had to endow these stones with a sentiment that would inhibit the public from ever reselling them. The illusion had to be created that diamonds were forever — “forever” in the sense that they should never be resold.

In September of 1938, Harry Oppenheimer, son of the founder of De Beers and then twenty-nine, traveled from Johannesburg to New York City, to meet with Gerold M. Lauck, the president of N. W. Ayer, a leading advertising agency in the United States. …

In Europe, where diamond prices had collapsed during the Depression, there seemed little possibility of restoring public confidence in diamonds. … This left the United States as the only real market for De Beers’s diamonds. In fact, in 1938 some three quarters of all the cartel’s diamonds were sold for engagement rings in the United States. Most of these stones, however, were smaller and of poorer quality than those bought in Europe, and had an average price of $80 apiece. Oppenheimer and the bankers believed that an advertising campaign could persuade Americans to buy more expensive diamonds. …

Specifically, the Ayer study stressed the need to strengthen the association in the public’s mind of diamonds with romance. Since “young men buy over 90% of all engagement rings” it would be crucial to inculcate in them the idea that diamonds were a gift of love: the larger and finer the diamond, the greater the expression of love. Similarly, young women had to be encouraged to view diamonds as an integral part of any romantic courtship.

Since the Ayer plan to romanticize diamonds required subtly altering the public’s picture of the way a man courts — and wins — a woman, the advertising agency strongly suggested exploiting the relatively new medium of motion pictures. Movie idols, the paragons of romance for the mass audience, would be given diamonds to use as their symbols of indestructible love. In addition, the agency suggested offering stories and society photographs to selected magazines and newspapers which would reinforce the link between diamonds and romance. Stories would stress the size of diamonds that celebrities presented to their loved ones, and photographs would conspicuously show the glittering stone on the hand of a well-known woman. Fashion designers would talk on radio programs about the “trend towards diamonds” that Ayer planned to start. …

In addition to putting these plans into action, N. W. Ayer placed a series of lush four-color advertisements in magazines that were presumed to mold elite opinion, featuring reproductions of famous paintings by such artists as Picasso, Derain, Dali, and Dufy. The advertisements were intended to convey the idea that diamonds, like paintings, were unique works of art.

By 1941, The advertising agency reported to its client that it had already achieved impressive results in its campaign. The sale of diamonds had increased by 55 percent in the United States since 1938, reversing the previous downward trend in retail sales. N. W. Ayer noted also that its campaign had required “the conception of a new form of advertising which has been widely imitated ever since. There was no direct sale to be made. There was no brand name to be impressed on the public mind. There was simply an idea — the eternal emotional value surrounding the diamond.” …

N. W. Ayer outlined a subtle program that included arranging for lecturers to visit high schools across the country. “All of these lectures revolve around the diamond engagement ring, and are reaching thousands of girls in their assemblies, classes and informal meetings in our leading educational institutions,” the agency explained in a memorandum to De Beers. …

De Beers needed a slogan for diamonds that expressed both the theme of romance and legitimacy. An N. W. Ayer copywriter came up with the caption “A Diamond Is Forever,” which was scrawled on the bottom of a picture of two young lovers on a honeymoon. Even though diamonds can in fact be shattered, chipped, discolored, or incinerated to ash, the concept of eternity perfectly captured the magical qualities that the advertising agency wanted to attribute to diamonds. Within a year, “A Diamond Is Forever” became the official motto of De Beers. …

N. W. Ayer … set about exploiting the relatively new medium of television by arranging for actresses and other celebrities to wear diamonds when they appeared before the camera. …

N. W. Ayer proposed to apply to the diamond market Thorstein Veblen’s idea, stated in The Theory of the Leisure Class, that Americans were motivated in their purchases not by utility but by “conspicuous consumption.” “The substantial diamond gift can be made a more widely sought symbol of personal and family success — an expression of socio-economic achievement,” N. W. Ayer said in a report. To exploit this desire for conspicuous display, the agency specifically recommended, “Promote the diamond as one material object which can reflect, in a very personal way, a man’s … success in life.” …

Toward the end of the 1950s, N. W. Ayer reported to De Beers that twenty years of advertisements and publicity had had a pronounced effect on the American psyche. “Since 1939 an entirely new generation of young people has grown to marriageable age,” it said. “To this new generation a diamond ring is considered a necessity to engagements by virtually everyone.” …

The campaign to internationalize the diamond invention began in earnest in the mid-1960s. The prime targets were Japan, Germany, and Brazil. … Within ten years, De Beers succeeded beyond even its most optimistic expectations, creating a billion-dollar-a-year diamond market in Japan, where matrimonial custom had survived feudal revolutions, world wars, industrialization, and even the American occupation. …

When the campaign began, in 1967, not quite 5 percent of engaged Japanese women received a diamond engagement ring. By 1972, the proportion had risen to 27 percent. By 1978, half of all Japanese women who were married wore a diamond; by 1981, some 60 percent of Japanese brides wore diamonds. In a mere fourteen years, the 1,500-year Japanese tradition had been radically revised. …

The diamond market had to be further restructured in the mid-1960s to accomodate a surfeit of minute diamonds, which De Beers undertook to market for the Soviets. They had discovered diamond mines in Siberia, after intensive exploration, in the late 1950s: De Beers and its allies no longer controlled the diamond supply, and realized that open competition with the Soviets would inevitably lead, as Harry Oppenheimer gingerly put it, to “price fluctuations,”which would weaken the carefully cultivated confidence of the public in the value of diamonds. Oppenheimer, assuming that neither party could afford risking the destruction of the diamond invention, offered the Soviets a straightforward deal – “a single channel” for controlling the world supply of diamonds. In accepting this arrangement, the Soviets became partners in the cartel, and co-protectors of the diamond invention.

Almost all of the Soviet diamonds were under half a carat in their uncut form, and there was no ready retail outlet for millions of such tiny diamonds. When it made its secret deal with the Soviet Union, De Beers had expected production from the Siberian mines to decrease gradually. Instead, production accelerated at an incredible pace, and De Beers was forced to reconsider its sales strategy. De Beers ordered N. W. Ayer to reverse one of its themes: women were no longer to be led to equate the status and emotional commitment to an engagement with the sheer size of the diamond. …

DeBeers devised the “eternity ring,” made up of as many as twenty-five tiny Soviet diamonds, which could be sold to an entirely new market of older married women. The advertising campaign was based on the theme of recaptured love. Again, sentiments were born out of necessity: older American women received a ring of miniature diamonds because of the needs of a South African corporation to accommodate the Soviet Union. …

N. W. Ayer learned from an opinion poll it commissioned from the firm of Daniel Yankelovich, Inc. that the gift of a diamond contained an important element of surprise. “Approximately half of all diamond jewelry that the men have given and the women have received were given with zero participation or knowledge on the part of the woman recipient,” the study pointed out. …

Women spoke in interviews about large diamonds as “flashy, gaudy, overdone” and otherwise inappropriate. Yet the study found that “Buried in the negative attitudes … lies what is probably the primary driving force for acquiring them. Diamonds are a traditional and conspicuous signal of achievement, status and success.” It noted, for example, “A woman can easily feel that diamonds are ‘vulgar’ and still be highly enthusiastic about receiving diamond jewelry.” The element of surprise, even if it is feigned, plays the same role of accommodating dissonance in accepting a diamond gift as it does in prime sexual seductions: it permits the woman to pretend that she has not actively participated in the decision. She thus retains both her innocence – and the diamond. …

Except for those few stones that have been destroyed, every diamond that has been found and cut into a jewel still exists today and is literally in the public’s hands. Some hundred million women wear diamonds, while millions of others keep them in safe-deposit boxes or strongboxes as family heirlooms. It is conservatively estimated that the public holds more than 500 million carats of gem diamonds, which is more than fifty times the number of gem diamonds produced by the diamond cartel in any given year. Since the quantity of diamonds needed for engagement rings and other jewelry each year is satisfied by the production from the world’s mines, this half-billion-carat supply of diamonds must be prevented from ever being put on the market. The moment a significant portion of the public begins selling diamonds from this inventory, the price of diamonds cannot be sustained. For the diamond invention to survive, the public must be inhibited from ever parting with its diamonds. …

During the periods when production from the mines temporarily exceeds the consumption of diamonds – the balance is determined mainly by the number of impending marriages in the United States and Japan – the cartel can preserve the illusion of price stability by either cutting back the distribution of diamonds at its London “sights,” where, ten times a year, it allots the world’s supply of diamonds to about 300 hand-chosen dealers, called “sight-holders,” or by itself buying back diamonds at the wholesale level. …

Dave Watts summed up the magazine’s experiment by saying, “As an 8-year investment the diamonds that we bought have proved to be very poor.” The problem was that the buyer, not the seller, determined the price. …

In 1976, the Dutch Consumer Association also tried to test the price appreciation of diamonds by buying a perfect diamond of over one carat in Amsterdam, holding it for eight months, and then offering it for sale to the twenty leading dealers in Amsterdam. Nineteen refused to buy it, and the twentieth dealer offered only a fraction of the purchase price. …

Retail jewelers, especially the prestigious Fifth Avenue stores, prefer not to buy back diamonds from customers, because the offer they would make would most likely be considered ridiculously low. The “keystone,” or markup, on a diamond and its setting may range from 100 to 200 percent, depending on the policy of the store; if it bought diamonds back from customers, it would have to buy them back at wholesale prices. Most jewelers would prefer not to make a customer an offer that might be deemed insulting and also might undercut the widely held notion that diamonds go up in value. …

The firm perhaps most frequently recommended by New York jewelry shops is Empire Diamonds Corporation, which is situated on the sixty-sixth floor of the Empire State Building, in midtown Manhattan. Empire’s reception room, which resembles a doctor’s office, is usually crowded with elderly women who sit nervously in plastic chairs waiting for their names to be called. One by one, they are ushered into a small examining room, where an appraiser scrutinizes their diamonds and makes them a cash offer. “We usually can’t pay more than a maximum of 90 percent of the current wholesale price,” says Jack Brod, president of Empire Diamonds. … For example, Brod estimates that a half-carat diamond ring, which might cost $2,000 at a retail jewelry store, could be sold for only $600 at Empire. …

He points out that the setting frequently conceals flaws, and adds, “The sort of flawless, investment-grade diamond one reads about is almost never found in jewelry.” …

When thieves bring diamonds to underworld “fences,” they usually get only a pittance for them. In 1979, for example, New York City police recover stolen diamonds with an insured value of $50,000 which had been sold to a ‘fence’ for only $200. …

While those who attempt to sell diamonds often experience disappointment at the low price they are offered, stories in gossip columns suggest that diamonds are resold at enormous profits. This is because the column items are not about the typical diamond ring that a woman desperately attempts to peddle to small stores and diamond buying services like Empire but about truly extraordinary diamonds that movie stars sell, or claim to sell, in a publicity-charged atmosphere. …

… the “pipeline” through which De Beers’s diamonds flow from the cutting centers in Europe to the main retail markets in America and Japan. This pipeline, a crucial component of the diamond invention, is made up of a network of brokers, diamond cutters, bankers, distributors, jewelry manufacturers, wholesalers, and diamond buyers for retail establishments. Most of the people in this pipeline are Jewish, and virtually all are closely interconnected, through family ties or long-standing business relationships. …

The most serious threat to De Beers is yet another source of diamonds that it does not control – a source so far untapped. Since Cecil Rhodes and the group of European bankers assembled the components of the diamond invention at the end of the nineteenth century, managers of the diamond cartel have shared a common nightmare – that a giant new source of diamonds would be discovered outside their purview. … In the late 1970s, vast deposits of diamonds were discovered in the Argyle region of Western Australia, near the town of Kimberley (coincidentally named after Kimberley, South Africa). Test drillings last year indicated that these pipe mines could produce up to 50 million carats of diamonds a year – more than the entire production of the De Beers cartel in 1981. …

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