Tuesday, January 10, 2017


The diamond engagement ring is the iconic symbol of enduring love. No proposal is complete without it. It is the standard of eternal love. If a man wants to express his love there is only one sure way to do that and no self respecting woman would expect any less. As Beyonce sang, “If you like it then you better put a ring on it.” (2009)  

When I first discovered that engagement rings were not an ancient tradition but had a history of precisely sixty nine years, I was a little stunned. The importance of engagement rings and wedding bands are a relatively new phenomenon— a modern symbol of love that has become so deeply engrained into our global culture that a proposal without a diamond means less.

This symbol has become so powerful that an image of a man on bended knee holding an open ring box is filled with cultural and textual meaning. It isn’t simply a gift given to a woman, it is THE proposal. Without that ring the engagement isn’t official. 


But the whole idea of a diamond engagement ring is a contrivance of modern marketing, a campaign so subtle yet effective that is has reshaped the cultural perception of love and marriage and what it all should mean. 

Even Nicky Oppenheimer, De Beer’s deputy Chairman stated “A gemstone is the ultimate luxury product. It has no material use. Men and women desire diamonds not for what they can do but for what they desire.” (1998)

He may be right. Have you ever tried to sell a diamond? They have little resale value. A diamond only has value the first time it is purchased. Most people who purchase a diamond believe they are making a worthwhile financial and emotional investment but the truth is that De Beers and other diamond sellers count on the fact that when an individual purchases a diamond they never intend to sell it. Why would you sell your wedding and engagement ring? “A diamond lasts forever!” 

But that is the whole point of the slogan. It is a symbol that attaches meaning to an abstract emotion. And the symbol is so powerful that the thought of ever losing it means that people keep their rings for the entirety of their lives.

Historically diamonds were very rare. There were only a few places in Brazil and India they could be found. Because of their great rarity only royalty could afford such gemstones but in 1870 massive diamond deposits were discovered in South Africa and an industry was born. For several decades the market was flooded with these precious stones. At the turn of the twentieth century diamonds were so readily available they began to lose their value. 

By the end of great depression diamond sales rapidly fell. Harry Oppenheimer, primary shareholder of De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd., traveled from Johannesburg to New York City and made a proposal to the advertising agency Lauck and N.W. Ayer. They needed an ad campaign that would solidify the market for precious stones. They wanted diamonds to become an enduring symbol, something not just the wealthy, but every person believed they needed to purchase.

It is highly unlikely that copywriter Frances Gerety had any idea the impact she would have in modern love and culture when she penned the slogan “A diamond is forever.” Much like the character Peggy Olsen from Mad Men, Gerety was the only female copywriter at the agency. According to Courtney Sullivan, author of “The Engagements” a novelized version of Gerety’s life, “Gerety didn’t think the line was one of her best, ‘I shudder to think of what might have happened if a great line had been demanded. It wasn’t even grammatically correct.’” Out of the hundreds of lines suggested Gerety’s line, “A diamond is forever” was selected. (2014)

That slogan and the marketing campaign that followed gave birth to the idea of a diamond engagement ring. N.W. Ayers goal, according to an internal strategy paper written in 1948, was to “create…prestigious role models for the poorer middle class wage earners. We spread the word of diamonds worn by stars of screen and stage, by wives and daughters of political leaders, by any woman who can make the grocer’s wife and mechanics sweetheart say ‘I wish I had what she has.’” (1982) They adorned Hollywood starlets in loaned diamonds as a symbol of what every woman deserved. Within ten years perception had changed so dramatically that diamonds became an identifiable symbol of courtship and married life. 

Diamonds are a fascinating example of a symbol that has become a cultural artifact because they have no real intrinsic value. Their meaning lies entirely in the perception. Diamonds are not rare. Their market value is grossly inflated through price fixing and tight control of the number of stones released onto the open market each year. Yet many couples are willing to enter marriage in debt to be able to afford the cost of an engagement ring because of what they believe it represents: the gift and commitment of “forever” love and the larger the diamond, the greater the love.

In recent years, De Beers has lost its hold on the diamond monopoly and films such as Edward Zwick's Blood Diamond (2006) and Kanye West’s song Diamonds of Seirra Leone (2009) have perhaps begun to alter the perception that diamonds are a necessary expression of true love. 

“People live in a world of artifacts that are accessible only through perceptions. So we can change our perception [of the value of diamonds] by trading that perception for others [but perhaps] it is not possible to do away with perceptions entirely to discover some bedrock reality underneath.”(Brummett, n.d. pg. 65) Even Kanye backs away from completely discouraging the purchase of diamonds. For most people the 69 year tradition of a diamond engagement ring has become so engrained in the cultural idea of what love means that we have adopted it as “simply the way things are.”

Discussion Questions 

1.) Are there artifacts that you can recognize that have created your perception of the way things are? 

2.) Does a diamond engagement ring hold symbolic meaning for you? 

3.) How difficult do you believe it would be for the cultural perception of diamonds to change?  


  1. I loved this post! To me, my engagement ring means the world to me. Not only is it a beautiful diamond, but it symbolizes so much more than that to me. It symbolizes love and commitment, loyalty, trust, compromise, everything our relationship is. When I look down at my finger often times I don't think about the diamond itself but my husband and the proposal, what we have been through together, our love for each other etc. It is interesting before I was engaged that looking at rings had a completely different meaning to me than it did after I was proposed to. My husband has made comments like "we'll add on in twenty years", and "your next ring can be.." but in reality, for me, I never want anything else because of the symbolic meaning my engagement ring has to me.

    1. Thank you Katrina! It sounds like you and your husband have an amazing relationship. I think that's what fascinates me about the symbolism or diamonds. No one can remove the intrinsic value we place on things that have meaning to us. I think that's pretty cool if you ask me. :)

  2. This doesn't further the conversation much, but this is what came to my mind when reading your topic:

    Language warning!


    1. Eric! I love it! I feel so validated right now! That was awesome! Thanks so much.