How Pop Culture Popularized the Diamond

Have you ever wondered how the diamond engagement ring became such a prominent, romantic part of relationship culture? Or how diamonds became a girl’s best friend? Diamonds are the most beautiful, natural objects on Earth, and they’re desirable for countless reasons, but their journey from royal keepsake to marriage staple didn’t happen overnight.

The first time a diamond ring was used to cement a relationship and culminate an engagement was in Europe over 500 years ago. It wasn’t until Mary Frances Gerety coined “A Diamond Is Forever” for De Beers in 1948 that the diamond engagement ring began to enter the mainstream. Eventually those four words became a cornerstone of modern advertising, even earning the title of “top slogan of the 20th century.” But can one catchy advertising slogan alone convince every person in America (let alone the world) that their relationship wasn’t ready for the next level unless a beautiful diamond ring was part of the process?

Maybe it can. After all, who am I to say for sure? But I believe there’s more to the story than some clever copy, and that men and women around the world aren’t so easily convinced.

There is no denying that diamonds are romantic, beautiful, spiritual, and a perfect symbol of the eternal bond between two people in love. But there is also no denying that the proliferation of diamonds in pop culture has played a significant role in making them such a staple of relationship culture.

Despite what Advertising Age says about the 70-year-long campaign, to credit the ad agency N.W. Ayer for making diamond engagement rings “a thing” in our culture would be a disservice to some of the most influential people and artists of our generation. The same goes for the diamond necklace, earring, bracelet, and every other form the precious gem can take.

When every single relationship status in America changes after the same iconic act, it’s not a solo act, but an epic collaboration.

The past 70 years of music, movies, television and pop culture have been instrumental in the rising popularity of diamonds and the romanticism of the ring. This romance playing out on our screens and over the radio, like all great romances, is a two-sided affair.

Not only has pop culture romanticized the diamond ring for women as an object they desire and hope to receive one day as part of their fairy tale and happily ever after, but the prominence of diamonds in thrilling, action-packed stories about heists and spies has added a layer of masculinity that subtly emphasized their significance and value to future grooms across America.

So where do we start? How about one of the most successful, influential, and celebrated movies of all time? In 1939, almost a decade before that ad campaign came to life, Gone With The Wind made its big screen debut. Adapted from the best-selling, Pulitzer Prize winning novel written by Margaret Mitchell three years prior, it tells the story of Scarlett O’ Hara and Rhett Butler during the Civil War in the south. It won best 8 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Screenplay. Adjusted for inflation, it’s the highest grossing film of all time, so yea, it’s safe to say almost everyone has seen it (including the folks at N.W. Ayer).

As the film comes to a close, Rhett proposes to Scarlett, she says yes (albeit with a bit of convincing), and then this happens:

The next major “influencers” in pop culture are one of the most iconic, idolized women of the past century and one of old Hollywood’s most prolific directors. Between 1930 and 1960, Howard Hawks directed Scarface, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep, Monkey Business, and Rio Bravo, among other hits. Some of the stars he worked with include Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Katherine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, and Marilyn Monroe. It’s his work with Monroe, specifically in the 1953 movie Gentleman Prefer Blondes, that will forever connect him to diamonds.

The movie is famous for Monroe’s performance of Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend, considered an all-time significant song in cinema by the American Film Institute (it’s been covered over twenty times since). Take a look at the lyrics and you’ll see how Monroe and Hawks helped influence the lust for diamonds among a generation of women.

Here’s one verse:

Men grow cold as girls grow old
And we all lose our charms in the end
But square-cut or pear-shape
These rocks don’t lose their shape
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend

If you’ve ever wondered where that saying comes from, now you know.

In 1955, Alfred Hitchcock directed To Catch A Thief, starring Cary Grant as a jewel thief with an eye for diamonds and Grace Kelly as his wealthy love interest who happens to own the largest collection of diamonds in the French Riviera. It was a critical success, as most Hitchcock movies tend to be, and went on to win an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. In 1961, Audrey Hepburn took on the career-defining role of Holly Golightly, the character created by Truman Capote in his beloved Romcom novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Ironically, Capote’s first choice for the lead role was Marilyn Monroe. Look at any promotional photo or poster from the movie and you’ll see the same thing — a gigantic diamond and pearl necklace around Hepburn’s neck.

The influence of the book, film, and Hepburn’s portrayal of its lead character stands the test of time (while some characters from the screen adaptation definitely don’t — we’re looking at you, Mickey Rooney).

Broadway calls the story the birth of a cultural icon and Harper’s Bazaar wrote a story in 2011 called “How Holly Golightly Changed The World.” Whether you believe them or not is up to you, but Audrey Hepburn and Truman Capote played their part in glamorizing the already glamorous diamond and 5th Avenue retailer.

Two years later, we saw one of the first examples of diamonds “targeted” towards men with the release of The Pink Panther, starring Peter Sellers as Inspector Jacques Clouseau. In the films, the Pink Panther is a valuable, rare pink diamond (also known as a fancy diamond) based on the real-life, legendary Daria-i-Noor discovered in the mines of India.

The fictional Pink Panther diamond

The light-hearted, mysterious tone of the original film and popularity of the Inspector Clouseau character led to a long-running franchise centered around the namesake diamond that included 11 movies, a successful animated cartoon, and a permanent place in pop culture history. In 1993, life imitated art, and a group of diamond bandits known as the Pink Panthers made headlines for a series of 120 high-stakes, high-risk jewelry thefts.

While we’re on the topic of wildly successful film franchises targeted at men with iconic lead characters who pursue high-stakes criminals, I’d like to introduce you to a man who needs no introduction.

Sean Connery was the original James Bond (and the best). He put the franchise on the map after starring in the first five Bond films between 1962–1967 and became a household name. In 1971, after loaning the role to George Lazenby for one Bond movie, he returned to the role of Agent 007 in Diamonds Are Forever.

In the film, Bond goes undercover as a diamond smuggler to infiltrate a diamond smuggling ring led by the classic supervillain and founder of SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (the inspiration for Dr. Evil), who intends on using stolen diamonds to build a weaponized laser beam. Bond stopped him because that’s what James Bond does, and Sean Connery earned a record-setting $1.25 million for the part. What guy growing up didn’t dream of being James Bond at one point or another?

While there are plenty more examples of diamonds in pop culture over the 70s and 80s, lets hop in Marty McFly’s DeLorean and time travel to the most influential decade for diamonds, engagement rings, and romance on the screen — the 1990s

In 1990, Julia Roberts starred opposite Richard Gere in Pretty Woman. Who could forget the scene where her character, newly exposed to a glamorous lifestyle, sees (and wears) a $250,00 ruby and diamond necklace for the first time. It wouldn’t be the only time Julia Roberts starred in a successful romantic comedy in the 90's.

In 1997, there was My Best Friend’s Wedding, where she tries to break up the sudden marriage of her best friend from college days before he marries Cameron Diaz. She didn’t just want the man, but the gigantic diamond ring on Diaz’s finger too. In 1998, Roberts starred opposite Ed Harris in Stepmom, where Harris proposes with a memorable diamond ring on a string, and a year later, Roberts would marry Hugh Grant in Notting Hill and Richard Gere in Runaway Bride. But Julia Roberts’ decade-long run of movies with engagement rings and marriage as their focus isn’t the only reason the 90’s were so influential for the diamond.

In 1991, Steve Martin starred in Father of The Bride. Here are the first lines his character, George Banks, says in the movie:

I used to think a wedding was a simple affair. Boy and girl meet, they fall in love, he buys a ring, she buys a dress, they say I do.

The plot revolves around Mr. and Mrs. Banks meeting their daughter’s future husband for the first time, and the hesitance of George to trust the man who wants to marry his daughter. One of the first red flags that puts him on edge?

George Banks: Oh, so — oh, my. And that’s your engagement ring, huh? 
Annie Banks: Yes, yes! We got it at a flea market outside of Rome.

Then, in 1997, James Cameron wrote and directed a little movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett called Titanic. While the name and setting of its story suggest it’s about a doomed cruise ship, the driving force around the epic tale is a group of treasure hunters searching for the Heart of the Ocean, a rare, fictional diamond necklace more valuable and beautiful than the prestigious Hope Diamond. The central story of the movie is a present day Rose retelling what happened on the ship to the group searching for the lost diamond in the shipwreck, which she secretly still has in her possession.

You may also remember it as the only thing Rose is wearing when Jack draws her like “one of his French girls.”

Titanic was the most successful movie of all time. It was the first motion picture to earn over a billion dollars at the box office and won 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Song. The cultural influence and impact of Titanic are undeniable. It’s among the most significant cinematic achievements in history, and at the heart of it’s story is a diamond.

In the years between then and now, there’s been no shortage of diamonds and engagement rings as central plot points in some of the most beloved stories and films. From Daisy Buchanon’s diamond ring in The Great Gatsby to Satine’s diamond necklace in Moulin Rouge, to the Legally Blonde, Sex and the City, and Twilight series all culminating with our female heroines receiving impressive diamond rings from their significant others. Even Jennifer Aniston, America’s sweetheart, gets a diamond ring and happy ending thanks to Ben Affleck in He’s Just Not That Into You.

It’s impossible to mention Jennifer Aniston without thinking of Friends, a sitcom that defines an entire generation and remains one of the most popular and successful shows of all time. In the two-part season six finale called “The One with the Proposal,” Monica and Chandler get engaged, capping off years of build up and anticipation for viewers everywhere. It’s among the show’s best episodes and most unforgettable, romantic moments in television history.

A diamond is forever, but so are these characters. Movies, music, television and pop culture continue to evolve over the decades, along with the people bringing this entertainment to life, and as time goes by, something else thing remains true.

They’re all romancing the stone.