Diamonds and Hearts

Sermon delivered on Rosh Hashanah 5777 (2016) in Princeton, NJ.

A famous French fashion designer and businesswoman[i] once quipped, “The best things in life are free. The second best things are very, very expensive.” One of those expensive second-best things that many of us desire is a diamond. Today I’d like to tell the story of how it came to be that we desire diamonds.

Almost 80 years ago, in the late 1930’s, the price of diamonds and the diamond market were suffering. The total amount of diamonds sold in America[ii] had declined by 50 percent since WW1. People not only stopped buying new diamonds, they even started selling the diamonds they already owned. There was a company, De Beers, that had already established historic control over the diamond supply by introducing artificial scarcity. Their problem wasn’t supply, their problem was demand.

So to help stimulate demand for diamonds, De Beers approached an advertising firm in Philadelphia named N. W. Ayer. In 1946, the firm did a consumer survey and found that Americans had money to spend but only so much, and they weren’t interested in spending it on diamonds. At that time, Americans thought diamonds were a luxury for the ultra-wealthy. One executive later recalled that women wanted their men to spend money on “a washing machine, or a new car, anything but an engagement ring…[diamonds were] considered just absolutely money down the drain.”[iii] Few Americans were even familiar with engagement rings, and they did not associate diamonds with romance or marriage. That statement bears repeating: in 1946, few Americans were even familiar with engagement rings, and they did not associate diamonds with romance or marriage. NW Ayer, the advertising agency, had its work cut out for them.

The firm’s success in creating demand for diamonds is of historical proportions: today, more than 75% of American women wear a diamond ring. How did our attitudes toward diamonds shift so radically? To find out why so many of us associate diamonds with love, commitment and marriage, let’s return to the ad agency.

In the 1940’s the firm sent an internal memo to De Beers. Let me quote from the memo: “We are dealing with a problem in mass psychology. We seek to . . . strengthen the tradition of the diamond engagement ring — to make it a psychological necessity capable of competing successfully at the retail level with utility goods and services . . .”

One strategy was to indoctrinate teenage girls with the idea that having a diamond ring was the only real way to be engaged. A memo instructed the firm to use “constant publicity to show that only the diamond is everywhere accepted and recognized as the symbol of betrothal.” Another strategy was to target young boys with the idea that their worth was proportionate to the size and cost of a diamond. A memo explained how to “promote the diamond as one material object which can reflect, in a very personal way, a man’s…success in life.”

The advertising firm had two extremely talented women on their team that created and led these strategies and campaigns. The first was a copywriter named Frances Gerety. Gerety joined the firm in 1943 and became the lead writer on the De Beers account for the next 25 years.

One night in 1947, Gerety was working late on a presentation that was due the next morning. As she headed to bed, she realized that she forgot to create a slogan for the ad campaign. So Gerety scribbled something down and fell asleep. In the morning she looked at what she wrote and thought it was just OK. Her colleagues weren’t overly enthusiastic but decided to try it out. You may be familiar with the slogan Gerety wrote that night: “a diamond is forever.” As a tagline “a diamond is forever” became so successful and so popular that 52 years later, in 1999, just two weeks before Gerety died, the magazine Advertising Age named “a diamond is forever” as slogan of the century.

Powerful writing was not the only tactic that stimulated strong demand for diamonds. The other tactic was product placement. And product placement was the specialty of Dorothy Dignam — she practically invented it.

Dignam’s theory was that “the big ones sell the little ones.” She reached out to movie studios to get them to include the word ‘diamond’ in their titles and to include scenes about diamonds in films. She gave famous actresses free diamonds to wear onscreen and offscreen. She lent massive diamonds to celebrities for the Academy Awards, film premiers, and the Kentucky Derby so they would be seen and photographed. Dignam gave diamonds to debutantes and high society women to ensure that everyone saw fabulous people wearing diamonds.

A strategy paper in 1948 explains the tactic: “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 the mechanic’s sweetheart say ‘I wish I had what she has.’” Neither of these advertising women, Dorothy Dignam nor Frances Gerety, ever got married themselves. Nevertheless, they are responsible for the ingrained emotional attachment that all of us have to diamond rings.

I find this story about marketing diamonds quite remarkable. In a moment I’ll explain why I’m telling this story on Rosh Hashanah. But first, a short disclaimer. It is not my intention to make anyone feel guilty about the rock that may be sitting on your finger right now. My own wedding band has small diamonds in it, and the wedding band I gave to Rabbi Julie also has diamonds. It is also not my intention to cast aspersion upon anyone in the diamond or jewelry industry, or anyone in the marketing or advertising fields. My new year’s wish for anyone who may fit those descriptions is that you are as successful this year in your business as Dignam and Gerety were at selling diamonds!

When I first encountered this story I began to question what it is exactly that I desire and how I came to desire it. Do I desire the right things? Is the culture around me shaping my desires too much? I chose to tell this story on Rosh Hashana to open up a spiritual conversation about desire and satisfaction, about envy, and coveting and joy.

At the risk of being accused of being utterly unromantic, let me speak honestly about diamonds for just a moment. Diamonds are not rare. The Gemological Institute of America estimates that we have already unearthed 4.5 billion carats of diamonds, more than enough for every man, woman and child on the planet to have a standard half-carat diamond ring. Diamonds are not a good financial investment; they lose almost half their value the minute that you walk out of the jewelry store. Diamonds are not even indestructible; any child can turn a diamond ring into diamond dust with one swing of a hammer. And yet, through sophisticated messages that we have grown up with, we have come to associate these not rare, not-forever, not-good-investments, clear rocks, we have come to associate them with the ideas of love, commitment, marriage, even self-worth.

I am telling this story on Rosh Hashana because I have come to believe that one of the great spiritual challenges of our time is cultivating satisfaction, gratitude and joy in the face of a tsunami of messages that we do not have enough.

We are bombarded with messages that companies and campaigns want us to internalize. Experts suggest that at a minimum we are confronted by a few hundred marketing messages every single day. We see and hear them on big screens, small screens and phone screens. On billboards on the road and circulars in our mailbox.

But advertising is the old school way to trigger envy. Today’s experts tell us that social media is becoming one massive envy-trigger. A recent article in Slate Magazine explains, “The heaviest users of Facebook believe that other people are happier. News feeds contain numerous ‘envy-inducing incidents,’ and the more you skim, the more you compare yourself to others, leading to ‘invidious emotions.’”

Ultimately it doesn’t matter if our envy is triggered by a magazine ad, by our Facebook feed, or by a visit to our neighbor’s house. The feeling is the same: we see something nice and think to ourselves, that would be nice to have.

If the Torah had an advertising slogan for dealing with our instinct to want what someone else has, it would be the 10th commandment. The Hebrew is lo tachmod which we often translate as DO NOT COVET, do not lust after or crave. According to the tenth commandment, and I quote, we shall not covet our neighbor’s wife, house, field, slave, animal, or anything else that is our neighbor’s. Perhaps we could freshen up the 10th commandment with a new marketing campaign. We could update the list of things we are forbidden from coveting. Today we shall not covet our neighbor’s new kitchen, new car, hand-held device, vacation plans, their smart children, and certainly not their jewelry. Jewish tradition teaches us to love our neighbors, not to love our neighbor’s things.

There are signs that cultivating a sense of satisfaction and having enough is not just a spiritual crisis, it is also a global health epidemic. We have often heard that there are enough food resources in the world to feed everyone who is hungry, and that the problem is actually one of distribution. But did you know that as of a few years ago, there are more health problems worldwide related to overconsumption than there are related to lack of nutrition? When I first heard news reports on this topic I was incredulous, so I went to read the original articles in the medical journal The Lancet.

I found the 2012 Global Burden of Disease report which ranks the leading conditions that drive disease and poor health around the world. The report documented that, in 1990, undernutrition was the leading cause of disease burden, and high body mass index, or high BMI, was ranked 10th. Twenty-two years later, in 2012, undernutrition had dropped from 1st to 8th place, and high BMI has risen from 10th to become the 6th leading cause of disease burden. In other words, eating too much and eating the wrong things have become a greater global health epidemic than has not having enough to eat.

One great challenge of being human in the 21st century is knowing when to say when about what we eat, what we buy, what we consume, what we think we need to live a happy life.

Jewish tradition has some resources to offer us. In birkat hamazon, we read, v’achalta, v’savata, uverachta — we eat, we are satisfied, we bless. We Jews do the eating very well, and no one can say we haven’t written plenty of blessings to say after we eat. But have we developed sufficient practices and understandings of that middle instruction — how to lisboa’ — savata — be satisfied?

A famous Torah scholar from the Middle Ages, Ibn Ezra, offers a teaching. In his commentary to the verse lo tachmod, the prohibition on coveting, he suggests that we strive for the ideal of being sameach b’chelko: satisfied with our portion. The enlightened one, he wrote, who knows what is forbidden, will not covet or desire it.

While Jewish teachings like these are on point, they have not provided us with the spiritual tools we need to survive the modern onslaught of constant messages to buy more, eat more, desire more.

So I’d like to offer a practice that has been helpful for me as I struggle with the spiritual goal of being satisfied, satiated, and feeling like I have enough. I learned this practice from Brother David Steindl-Rast, a 90-year old Catholic Benedictine monk who dedicated most of his life to learning and teaching about gratitude and thanksgiving. Brother Steindl-Rast teaches us to think of our heart as a bowl under a fountain, a vessel for water. As we experience moments in life, our bowl, this vessel of our heart, quietly fills with gratefulness. It fills and fills, and eventually it can overflow — and when the gratefulness overflows, when the water pours over the sides of the vessel of our heart, we experience thanksgiving and joy.

That thanksgiving and joy is noisy — it overflows and splashes on the ground and sparkles — and so we smile wide and we sing and we tell someone how much we appreciate them — our joy is articulated when our heart overflows. In the language of the Psalms, רויה כוסי — my cup runneth over.

But if you’re like me, just at the moment before the cup of our heart overflows with gratefulness, right before we experience joy, we notice an advertisement or a new facebook post. We realize there is a new model to buy. We see our friend with a bigger this or nicer that. We desire more and our bowl grows. We enlarge our heart-vessel. The vessel of our heart, now enlarged, takes longer to fill up and if it keeps expanding, it never overflows, and we never experience joy or thanksgiving.

We don’t have to deprive ourselves to regulate the size of our heart-vessel and more reliably experience joy and thanksgiving. This is what the 10th commandment, lo tachmod, do not covet, tries to teach us. The problem is not desire itself, the problem is desiring what someone else has so much that we stop ourselves from feeling satisfied, grateful, and eventually joyous. The 10th commandment does not say we should not desire. It says: we should not desire what someone else has. And if the 10th commandment has been written today, it would say, do not focus your attention on advertisements, marketing messages, and social media if it makes you feel envious. Because when the vessel of our heart expands from envy it can’t overflow with joy. All we can feel is that our heart is not yet full. We see how much more we could have instead of relishing, savoring, adoring, and delighting in, everything we already do have.

The 80-year old story of creating demand for diamonds through psychological testing, consumer research, great slogans, and product placement is a truly amazing story. But let us see a diamond for what it is: an object of created desire. My advice this new year is to go ahead and acquire an object or experience of desire if you want one. But if you do purchase that thing you really want, at least invest significant spiritual energy in enjoying it. In cultivating satisfaction with it. Because no matter how beautiful or big or expensive an object of desire we acquire, the very next day we will come across someone who has a better one. That is the exact moment to practice seeing our heart as a vessel of gratefulness that, if we keep it from expanding too much, can fill up and overflow with joy. May the year 5777 bring us more gratitude, more thanksgiving, more joy; more satiation and more satisfaction, with everything that we already have.

[i] Coco Chanel

[ii] Measured in carats

[iii] Frances Gerety