The Dark History of Diamonds and De Beers

How can something so beautiful have caused so much misery?

Photo by Pixel Bee on Unsplash

WWhen you think of diamonds, what phrase comes first to your mind? “Diamonds are forever”? Or “blood diamonds”? It is a tribute to the power of marketing that the former probably sprang to your mind quicker than the latter.

Diamonds have been revered throughout history for their beauty and their rarity, and have often been the cornerstone of royal jewelry and collections. This despite the fact that, as author Tom Zoellner (The Heartless Stone) says, “They are not, in fact, rare. The market depends on artificial scarcity.”

Perhaps the piece of jewelry most associated with diamonds is the diamond engagement ring. In 2010, 84% of all brides-to-be in America received such a ring. In 2018, the average amount of money that people budgeted when buying such a ring was a staggering $7,400. But how did diamonds become so associated with love and marriage?

It All Began With a Marketing Campaign

But, before the marketing campaign, came the realization that diamonds were not really all that rare.

In the late 1800s, South African mines began producing a massive amount of diamonds. For a stone that had previously derived almost all of its value from its rarity, this was actually a disastrous turn of events. Eventually, the British industrialists who owned those mines determined that they had to set up a business cartel to exert more control over diamond supply and marketing.

And so De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd. (now simply De Beers) was born. The company would go on to exert a shocking amount of control over the world’s diamond industry. But the masterstroke of their plan was not simply to control the supply of diamonds.

By the late 1930s, the company knew that it needed to create demand, and it needed to advertise. De Beers hired New York advertising firm N.W. Ayer and Ayer set out to convince young men (and women) everywhere that diamonds signified romance.

How did they accomplish this?

With an all-out assault on pop culture. Ayer devised a plan to loan spectacular diamond jewelry to movie stars; it pushed for stars and socialites to wear diamonds (the bigger the better) and for jewelry designers to talk about the new diamond trend. They actually sent speakers around to schools to give lectures, about diamond engagement rings, to high school girls.

Then, in 1947, an Ayer copywriter came up with the slogan to end all other jewelry slogans: “A diamond is forever.

Diamond sales exploded. In 1939, the De Beers company sold $23 million worth of the precious stones; in 1979, that number was up to $2.1 billion.

How Diamonds Contributed to Apartheid

Individual diamonds were found throughout the late 1800s in different areas of South Africa, but they were first mined starting in the late 1860s. The first two diamond mines in Africa were dug on the farm of Nicolaas and Diederick de Beer, which was near the city of Kimberley.

At this time, colonialism in Africa by a variety of European ruling powers had created a large group of landless and disenfranchised blacks. When the De Beers company started to develop its individual mines into a true industry, it needed large numbers of laborers to work in those mines.

In 1913, the South African government passed the Natives Land Act, which divided the land among individuals along race lines. Lands owned by blacks were called “Reserves,” and comprised less than a tenth of South Africa’s land area. Also, “Pass Laws” were legislated in the early twentieth century, which made it difficult for black workers to move freely around the region and to live with their families near where they worked.

De Beers made use of the segregated apartheid system to force black workers to work in its mines for little money (and with few safety measures in place). This system continued for decades.

…and Became “Blood Diamonds”

Digging diamonds out of the ground was a process shaped by racism and apartheid; moving and selling those diamonds around and out of the country soon became associated with violent rebellions and wars.

When the demand for diamonds was created, and they became ever more valuable, there was no getting around this simple fact: a very small diamond can be worth a very large amount of money.

“Blood” or “conflict diamonds” are defined as diamonds “illegally traded to fund conflict in war-torn areas, particularly in central and western Africa.” They are often diamonds in rough, or “uncut” form, that are smuggled out of the mines by workers who are little more than slaves being forced into the work by those who need the money to fund their wars.

In Sierra Leone, for example, during the 1990s, a brutal civil war erupted over the control of the country and the control of Sierra Leone’s diamond mining industry. A revolving cast of politicians, military leaders, and rebels (from both within the country and without) strove to take command. Eventually, the country became so chaotic that teenage soldiers who answered only to themselves rampaged over the countryside, torturing, raping, and killing as they went, as well as mercilessly chopping off the limbs of everyone they could find to terrorize them into submission.

This was done at least partially because whoever controlled the government also controlled the diamond money.

As recently as 2019, the diamond industry in Sierra Leone continues to be troubled with corruption and the stealing of land from some of the country’s poorest residents.

Time to Think Outside the Diamond Ring Box

Keeping in mind the broad and often terribly unhappy history associated with the mining and sales of diamonds, it might be time to consider a different present for your loved one, particularly on such occasions as engagements and Valentine’s Day. Perhaps a nice bouquet of fresh flowers might be better.

Then again, perhaps not.

SOURCES

Armstrong, Paul. “What are ‘conflict diamonds’?” CNN.com, 5 December 2011 [accessed 12 February 2021].

The Dark Side of Diamonds,” NPR interview, 24 May 2006 [accessed 12 February 2021].

Dearden, Lizzie. “More than 200 Potential Modern Slaves Found Working at Cornwall Flower Farm,” The Independent, 8 February 2018 [accessed 12 February 2021].

“De Beers Diamonds Company and Black Labour,” YouTube video, 13 August 2008 [accessed 12 February 2021].

“De Beers S.A.,” in Britannica.com [accessed 12 February 2021].

Diamond Council of America, “Bridal Jewelry: Advanced Jewelry Sales,” 2010 [accessed 12 February 2021].

Engagement Ring Statistics for 2021,” by Estate Diamond Jewelry [accessed 21 February 2021].

Epstein, Edward Jay. “Have You Ever Tried To Sell a Diamond?,” The Atlantic, February 1982 [accessed 12 February 2021].

Friedman, Uri. “How an Advertising Campaign Invented the Diamond Engagement Ring,The Atlantic, 13 February 2015 [accessed 12 February 2021].

Junger, Sebastian. “The Terror of Sierra Leone,” Vanity Fair, August 2000 [accessed 12 February 2021].

Katz, Sheryl, “Diamonds and Apartheid,” Diamonds.net, 6 April 2005 [accessed 12 February 2021].

Transparency International, “Blood Diamonds and Land Corruption in Sierra Leone,” 2 August 2019 [accessed 12 February 2021].

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Sarah Cords

Sarah Cords

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Author of “Bingeworthy British Television.” Fellow curmudgeons welcome at citizenreader.com.