Behind The Label: The Diamond Engagement Ring Industry

A symbol of love, with a possible history of war.

“A diamond is forever.” It’s one of the 20th century’s most enduring marketing campaigns, one that inextricably linked the precious stone with marriage and commitment.

But though diamonds are a symbol of romance in the Western world, their origins are often far from romantic. Two-thirds of the world’s diamonds are mined in Africa, many in conflict zones where their sale is used to fund the operations of warlords and dictators. And although certification schemes have been set up to stop the distribution of these so-called “conflict” or “blood” diamonds, recent reports suggest that such programs have been ineffective.

With wedding season in full swing and new engagements now front-and-center on our Facebook feeds, we thought we’d look beyond the glimmer and into the realities of the global diamond trade.

But first, a little history on why diamonds are such a crucial element of new engagements. The precious stone was a scarcity until the 1870s, when large diamond mines were discovered by the Orange River in South Africa. This discovery could have drastically sunk the market for diamonds, reducing them to semi-precious gemstones, had the diamond miners not merged their interests into a single entity, which they called De Beers. According to an article in The Atlantic, De Beers proved to be the most successful cartel arrangement in modern commerce, which it achieved by controlling prices, limiting supply, and perpetuating the aspirational qualities of diamonds.

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.

According to the article, De Beers decided to focus its marketing efforts on the United States, and in 1938 it enlisted N.W. Ayer, New York’s leading advertising agency, to create a new marketing campaign for the mighty gemstone. After conducting extensive market research, the agency suggested a promotion strategy centered around linking diamonds with romantic commitment. 

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.

The campaign was remarkably successful, and today the United States is the largest consumer of diamond jewelry in the world.

The Good

The global demand for diamonds has turned mining into a highly profitable but heavily abused industry, one that has played an instrumental role in both attracting investment to African nations and, ironically, funding conflicts and warfare.

In 1998, Global Witness, a watchdog group that focuses on natural resources, published the first major report linking the diamond trade with civil wars in Angola. The report brought attention to the concept of “blood diamonds” or “conflict diamonds,” diamonds that are mined in a war zone and sold abroad to finance violent conflict and human rights abuses. According to Global Witness, the diamond trade has played a major role in financing wars in Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The report and subsequent resolutions from the United Nations raised enough global awareness that in 2000, the World Diamond Council began discussing ways to block sales of conflict diamonds on the global market. The result, approved in 2003, was the Kimberley Process, a certification scheme adopted by 75 of the world’s diamond producing, trading, and manufacturing countries. In order to be accepted into the consortium, a country has to certify that its diamonds are not financing rebel groups or other entities seeking to overthrow UN-recognized governments. All invoices must contain the following statement:

The diamonds herein invoiced have been purchased from legitimate sources not involved in funding conflict and in compliance with United Nations resolutions. The seller hereby guarantees that these diamonds are conflict free, based on personal knowledge and/or written guarantees provided by the supplier of these diamonds.

The Bad

While the Kimberley Process was created with the best intentions, it soon became clear that the task of regulating the conflict diamond trade was more difficult than anticipated. Over the past decade, the Kimberley Process has been widely criticized for its ineffectiveness at enforcing regulations. In particular, NGOs and watchdog groups have been critical of the Kimberley Process decision to approve diamonds mined in the Marange fields of Zimbabwe, a zone that has reported frequent violence and human rights abuses at the hands of the military.

One by one, participants like Partnership Africa Canada and the African Diamond Council have withdrawn their support. And in 2011, Global Witness, a founding member, announced that it was leaving the organization entirely, citing the KP’s “refusal to evolve and address the clear links between diamonds, violence and tyranny.” In a public statement, Global Witness director Charmian Gooch explained the decision to withdraw:

The scheme has failed three tests: it failed to deal with the trade in conflict diamonds from Côte d’Ivoire, was unwilling to take serious action in the face of blatant breaches of the rules over a number of years by Venezuela and has proved unwilling to stop diamonds fueling corruption and violence in Zimbabwe. It has become an accomplice to diamond laundering – whereby dirty diamonds are mixed in with clean gems.

Gooch also noted:

Nearly nine years after the Kimberley Process was launched, the sad truth is that most consumers still cannot be sure where their diamonds come from, nor whether they are financing armed violence or abusive regimes.

So What Now?

As the world’s leading consumers of diamond jewelry, Americans have the power to call for change in the diamond industry – or alter the demand for diamonds entirely. One way to start is by shifting the way we think about diamonds in relation to weddings and marriage. If you’re looking to tie the knot in the near future, here are some ways you can avoid introducing conflict into the equation.

Find a jeweler with independent certification processes.

There are a handful of jewelers that specialize in conflict-free stones and metals. Brilliant Earth carefully sources its diamonds from mines with strict labor and environment regulations in Canada, Namibia, and Botswana. The Earthwise collection from Leber Jeweler also contains diamonds mined in Canada, along with recycled precious metals.

Go vintage.

Shopping for rings in antique and vintage jewelry stores can be a great way to add meaning and history to the occasion. Or, go the traditional route and ask to use a ring that has been passed down in your family.

Buck tradition.

Diamonds are the traditional symbol of commitment – but who says you have to be traditional? Rather than select the typical princess-cut platinum ring from Tiffany & Co., try exchanging alternative tokens of affection, like handmade gifts. In addition to being more personal, it’ll also be a way to ensure that your symbol of eternal love and commitment is not tainted with a legacy of war and conflict.


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Images: Photography King

Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.