Blinded by the Light: Resisting the Diamond Invention

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Although the movie Blood Diamond (2006) brought awareness of the issues surrounding conflict diamonds into the national conversation, unfortunately it did so by reinforcing stereotypes of the “dark continent” of Africa as uncivilized and plagued by endemic violence. This is highlighted by Leonardo DiCaprio’s statement within the first thirty seconds of the trailer: “that diamond is my ticket out of this God forsaken continent.” The conflict diamond trade, and its associated violence, becomes part of the monolithic African narrative (denoted by DiCaprio’s character as “TIA: This is Africa”). As the movie is meant to be entertaining rather than informative, the viewer is left without historical context and learns neither the impact of colonization on country development, nor the continued exploitation of the continent for resources. In addition, the diamond invention is never addressed.

In the end, the film provides resolution to the issue of conflict diamonds by portraying the signing of the Kimberley agreement and the establishment of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) by the United Nations. The KPCS was supposed to prevent conflict diamonds from entering the market by requiring a country to certify as conflict-free, and allowing countries to only trade diamonds with other certified countries. Although the number of conflict diamonds reported had declined 15% since recording began (Perry, 2010), the Kimberley Process has been declared a failure by human rights watchdog ‘Global Witness,’ which pulled its support in 2011. Critics have argued that the verification process is flawed because some countries report without knowing the origins of their diamonds or circumvent the process by not reporting any statistics. Furthermore, the narrow definition of blood diamonds as “rough diamonds used by rebel movements or their allies to finance conflict aimed at undermining legitimate governments” (Perry, 2010, p. 53) ignores the criminal element and human rights abuses in mines. While interviewing miners in Mutare, Zimbabwe, Perry (2010) received reports of never receiving pay despite finding stones worth millions of dollars. One miner states “It’s very different, what a diamond means to you and what it means here” (p. 54).

What does it mean here? The US fuels the global demand for diamonds, thanks to the brilliant marketing campaign developed by De Beers. In the history of diamond marketing, Epstein (1982) noted the discovery of diamond mines in South Africa in 1870 (funded by British families) flooded the market with a product that had no intrinsic value—thus, limiting the demand. The only value was the illusion of scarcity, so De Beers needed to control the supply as well as the demand. By 1938, the depression and looming possibility of war in Europe left the US as the only viable market for diamonds. However, the key for De Beers and N. W. Ayer (the advertising team) was to create an association between diamonds and love. Furthermore, to stabilize the market they needed to convince people not to resell them; hence, the “a diamond is forever” campaign was born. Although the price of diamonds declined worldwide, in 1938 three fourths of the De Beers diamond market in the US was for engagement rings (Epstein, 1982). With the seeds planted, N. W. Ayer began an aggressive marketing campaign that included the use of Hollywood celebrities.

By the 1950s, the sale of diamond engagement rings increased but there was still some resistance in lower-income groups who saw this as a poor investment. N. W. Ayer solved this dilemma with a new strategy that incorporated Thorstein Veblen’s idea of “conspicuous consumption” (consumers buy luxury items to display economic power and social status) discussed in the book The Theory of the Leisure Class. N. W. Ayer targeted the campaign toward men by focusing on the diamond as an indicator of status and success. Over the years, advertising campaigns have changed to accommodate new diamond markets, but have remained successful. In fact, the association between a diamond ring and marriage for heterosexual couples is so insidious that today the expectation is that a man must part with two to three months of his salary to purchase a ring (thanks to my students for this info).

The diamond engagement ring continues to be a primarily US invention, as the international campaign by De Beers failed to take hold in any other country except for Japan (the second largest diamond market). Because of the publicity surrounding conflict diamonds, De Beers mines their own diamonds and has incorporated additional safeguards. However, simply providing information about where and how a diamond is produced says little about the conditions of miners. As consumers in the era of economic globalization in late modernity, we need to be as concerned about labor practices and model this care with our students. Resist the diamond invention.

Tammy Castle, PhD (Currently listening to Lupe Fiasco’s ‘Conflict Diamonds’)
Associate Professor
Department of Justice Studies
James Madison University

Sources:

Epstein, E. J. (1982). The rise and fall of diamonds: The shattering of a brilliant illusion. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Perry, A. (November, 2010). Cursed stones. Time International (South Pacific Edition), 176 (21): 34.

4 Comments

  1. Tammy, thank you for this informative look at the film and diamond trade. I remember when I was getting married to my ex-wife in 2002 I decided that I could not in good consciousness purchase a diamond as I knew the nature of the exploitative/extractive industry. A few relatives on both sides of our family really became upset about this decision (my ex-wife was well aware of my reasons and accepted the decision). I tried to break down the historical context for diamonds as a symbol of love and to carefully explain the “blood” aspect of their production. I just couldn’t get past the advertisment-indocrination that I was not truly expressing my “love” if I didn’t purchase a 2/3 month value diamond ring ……

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