t of the upcoming Valentines Day holiday, when diamonds are often purchased as a means of telling your significant other how much you buy into media hype and advertisements, I thought it was about time I posted about some of the pervasive myths and the realities of diamonds. This post does contain some actual scientific and historical facts verses myths, but it also has some social commentary that I figured I might add.
Some would argue that this is why I’m single, because the fact of the matter is that I’m not keen on buying diamonds*. If I did ever buy a diamond as an engagement ring it would be synthetic. Yes, this may limit my options, although most of those excluded would hopefully not be anyone I’d be interested in anyway.
If this seems written from a male perspective, it’s because, traditionally, it’s the man who is generally expected to purchase expensive jewelery. Diamonds are not generally given from women to men, except perhaps in narrow circumstances of things like cuff-links or tie tacks.*note: I am referring to gem diamonds. I have no problem buying diamonds that are inset into a saw blade or drill bit.
Diamonds are rare and valuable – Diamonds are fairly rare, at least compared to other minerals, but not nearly as rare as you might think. In areas where kimberlite can be found, diamonds are actually fairly common, although most are small and not gem quality. The cost of diamonds has a lot more to do with a stranglehold on the market than it does the natural rarity of diamonds.
The De Beers Group managed to acquire a large portion of the diamond production business in the late 1800′s. At the time, nearly all diamonds came from South Africa. Once De Beers acquired most of the mines, it took some very aggressive steps to secure its monopoly. It would offer to buy out smaller producers and if they refused, De Beers would flood the market with diamonds of similar characteristics to destroy the viability and force producers to submit. De Beers managed to keep a monopoly control of the world production throughout the 20th century and operated as a cartel. To keep the price of diamonds artificially high, they sat on huge stockpiles, keeping them from entering the market.
De Beers price fixing, production withholding and strong armed tactics kept them out of the United States and many other countries. Their business practices being downright illegal, not to mention their alleged crimes of a more violent or direct nature. That was fine, however, as they simply sold through other countries, making diamonds even more coveted. Jewelers had to travel to places like Belgium to even get a chance to bid for diamonds, and sales could be invitation only. (Pretty much, they worked like the Mafia)
It wasn’t until the early 2000′s that De Beers faced a competitor who could go toe to toe with them when it came to heavy handedness and sheer brutality: Russia. The discovery of diamonds and their subsequent production in Russia was the first major blow De Beers Cartel. This was followed by Canada, where business law prevented De Beers from resorting to the measures it had taken in Africa. The Diavik Diamond mine opened in Canada in 2003 and was one of the largest single blows to the De Beers monopoly. Since 2000 several other, generally small diamond mines have opened up, chipping away further at the total control that De Beers once had on the market.
Not surprisingly at all, the price of diamonds plummeted. Today, De Beers continues to maintain control of 50%-60% of the world diamond market and controls the producers of some of the best quality and largest gemstone diamonds. While this does not allow them to dictate the price of diamonds like they once did, it is still more than enough to have a profound influence on the market. They continue to withhold massive stockpiles of diamonds, and other producers too may keep their production under check to prevent a flood of diamonds from causing a huge reduction in price. Artificially controlling the price of a commodity does not require that any one entity control all production, only that they control a very significant proportion of it. OPEC, for example, only controls 33% of the world’s oil supply, still more than enough to make a huge difference in the price of oil.
Diamonds Nature’s Perfection – Far from it! Nearly all natural diamonds have flaws in them. If the diamonds are small, the flaws may not be noticeable, but any large diamond will have some fairly major flaws in it, if you look closely.
While the diamonds you see in a store are symmetrical, clear and shaped like teardrops or other geometrical shape, this is entirely artificial and the result of cutting and polishing the rough diamonds. The natural condition of a diamond is actually quite unimpressive to look at.
“A diamond is forever” - No more so than anything else. Diamonds are the hardest known material, which makes them quite durable, but they are not infinitely durable. While diamonds are extremely hard, this should not be confused with overall strength. A diamond can be cut, in some cases fairly easily, by splitting it along lines of cleavage. In fact, a diamond can sometimes even shatter if it’s struck in the right place and at the right angle. In addition to this, diamonds will burn if they get hot enough and can be ground down to dust with another diamond.
Diamonds can also be burned. They are fairly temperature tolerant, but if it gets high enough, they will vaporize and combust to nothing more than CO2. Thus, assuming something else doesn’t destroy it first, your diamond will eventually be vaporized by the expanding sun when it enters its “red giant” phase. Nothing is forever, not even diamonds.
Guess who introduced the term “a diamond is forever” and the myth that they are. Yep, it’s De Beers.
Synthetic Diamonds Are Not Real - If you mention synthetic diamonds to someone, they may say they would rather have a “real” diamond. Synthetic diamonds are not fake at all, they are real diamonds. Cubic zirconia and synthetic moissanite are both “fake” in that they simulate the look of a diamond but are not diamonds at all. However, a real synthetic diamond is made of crystalline carbon, just like a natural diamond is. It’s as hard as a diamond and looks exactly like a diamond, because it is a diamond.
Synthetic diamonds have actually been around for decades, but until relatively recently the processes used to make synthetic diamonds could only produce relatively small and low quality diamonds, suitable only for industrial applications and not gem quality. However, in recent years, new processes such as high temperature deposition can produce diamonds that meet or exceed gem quality standards and are often more perfect than all but the best natural diamonds.
One of the most common varieties of synthetic diamond are yellow diamonds. Yellow colored diamonds occur in nature when nitrogen atoms replace a small portion of the carbon atoms. This occurred in the first generation of synthetic gem-quality diamonds because the production process uses high pressure nitrogen gas. However, there has been an enormous amount of progress in the production of synthetic diamonds and today they can be produced in any color or in a clear form. It is even possible to recreate the deep blue color of the Hope Diamond, created by a trace of boron in the crystal latice.
Modern synthetic gem-quality diamonds are indistinguishable from natural diamonds by even the most discerning jeweler’s eye. Realizing that their market could be about to collapse, diamond producers rushed to produce a non-destructive method of telling the difference. The only known method to distinguish synthetic from natural diamonds is through infrared, UV and x-ray spectroscopy, which can detect tiny traces of nickle, nitrogen or other impurities that are used in the process of producing synthetic diamonds. However, even this method is not foolproof and as diamond synthesis improves, it may also prove to be capable of detection even by sophisticated methods. Currently, many producers of natural diamonds are laser inscribing serial numbers on their diamonds to provide proof that they are natural.
But if you can’t tell the difference what is the point? After all, there are many natural diamonds in circulation without serial numbers inscribed on them. If you needed any more reason to consider diamonds about the worst investment around, this is it.
It is traditional for a man to give a woman a diamond engagement ring – This is probably one of the biggest single myths, and it’s come to be so pervasive that many think that an engagement is not “proper” or somehow is inadequate if there is no ring with a big diamond, costing three months or more of a man’s salary. However, this “tradition” simply did not exist prior to the 20th century. Rings have long been used as a symbol of relationships, especially marriage, where a wedding band is traditionally worn by both husband and wife, and there may have been some isolated examples of diamond rings given for engagements in centuries past, but they were not the norm. The most common jeweled rings given to lovers in the Victorian era were generally birthstone rings.
The “tradition” was invented in the 1930′s, by none other than De Beers, simply to drum up diamond sales. De Beers faced a problem in the early 20th century. They were expanding production, but diamonds were not all that popular and sales were down. They turned to the advertising firm of N.W. Ayer in the 1930′s, who began a multi-national publicity campaign that included encouraging wedding planners and bridal gown shops to promote diamonds as a necessity for a marriage. heir publicity campaign was brilliant, especially given that this was an era where such large efforts were rare. They managed to convince the public that a diamond wasn’t simply customary, but that a man was obligated to spend a large chunk of his salary on one. They managed to plant the myth that a man had to spend a good three months of his salary and that if he didn’t, he was somehow “cheap” or didn’t love the woman enough to make the sacrifice for her love. No diamond? What kind of man are you?
Convincing the public of this during the Great Depression meant that even while other sales were down, diamond sales soared. The general public didn’t have much money, but what they did have they felt compelled to spend on a rock for their lover’s finger. De Beers redoubled their efforts again several years later, when GI’s began coming home and marrying up. It’s amazing to stop and consider the logic here. A new couple, young and likely without much money could spend that money on a new home, a honeymoon or invest it to establish a fund for their future children’s college, but slick PR meant it was squandered on a rock.
A slick ad campaign continues to convince new generations that it’s only proper to buy an overpriced chunk of carbon for no other purpose than to look at. If you actually want to follow the “traditional” societial norm, don’t buy her a diamond. Buy her a birthstone ring or a ring with an opal, sapphire or ruby. Better yet, don’t buy any ring at all and put the money that would have gone into it toward a house, the honeymoon, or the start of an investment “nestegg.” If she’s too offended by this to accept the proposal, she ain’t worth it anyway.
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend – Okay, they do have some monetary value, but any girl who is shallow or socially dysfunctional enough to think that a gemstone is a substitute for human kinship and makes a good companion probably is not relationship material for anyone who isn’t a small piece of inorganic carbon.
One thing that I love to hate about the current ads is that they seem to indicate that a diamond is somehow a substitute for real affection, attention or time. It’s as if the only way to show someone that they mean something to you is to buy an overpriced rock with no consideration for the fact that it’s artificially expensive, will almost certainly lose value and comes from a supply chain of, at best, extremely questionable ethics. It implies that women are so shallow and stupid that despite wanting to spend time with their significant other, it’s possible to pacify them by giving them a shiny object to start at instead. (Diamonds don’t actually keep her company while you’re out ignoring her.)
Of course, the other thing one should realize is that diamonds have become the default all purpose gift to give for romantic occasions. In other words, there is absolutely nothing unique or creative about it. There’s no real thought involved other than the consideration of how much money you can put into the gift. You may as well get her a gift certificate, because that’s no more or less unique or thoughtful – even better, just cut her a check.
How about this? If you want to buy a woman a piece of jewelery, consider something a bit unusual, that will actually stand out from the crowd and show that you went out of your way to put some thought into it and seek out something meaningful. What about a platinum ring with a unique stone in it? How about something unusual like a lunar meteorite? You could even preface it with a meaningful metaphor like “Nothing on earth could be enough for you, so I got you a piece of the moon.” Alternatively you could get a unique fossil or piece of something else meaningful. If you prefer a gemstone, how about a nice sapphire? When was the last time you saw a beautiful sapphire on a ring? How about something custom made with a design that has some significance? Maybe an emerald shamrock if she’s Irish or a ruby maple leaf if she’s Canadian or if you met in Canada. These are just examples, of course. Try putting your own thought into it and come up with something else meaningful, but not a diamond, everyone gets a diamond.
This entry was posted on Sunday, February 7th, 2010 at 2:58 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Culture, Good Science, History, Misc, Not Even Wrong, Obfuscation. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
View blog reactions