Tis the season for jewelers to tug at men's wallet strings. Every man needs to show his woman he still loves her by buying diamonds this Valentine's Day. It's a brilliant campaign, really, since they're selling Love, and who can put a price tag on that?

This is one I've been seeing the most:

(link)

Pretty effective. Who wouldn't want to be driving in a slightly snowy evening listening to Landon Pigg with a handsome man who can't keep his eyes off of you. The diamond pendant is just the clincher, the finale, the proof that these people are in love, for reals. De Beers really did a number on us, because we don't question this idea that a diamond is a symbol of love. We don't question that an engagement ring has to be a diamond, and needs to be as big as the guy can possibly afford. And we don't question that the best stone to buy is a diamond because after all, they're a girl's best friend.

In reality, the fantasy that revolves around the diamond is a scam, an idea concocted by an advertising agency. And that in itself isn't so bad. Many companies brand themselves as fantasy (buy Nike shoes because they will make you a sports superstar). Many companies have also successfully sold very worthless items (pet rock). But what makes the diamond campaign the worse of the bunch is the harm they've done, and continue to do, to make a ton of money in the name of love.

The true value of a diamond. The reason diamonds cost so much (in terms of dollars to the consumer), when they aren't really rare (the value of a gem is supposed to be based on its rarity), is because De Beers is a monopoly. They buy up and close down any diamond mines discovered by competitors. The laws of supply and demand determine the price of any item. De Beers controls the supply (by limiting the amount of diamonds in the marketplace) and demand (by selling diamonds as a symbol of love). Hard to believe that less than 70 years ago, people rarely gave diamond engagement rings. Now it is the gold standard by which a man's love and the stability of the relationship is based on.

Fine, who cares if people want to throw away thousands, or tens of thousands of dollars, on a diamond engagement ring, or a special gift, even if the diamond isn't "valuable" in the true sense of the word. There are a lot of things people overpay for that's not really worth anything. There is such a thing as perceived value. It makes people happy. It makes the event special and memorable. It conforms to the social normal, and what's really wrong with that?

The true cost of mining diamonds. Blood Diamond is a movie that came out about a year ago dipicting the blood and war that has spanned the entire history of the De Beers' diamond cartel. The story of Sierra Leone isn't an isolated event, and the conflict is far from over. Unrest and civil war in Angola, DRC, Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Ivory Coast funded by diamonds (paid to terrorists) have resulted in over 4 million deaths and millions more displaced. There is blood from lost limbs and lives splashed across every diamond, and we are purchasing them so we can have something shiny to show our friends.

Why buying conflict-free diamonds doesn't help. You may have heard that you can ask for some certificate verifying a diamond as conflict-free. The Kimberley Process is an agreement that is supposed to prevent blood diamonds from getting into the market but is pretty useless since it’s based on a system of self-policing. The UN reported in October 2006 that due to poor enforcement of the Kimberley Process, $23 million of conflict diamonds from Cote d’lvoire alone entered the legitimate market. In April 2006 an internal review showed that 49 of 147 Kimberley Process certificates were fraudulent. Besides these fraudulent certificates, real certificates could still be issued if conflict diamonds were smuggled and mixed with legally traded ones before being certified.

Doing the best we can. We are consumers. Our economy works and is maintained only by our power to purchase. But many times we are bombarded with messages that tell us everything we buy have some terrible social impact across the world. Driving SUVs mean we don't support the troops in Iraq. Buying clothes mean we are supporting child labor in Asia. Buying meat contributes to the destruction of rain forests and pulic health dangers. Is there anything at all we can buy that is really, truly conflict-free?

So what most people do is they feel terrible upon hearing the argument, and then promptly forget about it. There's too much guilt to be carried. And it's happening far away. The pressures closer to home take precedence. I think Peter Birkenhead, in his Salon article, A hard rock says it best:

I realized that having a clue hasn't ever motivated me to make significant sacrifices...I thought, Wouldn't the easiest way to give a gift that was conflict-free be to not give a diamond at all? But the truth is I barely considered that choice, probably because nobody else I know has made it. Giving diamonds as tokens of love is something people do these days. Some people. Insanely lucky, gravity-defying middle-class Westerners like me, and the people I know. I did a quick mental survey of my married women friends and realized that all of them wore diamond engagement rings.

Yes, it's all overwhelming. We are attached to our spending power. We are attached to our things and what they say about us. Peter Walsh of TLC's Clean Sweep and author of It's All Too Much often tells his clients to let go of the power that they've given to their things. If your only excuse of wanting a diamond is to show your girlfriends, feel special, and have what everyone else has, then you're giving power to some thing.

The things you own, end up owning you.

- Tyler Durden, Fight Club

We can only do what we can, and it turns out, we can do a lot. Don't buy a diamond.

 

Additional Resources

Have you ever tried to sell a diamond - Article from The Atlantic Monthly that chronicles the DeBeers marketing campaign

The New Diamond Age - Article from Wired magazine about the cultured diamond startups