One of our Best Books of December is Aja Raden’s Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World and as someone who loves both jewelry and history, picking this up was a no-brainer for me.
Most of us have probably heard the expression “diamonds are a girl’s best friend”–but have we ever asked ourselves why? What is it really that makes a diamond, an emerald, a Fabergé egg, or even glass beads so desirable?
Raden sifts through the psychology, neuroscience, and mythos behind the human desire for beautiful things and why we treat some objects as more precious (and therefore valuable) than others. From Holland’s Tulipomania to various jewel-encrusted royal scandals and dazzling legends, Stoned is pure narrative nonfiction candy.
We asked Raden if she would write something for the Book Store PD since this is a popular time of year for jewelry all wrapped up with a bow…
Stone Soup: or The Truth About Diamonds
It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
At least it is for jewelry stores. Did you know that Christmas and New Year’s are the two biggest proposal nights of the year? I did–because I used to design those pretty ladies for a big jewelry company. About one third of all engagement rings will be sold in the few weeks after Thanksgiving in anticipation of the upcoming holiday. Diamond engagement rings comprise about 80% of retail jewelry sold in December.
Springing for an engagement ring right before the holidays might seem a little cheesy, since you could buy a ring on any of the other 300 or so days of the year. But so many people want to get engaged on Christmas, or at least by New Year’s. Whichever side of the proposal they’re on, they feel like they need a diamond to seal the deal. We’ve been indoctrinated for decades to see them as a ‘necessary luxury’. But really, the unassailable tradition of diamond engagement rings is a manufactured myth, and not unlike our modern sensibilities about Christmas, the timeless symbolism and universal practice has not existed for as long as we’ve been led to believe, and certainly not in its current incarnation.
The myth of the diamond engagement ring is the story of South African imperialists, iron fisted diamond cartels, and the early days of Madison Avenue advertising. It’s the story of a manipulated populace – of hard wired neurology and social psychology exploited – all to convince us that everybody wants a diamond engagement ring and always has. Diamonds are after all forever, or so we’ve been led to believe.
How did it all happen? Why do we have them, or for that matter, believe we need them? Whose idea was this, and what, really, are diamonds worth? When it comes to the myth of the diamond engagement ring – one of the most successful and enduring experiments in social psychology ever conducted outside of organized religion – there are a lot of fascinating facts. But facts are deceptively different than truths.
Do you want to know the truth about diamonds?
The truth about diamonds is that they’re pretty much all the same. And they’re not particularly rare. In fact, just like coal, they’re made from mostly pure carbon, which is one of the most abundant elements in the universe, certainly on earth. There are so many of them, in fact, that the people selling them hold back most of their inventory every year and pretend it doesn’t exist for fear of flooding the market and exposing the magic rocks as common stones.
The truth about diamonds is that there really was a time when they were rare, a few hundred years ago. But in 1870, a little boy in South Africa tripped over a giant rock in the Orange River, and it was the beginning of a world changing diamond rush. The rock he tripped over was a massive diamond, betraying the riches underground – and soon the country was swarming with prospectors and settlers. It was at that point that Machiavellian entrepreneur, Cecil Rhodes, imperialist exploiter extraordinaire, managed to wrangle the rights to most of the diamond mines in South Africa during the early days of the rush, and then merge with his only remaining competitor. And the offspring of this unholy union? They named it De Beers.
But unlike most mineral-paloozas, the South Africa diamond rush never stopped rushing. In fact, the trickle became a rush, and the rush has become a flood. At this point, since that day in the river, about 4.5 billion carats of diamonds have been extracted from South Africa. The truth is that they’re anything but scarce.
So what to do with them all? Especially post-World War II, as the former wealthy and aristocratic countries of the world were bankrupt and undergoing major social restructuring? Why, sell them to the American middle class! But the Americans weren’t buying it – not until they were told a really good story, of romance and royalty and the ancient “first diamond engagement ring.” Not until they were indoctrinated for years with what would come to be the gold standard in advertising, market manipulation, and mass psychology. And it worked so well that now no one even remembers that most of it was never really real.
The truth about diamonds is that they were never a tradition, they were a tool – one openly referred to by the head of De Beers as “propaganda” – to make people buy these stones, which were no longer rare and therefore no longer valuable. The very unseemly story of the De Beers cartel and their multi-decade, insidious manipulation of the world market leaves one wondering: if none of it was real, why are they worth so much? And why are we so dearly attached to something so ubiquitous that, statistically speaking, everyone on the planet could easily have one?
The answer is complicated. And while it can be broken down and analyzed through a careful unspooling of propaganda, tracked on the historical timeline of misdeeds and misdirection, and even mapped in your brain via the study of neuro-economics (and yes, there is an actual spot in your brain that confuses love and money), the emotional value of a diamond ring somehow still seems to have a certain magical sparkle, one that can only be felt to be understood. Because the truth about diamonds is that people don’t just buy them, they treasure them. We have very specific and very intense hopes and aspirations and feelings pinned to a diamond ring, or even the idea of one. Romance, sex, status, success, security, not to mention love. At this point, the diamond ring has become universally totemic of actual love.
Do you feel like a dupe yet? Because the truth about diamonds is that you probably shouldn’t.
The myth of the diamond engagement ring is the only blatant lie that can’t seem to be disarmed by exposure. Perhaps this is simply because no one wants it to be. It’s an emotional tautology: everyone believes it because everyone believes it. And once it’s everyone, who’s to say the magic, the emotion made manifest, isn’t real?
You wanna know a secret about diamonds?
Even knowing everything I do-–and I know some truly disillusioning things about jewelry, diamond rings in particular–I still want one. And I’ll still squeal and giggle like an eight year old girl when I eventually get one of my own. Because it’s rare and valuable–even though I know that it’s neither. Because it means forever–even though I know that was made up by an advertising agency in the ’50s and that it’s slowly deteriorating into graphite on my hand. Because everyone, everyone, who sees it knows what it means.
It means love.
There’s an old fable, Stone Soup, about a hungry drifter who arrives in a village claiming to posses a magical rock. The parsimonious locals are unwilling to share their dinner, but he tells them it’s no matter—he can use his stone to make soup out of nothing but a pot of water, if they’ll provide it. While no one believes him at first, curious, the villagers stay to watch him cook his stone soup. The more he spins the yarn of his magical stone and the many people it’s fed, the more contagious the excitement becomes, until bit by bit the villagers offer up extra things, just a little bit each, one at a time: a pinch of salt, a potato, a ham bone, until in the end, he has indeed made actual soup. And enough for everyone.
So was it a con job? Or like Cecil Rhodes, the founder of the world’s greatest cartel, De Beers, did the clever drifter just find a more common way of imbuing his stone with the magic to create something from nothing, using only peoples imaginations? Perhaps, just like the diamond engagement ring, (bought for its rarity though it’s made of the most common substance on earth), it’s not the rock itself that’s magic, it’s w hat each and everyone of us brings to it when we believe it.
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