It may be churlish of me to highlight this during wedding season, but as scientist and jeweller Aja Raden points out in her cultural history Stoned, gemstones are “just colourful gravel.” She elaborates on the fraught history and desire around precious objects – pearls, emeralds, wristwatches – with diamonds as one cautionary tale via Marie Antoinette, whose downfall was precipitated by jewellery.
The human history of attraction to bright shiny objects has not exactly been about supply chain integrity or corporate social responsibility – instead, think envy, greed, violence, suffering, slavery, incursions and the guillotine.
To understand the role of gems and jewels in luxury today, it’s necessary to consider, as Raden does, the brilliant “A diamond is forever” campaign that De Beers whipped up in 1947 after the South African diamond rush that saw the company gain control of 99 per cent of the planet’s diamonds.
It was about the creation of desire for what is fundamentally a ubiquitous carbon allotrope (as is graphite, like the pencil I use to make column notes). “An interesting quirk of the scarcity effect is that it doesn’t require actual scarcity,” writes Raden. De Beers success was about the perception of limited supply.
Rachelle Bergstein considers all this in Brilliance and Fire, her lively new book about diamonds, with particular attention paid to supply chain awareness, consumer politics and investigative journalism over the last 15 years.
In 2006, journalist Greg Campbell’s investigative book on illegal diamonds and the civil war in Sierra Leone, Blood Diamonds, was made into the feature film starting Leonardo di Caprio and Djimon Hounsou; by 2008, the De Beers group had countered with the launch of the Forevermark brand, marketed as “the world’s most carefully selected diamonds.”
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