To truly exploit the growing diamond empire, De Beers needed to stoke demand, especially in its biggest market, the U.S. In 1929, the Oppenheimer family, owners of the Anglo American Corporation, seized control of De Beers. It was a critical time. America was entering a depression, and diamond prices were sinking. De Beers' new owners embraced the masters of myth, and hired the N.W. Ayer Advertising Agency to transform the public imagination about the diamond. To do that, the company hired psychologists to burrow into American buying habits. And it hired the most visionary artists in the world to help.
At the office of N.W. Ayer in New York City, company archivist Howard Davis showed original art produced by Picasso, Salvador Dali and others for the De Beers account.
"What the ads really did was concentrate on a combination of emotion and status," said Davis. "Early on they told us it would be a good idea to make a statement about what a young man should do for his fiancée in the way of a diamond ring. The idea that they were trying to get across was that if you loved her enough, you're going to spend a months pay on it (the diamond ring)…I guess it worked quite well…"
It did work quite well, but the best was yet to come. In 1947, a maiden lady copywriter at N.W. Ayer, Frances Gerety, created the most durable advertising slogan in history: A diamond is forever. According to Howard Davis, Gerety coined the line after her nightly prayers, when she was awakened by a flash of inspiration. Within three years of creating the 'diamonds are forever' slogan, an estimated 80 percent of wedding engagements in America were consecrated with diamond rings. Gerety herself never wed, but she had wed a concept to diamonds.
"The true genius of De Beers," said Matthew Hart, "lies in having created a connection, and sustaining in the popular imagination a connection between something that has no value at all. You can't eat it, you can't drive it home, you can't make clothes out of it, you can't build houses out of it, and creating a connection between that valueless item and something that is extremely valuable, which is human love. They created that connection they made it up and they've sustained it."
But advertising was only one ally in De Beers' transformation of the American consumer's imagination. Another was Hollywood. Beginning in the 1930s, De Beers set out to exploit the new medium of motion pictures by getting directors and screenwriters to insert scenes into films that captured the romance of diamonds, according to company documents cited by writer Edward Jay Epstein. In addition, De Beers and N.W. Ayer encouraged jewelers to distribute diamonds to top Hollywood stars for public appearances, according to Epstein.
Reportedly, one N.W. Ayer memo from the early 1940s stated "We spread the word of diamonds worn by (film) stars….women who can make the grocer's wife and the mechanic's wife say.. I wish I had what she has." Today we call that: product placement.
The movies successfully linked female power and sexuality with diamonds, according to Maura Spiegel, a professor of literature and film at Columbia University.
"Diamonds had a special value, in part because if you wanted a piece of the glamour that you saw in the movies you couldn't buy a miniature mink coat or a piece of a Rolls Royce but you could buy a little tiny diamond or a ring with diamond chips in it and you had the real thing," Spiegel said.
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