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Configurations 9.3 (2001) 381-412

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The Great Diamond Hoax and the Semiprecious Stone Scam

Robert N. Proctor
Pennsylvania State University

The value of a thing differs from the so-called equivalent given for it in trade . . . and if the economist were honest, he would employ this term—"price"—for trade value. But he has still to keep up some sort of pretense that price is somehow bound up with value, lest the immorality of trade become too obvious.

Karl Marx, 1844 1

Diamonds are expensive because they are plentiful and ugly; agates are cheap because they are rare and beautiful. Apart from making my dismal science (economics) colleagues wince, there is a grain of truth in this improbable paradox, which has to do with the history of value and the ends to which "precious gems" have been put. The value of stones has changed over time, and there is little that is inherent in the nature of the diamond to exalt it over purportedly lowly agates and other "semiprecious" stones. "Little," as we shall see, but not "nothing."

That observation leads to my first thesis: that there is a conspiracy of sorts that props up the value of diamonds and other "precious stones"—a joint embrace, one could say, between manufacturers and consumers, bilkers and brides, with intrigues and subtleties unparalleled in the annals of consumer culture.

One of my larger hopes is to upset this priority of precious over "semiprecious" stones—by suggesting that it was a cascade of social [End Page 381] and political events that rocketed diamonds to the top of the gemstone hierarchy. 2 The primacy of the diamond has to do, I will argue, with a complex confluence of cultural currents, including the timing of their discovery; the manner in which they were marketed; changing legal relations surrounding marriage, especially the softening of "breach of promise" statutes; the growth of cross-ethnic intercourse; the rise of mass consumer culture; 3 and (not to be overlooked) intrinsic exploitable qualities of the stones themselves—notably hardness and homogeneity—which rendered them ideal for a new kind of "social currency" that emerges at the end of the nineteenth century, serving to facilitate the marital bond. 4

How did such a colorless 5 and unimaginative stone become the sine qua non of marriage? How did we come into a world where the majority of women in the richer parts of the globe expect a diamond as proof of engagement, the modern version of bride-price? How do we understand this ceremonious cement of marriage, the commodity that is both costly and indispensable, "permanent" and yet unrecyclable— [End Page 382] not to mention brittle and burnable—the mass-marketed luxury good that everyone says is beautiful, yet few seem able to identify without the assistance of experts?

(Ironically, it is the homogeneity of diamonds—their plainness—that makes it necessary for experts to be involved in their selection. Jewelers and gemologists are required to guarantee that the stone in question is genuine since consumers will rarely have a clue. 6 That is why many faceted diamonds come with "papers" certifying authenticity—from agencies like the Gemological Institute of America, the European Gemological Laboratory, the American Gemological Society, or the International Gemological Institute. Diamonds are generally so plain as to be indistinguishable [to the untrained eye] from other common materials of lesser value—like Fabulite, the trade name for synthetic strontium titanate [SrTiO3], which boasts a higher refractive index even than diamond [by about 10 percent], causing diamond apologists to sneer that it is "too flashy.") 7

Part of this story is already familiar: I'm referring, of course, to the stranglehold the De Beers empire has maintained over the mining and sale of diamonds since the end of the nineteenth century. No other cartel has been so lasting, so effective, so durable. 8 Its success can be traced to many different factors: South African leniency (or impotence) vis-à-vis an industry that dominated the national economy; a complex system of distribution that rewards fidelity and punishes...


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