A meeting that took place in Philadelphia in September 1938 would in retrospect change the diamond business for eternity, and at the same time leave an indelible mark on the marriage ceremony. It took place downtown in the offices of the NW Ayer, and involved a number of the advertising agency’s executives and a 29-year-old Harry Oppenheimer, the son the then-De Beers chairman Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, who himself would come to head the diamond mining company 19 years later.
The period in which the meeting took place, which was nine years after the start of the Great Depression, was not good for the diamond jewelry business. Sales were languishing and worse. In Europe the diamond was still largely considered to be affordable only by the wealthy and the noble classes, and in America the volume of diamonds sold had declined by 50 percent since the end the end of World War I. The Asian market effectively did not exist.
The proposal made NW Ayer by to the young Harry Oppenheimer was groundbreaking. It involved a carefully designed advertising and public relations campaign to influence social attitudes and even life-cycle customs, beginning in the U.S. market. It would do so by associating diamonds with the concept of love and the institution of marriage.
The campaign that resulted from that fateful event would only be launched nine years later. Less than one year after the meeting in Philadelphia, World War II broke out in Europe, and people’s attention to shifted to matters more pressing and less sentimental than matrimony.
But two years after the guns eventually fell silent, in 1947, an NW Ayer copywriter produced a moment of a brilliance. Her name was Frances Gerety, and she penned the slogan “A Diamond is Forever,” which expressed in four words the understanding that love, like nature’s hardest mineral, is eternal. Thus was born the diamond business’ largest and most robust product category, bridal jewelry.
A De Beers’ print ad from the 19980s. featuring an engagement ring and anchored by the famous slogan, ‘A Diamond Is Forever.’
A CONSISTENT MARKET PHENOMENON
The association of the diamond with love and marriage was a strategic master-stroke, for it cemented the diamond’s status as a consistent market phenomenon, which is a rare commodity in the luxury arena. Although marriage rates rise and fall, the concept never really goes out of fashion, meaning that bridal jewelry has remained a fixture, decade after decade. Furthermore, since get married all through the year, the business is not seasonal.
Furthermore, despite their value, unlike cars and houses most diamonds are sold only once. Bridal jewelry, which is associated with one of the most emotionally charged moments in a person’s life, rarely enters the resale market. It is more likely to be handed down from generation to generation.
In short, De Beers has created a market sector with a built-in safety-net. People get married whether the economy is good or bad. It may influence the types of diamond that are purchased, but not whether diamonds are bought or not.
CREATING A TRADITION IN JAPAN
The world’s largest diamond market, the United States, together with Canada, is anchored by the bridal sector, with up to 85 percent of diamond jewelry sales by value being wedding related, including diamond engagement rings, wedding bands and wedding-day jewelry for brides and bridesmaids. Weddings also are a trigger for later life-cycle purchases, like engagement jewelry.
Europe, while never as robust or committed as the United States, is nonetheless a Western market, with similar traits and customs as its American counterpart. In the United Kingdom, Bain and Co. has reported, the acquisition rate is about 80 percent, while in Germany it is only 40 percent. France has a 60 percent diamond engagement jewelry acquisition rate, and in Italy it stands at 70 percent
In the mid-1960s De Beers decided to recreate what it done several decades earlier, this time in Japan, where there was no real tradition of buying diamond jewelry to celebrate a marriage.
When the campaign kicked off 1967, fewer than 5 percent of Japanese women received a diamond engagement ring. By 1972, figure had climbed to 27 percent. Six years later half of all Japanese women who were married wore a diamond, and by 1981 the proportion stood at 60 percent.
Japan became the second largest diamond engagement ring market, after the United States.
Starting in the mid-1960s De Beers set about creating a bridal diamond jewelry tradition in Japan. In 1967 fewer than 5 percent of Japanese brides wore diamonds. By 1981 the figure had climbed to 60 percent.
CHINESE AND INDIAN BRIDES JOIN THE PARTY
Japan’s status as the world’s number 2 market would eventually be usurped by China, which was another country with no real history of diamond being used to celebrate a marriage. De Beers had been active there since 1993, and from the very beginning has considered the bridal market sector as promising. But there was a practice of giving a wedding ring at the marriage ceremony, and for that reason De Beers targeted the development of diamond wedding rings.
Again, the campaign was tremendously successful. By 2005, the average diamond wedding ring acquisition rate in the top 25 cities in China was 51 percent. According to Bain & Co. the figure has since approached the 60 percent mark.
De Beers launched it’s bridal jewelry campaign in China in 1993. Today, about 60 percent of Chinese brides wear diamonds.
In India, the tradition of gold jewelry making up the bulk of a bride’s dowry is being usurped by diamond-set jewelry.
A similar percentage is also being reported today in India, where some 60 percent of Indian brides are also getting married wearing diamond jewelry. There, diamond-set items are replacing the pure gold jewelry that traditionally has been part of the dowry given by the groom’s family to the bride, as part of the wedding tradition.