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De Beers and Diamonds: A History

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

How Diamonds Spread Around the World

For centuries, diamonds have been a symbol of royalty, wealth, and romance. The first reported diamond engagement ring was given by the Emperor Maximilian to Mary of Burgundy in 1377. In the 1860s, there were fears that the diamond mines in India and South America were dwindling. However, in 1867, large quantities of diamonds were discovered in South Africa. It caused a ripple around the world as people from all over flocked to the rich mining grounds. South Africa, previously ignored by the world, suddenly became a major contributor to the world’s wealth and economy. British imperialism increased, in an effort to profit from the wealthy diamond mines. This led to conflicts with local tribes and racial segregation. Black Africans were treated as second class citizens, with restrictions place on their mining and living rights. The families of these men were also affected, as the traditional family structure began to change with the discovery of diamonds. From the chaos of diamond frenzy sprung the De Beers Mining Company, established by Cecil Rhodes in 1880. De Beers quickly became the largest diamond mining company in the world. This led to the global distribution of diamonds out of South Africa and into the west. However, before the depression, diamonds, especially in engagement rings, were not very common. However, through the “A Diamond is Forever” campaign, De Beers turned diamonds into a multi-billion dollar industry, convincing consumers that a diamond engagement ring was a symbol of love. Through this campaign, one single company affected the lives of millions, if not billions, of people around the world, connecting the poor black African miners to rich brides-to-be all around the world.

The Discovery of Diamonds in South Africa

The Cultural and Social Impact

In 1867, diamonds were discovered on the banks of the Orange River, just northwest of Hope Town, South Africa. In the following year, diamonds were also discovered near the Vaal River. The news of the discoveries spread, and suddenly everyone was heading to the diamond fields in search of their fortune. Before this discovery, this was a country that was not technologically advanced, with people using primitive tools and animals to plough fields. The land was so severe, so hostile, that it took six thousand acres to nourish a herd of cattle.

For the people of Africa, the land was harsh and unforgiving, and with many people poor and malnourished, diamonds would have appeared to be a new way to make a living. By 1874, over 10,000 Africans were employed in diamond mining and by 1910 that number had risen to 255,000, reaching 444,000 in 1940. These figures show a major cultural change taking place. Before diamonds, African men were the head of their families, supporting them by growing grain or tending to cattle. Now, with the discovery of diamonds, and the prospect of wealth, men were leaving their families and farms to make their fortunes. This turned the traditional patriarchal society into a matriarchal society, as it was left up to the African women to take care of their families.  It was now up to the women to be responsible for the economic and social management of households.

During this period, drought had ravaged the country, forcing many Africans to abandon their dying farms and head to the diamond fields. However, the tensions between white and black miners soon led to racial segregation, with the white superiority causing black people to be subjected to racist policies. During the 1870’s, it became a requirement for black Africans to carry passes and to live in segregated parts of the town, or, if they were mine workers, to live in all-male compounds connected to the mines.  The conditions in these compounds were inhumane. The African men were used to living with their large families in a rural environment, and were now cooped up in confined quarters under tight discipline without any women for the duration on their contracts, usually six months or a year. 


The Formation of De Beers

 In 1880, Cecil Rhodes formed the De Beers Mining company and seven years later, De Beers controlled all the claims in the diamond fields. De Beers grew and grew, expanding the company’s power over the vast diamond fields, taking total control when miners were forced to give up their diamond hunt and make way for heavy mining machinery to drill through the hard earth. The topsoil in the diamond fields had been searched, and no miners could afford to buy expensive mining equipment to continue searching into the hard rocky ground. This effectively changed the diamond hunt, forcing men to go back to their farms, clearing the way for large mining companies that were owned internationally. As the mining companies sprang up, De Beers quickly took over them to squash competition.

Nowadays, De Beers presides over 1300 business and owns 90 percent of the world’s diamonds. This one company has complete control over the entire diamond industry, making it very powerful and impossible for rivals to beat them. De Beers hegemonic control over the diamond industry made them able to influence the lives of millions of people. By using mining machinery instead of workers, De Beers cut off wealth from the local South Africans. De Beers was also able to influence the South African governments, making direct deals with them to buy their diamonds so they could stockpile them and control the demand and supply to consumers, keeping diamond prices high around the world. 

Marketing Diamonds

Making Diamonds a Girl's Best Friend

In the 1930s, De Beers was faced with the challenge of turning diamonds into a world-wide, consumer-driven commodity. Before the Depression, diamond rings were not common among new brides. So what, you may rightfully ask, made women rather suddenly demand diamonds on the occasion of their engagement?

The diamond industry was struggling with a period of increased supply of diamonds, with a lesser demand for them. In the 1930s, diamonds were being stockpiled in Europe to prevent a surplus on the market, which would have decreased the prices of diamonds. By the mid 1930s De Beers had diamond stock valued at four times its annual sales.

Then came the now infamous advertising campaign by De Beers in 1948 called “A Diamond is Forever”, which was later hailed by the Advertising Age as the slogan of the century.

With the help of New York advertising agency, Ayers, this one advertising campaign told consumers that a diamond ring was the ultimate symbol of love, suggesting to buyers that it was prudent to spend at least three months’ salary for such a romantic symbol and gesture. This campaign changed the diamond ring from a relatively obscure token of affection to an expected tradition. Through this onslaught campaign, by 1965, 80% of all brides had diamond rings.

While De Beers is most noted for their famous ‘A Diamond is Forever’ Campaign, what is less known is their successful efforts to sell diamonds in Asia and Europe.  Up until the end of WWII, less than 1 percent of Japanese wore diamond wedding rings. Then came the De Beers marketing campaign until almost 70 percent of new brides carried a diamond on their left hands. In Germany, German brides used to be satisfied with a wedding ring composed of two gold bands – until 1967, when De Beers introduced the concept of a triset, which added a third band that was studded with diamonds. After that, Germany became the third largest diamond-consuming nation.

This global marketing onslaught effectively linked every bride-to-be around the world to a consumer-driven product from the rocky ground of South Africa. Nowadays, the diamond ring has lost part of its romantic symbolism and is more of an obligation purchase for a groom. Nearly every bride has a diamond ring on their left hand.

But De Beers didn’t stop with engagement rings. In the 1980s diamond advertising changed and expanded to include eternity and anniversary rings, diamond necklaces, diamond-studded wedding rings and other diamond jewellery. De Beers has now become a powerful multi-billion dollar global enterprise. In 2004, worldwide sales of rough diamonds hit a record level of $11.2 billion, and diamond jewellery sales increased by 6 percent, totally $65.5 billion.

Diamonds Connect Everyone

“Even the roughest diamond, with pieces of dirt still clinging to it, has unique properties. It is the hardest natural substance in the world. Dip it in water and it emerges dry. Rub it against cloth and it assumes a positive electrostatic charge. Expose it to sunlight and it will glow that night with eerie phosphorescence.”

Diamonds as a commodity have interconnected nearly everyone in the world, from the poor black African miners, to the multi-billion dollar De Beers Mining Company, to brides all around the world. African people went from rural tribesmen to miners, causing major shifts in their economic, cultural and family structures. South Africa suddenly became a significant contributor to the world’s economy and wealth. International investment took wealth out of the poor nation. Globalisation has made the world a smaller place, while capitalism has seen De Beers make money at the expense of the African locals. Driven by heavy advertising, the world turned into diamond consumers after the world war and depression, causing diamonds to be spread around the world, changing and connecting matrimonial cultures by a diamond ring on a bride’s left hand.



 Brinig, M 1990, ‘Rings and promises’, Journal of Law, Economics & Organisation, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 203-215.

 Kanfer, S 1993, The last empire, Hodder and Stoughton, Great Britain.

 Spar, D 2006, “Markets: continuity and change in the international diamond market’, The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 20, no. 3, pp.195-208.

 Thompson, L 2001, A history of south africa, Yale University Press, United States of America.

 Wolf, E 1982, Europe and the people without history, University of California Press, Los Angeles.



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