All That Glitters: Diamonds and the Cultivation of Desire

Nancy Friedman
6 min readFeb 7, 2023
“Where It Begins”: The new De Beers ad campaign features Global Ambassador Lupita Nyong’o. Full-page ad in Town and Country magazine, February 2023.

Once upon a time, in the middle of the 20th century, diamonds were not a girl’s best friend or the sine qua non of a marriage proposal. If average Americans thought about diamonds at all, it was as emblems of impossible luxury — think of “Diamond Jim” Brady, the Gilded Age financier of legendary appetites — or utilitarian value: diamond drills, the diamond stylus in a record player.

Everything began to change in 1938. The diamond market had been declining since World War I, and the Great Depression had dramatically shifted priorities: Brides-to-be wanted washing machines or cars, not baubles. In some desperation, De Beers, the South African diamond cartel founded in 1888 by Cecil Rhodes, contacted the New York ad agency N.W. Ayer to see whether “the use of propaganda in various forces” could reverse the trend.

The agency accepted the challenge. Its ambitious goal: “to create a situation where almost every person pledging marriage feels compelled to acquire a diamond engagement ring.” (Compelled!) Two women at the agency, Frances Gerety and Dorothy Dignam, led the charge. Gerety, a copywriter, churned out purple prose during the war years (“The engagement ring on her finger is bright as a tear — but not with sadness”) before hitting pay dirt, so to speak, in 1947. She distilled the mission into four sparkling words: “A Diamond Is Forever.” Public-relations executive Dignam got to work spreading the message.

“To light a lover’s dream”: 1955 De Beers ad featuring a painting by Pierre Ino and the slogan “A Diamond Is Forever.”

It worked: Diamond sales jumped by 55 percent in two years, and kept climbing. In 1956, Ian Fleming titled his fourth James Bond novel Diamonds Are Forever; in 1971 the novel was turned into a film starring Sean Connery. De Beers knew a good thing when it saw it: It continued to use “A Diamond Is Forever” for 75 years without ever including its own name in ads. In 1999, Advertising Age named it the slogan of the century.

Over the decades, De Beers has tried a few twists on its winning formula. In the 1980s it introduced the fabricated “two months’ salary” rule for engagement-ring purchases, adding a new layer of financial pressure to the diamond imperative.

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Nancy Friedman

Writer, name developer, brand consultant, idea-ist, ex-journalist. @fritinancy on Mastodon, Instagram, Bluesky, Threads, and elsewhere.