Felix Leiter: “I give up. I know the diamonds are in the body, but where?”
James Bond: “Alimentary, Dr Leiter …”
Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you I’m a huge fan of James Bond. The quote above, which I love despite the punchline's cheesy whiff, is from the film Diamonds Are Forever.
Though not the best in the series, in Mr Witt and Mr Kidd it boasts two of the best characters to grace the franchise, possibly the most famous characters to be played by uncredited actors (Bambi and Thumper, the bikini-clad kung-fu experts) and, in its title, a version of the slogan that changed the course of the diamond industry.
In fact, the film has a number of subtle links to the world of diamonds from plot themes through to character names, but that’s a different post for a different day. But it’s probably no coincidence that, as a jeweller, I’m particularly drawn to it.
Unless someone knows there’s a film called It Does Exactly What It Says On The Tin in production, I can think of no other big box office movie that has an advertising slogan for a title.
Let’s rewind a few years to the latter part of the 19th century and the discovery of small numbers of diamonds in the riverbeds of India and the jungles of Brazil. It comes as a surprise to most people to learn that the diamond industry didn’t exist before that. The diamond boom came with the discovery of the large mines of South Africa at the end of that century.
It wasn’t long before long the market was flooded with stones and here in England the financiers who had bankrolled the South African mines became alarmed that supply would force demand – and prices – down. Their answer to the question of how to protect their investment and income was to form a cartel, to unite as one in order to control production and distribution and preserve the illusion that diamonds were scarce.
The result was a company called De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd. Such was the ruthlessness with which De Beers took control of all aspects of global diamond industry, its influence was such that at one point it was said to control more that 95% of the world’s diamonds.
But as the years went by and De Beers tamed the industry, it soon became clear the cartel had another problem on its hands: the fact was that diamonds simply didn’t have mass appeal and their price was falling.
In northern Europe, diamonds were still seen as exclusively elite, affordable only by the very rich. Elsewhere in Europe, the idea of giving a diamond as part of an engagement ring had never really taken off. That still left the United States as a potential market; in fact, by 1938 around three quarters of all the De Beer cartel’s diamond sales there were as engagement rings. But the stones were smaller and of a lower quality than elsewhere in the world.
Somehow, De Beers had to arrest the decline in the market and convince the world that not only to pay more for them, but to treasure them to such a degree that, once sold, a diamond would rarely if ever come back into the market. If they could pull that off, then not only would they sell more diamonds rather than less, they’d be able to sell at a premium.
The De Beers bankers felt a targeted advertising campaign was the answer and they sent the company’s chairman, Harry Oppenheimer, to New York to see Gerold Lauck, the president of advertising powerhouse N W Ayers & Son and come up with a plan to reinvigorate the American perception of diamonds.
Market research showed Lauck that the steep decline in the American diamond industry was down to cultural and attitudinal changes and the emergence of competitive luxury goods. His answer was to re-educate young American men to believe that not only was a diamond engagement ring a great gift of love, but was the only true gift of love.
Similarly, women had to be educated in the same way and led to the belief that only a diamond ring proved true love.
The agency developed strategic partnerships with a booming Hollywood motion picture industry and soon every film saw the matinee idol and screen siren of the day giving and receiving diamond rings. The Gables, Grants, Monroes and Hepburns of the era turned up for publicity shoots and gala events draped in De Beers diamonds.
And pretty soon every all-American girl and boy was sold on the principle that diamonds equalled love.
In Europe, the British Royal Family was similarly persuaded by Ayers to support its diamond industry with royal visits to the South African mines, where on one occasion Oppenheimer presented Queen Elizabeth with a diamond.
By 1941, sales of diamonds in America had increased by 55% and Ayers had a solid success behind them. But they weren’t about to take their foot off the gas. Instead they took the campaign up a gear and went for a slogan.
After a few early missteps, a young copywriter working late at Ayers came up with the caption A Diamond Is Forever and, beneath it, an image of a young couple on honeymoon. It was a concept of eternity, which perfectly distilled the Everyman appeal the agency had been trying to capture .
Within a year, "A Diamond Is Forever" became the official motto of De Beers and transformed the value of a small meaningless piece of carbon into arguably the most precious and valuable commodity in the world.
The story doesn’t stop there, of course. De Beers understood diamonds needed to be consistently associated with luxury and desire. Over the years De Beers proved to be the most successful cartel in modern history, creating not only a retail superstructure for the diamond industry but also developing the precious stones into a solid security investment against inflation and recession.
So, what can we learn from this? Well, a few things.
If Mr. Oppenheimer hadn’t come along and decided, with a few other minds to take control of the diamond market, instead of leaving each site finder to fight for their own business, would we still find diamonds as fascinating? I doubt they would be as expensive as they are. Would they still be as demanding? Probably not. It makes you wonder though, what would we be using as an alternative to propose with?
What is certainly true is that without the cartel and without a late-working copywriter at N W Ayers, diamonds would never have been interesting enough for Ian Fleming to have used them as the central plot in a James Bond novel.
Without the novel, we’d never have had a film. And without the film, we’d never have had a character named Plenty O’Toole. And that, to my mind, would have been a great shame.
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Lewis Malka is a recognized expert in making diamond rings as well as being a famous jeweller to the stars. All his blogs are his own opinions. He is a member of the London Diamond Bourse (LDB). You can follow him daily on Facebook - Twitter - and Instagram.