The Disturbing Reasons We Buy Engagement Rings

You’ve seen diamond engagement rings on glittering fingers and in photo shoots. As a society, we revere and covet them, spending thousands on purchasing and presenting them. When South Africa’s De Beers mining company monopolized diamond mining in the 19th century, they were counting on us to do exactly that.

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As ATTN: has previously reported, diamond engagement rings don’t have the prettiest history. Here are five of some of the most disturbing facts about where they came from, why they’re still here, and why there is a good chance that you really, really want one.

1. History

Diamond engagement rings weren’t always used. Diamonds actually used to be very rare and reserved for royals. But in 1867, the discovery of a single diamond on the banks of South Africa’s Orange River revealed that the country is a mother lode of diamonds. Diamond mines developed and were quickly monopolized by an entity called De Beers Consolidated Mines. According to the Gemological Institute of America, De Beers controlled about 90 percent of the world's production of rough diamonds at the height of their reign in the diamond market in 1900. This allowed De Beers to manipulate cost and distribution of diamonds, marking up prices astronomically and without accountability from any regulators.

De Beers became so successful in the diamond business that they are still in operation today.


Have you seen our beautiful wedding day jewellery over on the @rockmywedding blog? #DeBeers #RockMyWedding #Engaged

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2. Horrific Labor Conditions

Back when De Beers was unregulated and untamed, the people who spent their days digging for diamonds in the mines were native South Africans, as well as African migrants who traveled from neighboring countries to mine for diamonds. The workers were subjected to "terrible" underground heat, extreme cold in the compounds, and poor living conditions in the mining camps they were forced to live in. Disease spread quickly, and according to South African History Online, three quarters of all deaths in the diamond fields came from pneumonia. Their lives were not valued and they were not respected. South African History Online notes that an observer at the time described the life of an African worker having "about the same value as that of a tiresome fly".

In addition to not providing fair working conditions for its employees, Encyclopedia Britannica notes that De Beers has since come under fire for suspected involvement with conflict or "blood" diamonds. These are defined as diamonds mined in areas that are ruled by forces opposed to the legitimate government of a country. They also are diamonds that could be sold to fund military action against the government. In 1999, De Beers tightened mining regulation to quell speculation.

3. Manipulation

To keep diamond prices high, De Beers has perpetuated the myth that diamonds were still rare and valuable, despite the fact that tons were produced.

Investigative journalist and author Edward Jay Epstein explained in an interview with Power Line that De Beers produced only a limited number of diamonds annually during the 20th century. The number produced in a given year depended on how many Americans were planning on getting married that year, as America was the main market for diamonds by then.

Epstein wrote the cover story "Have you ever tried to sell a diamond?" which appeared in the Atlantic magazine in February 1982. Until that story broke, Epstein explains, people had no idea what it really was they were buying.

4. Marketing

"What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons."

That's Don Draper's famous quote from the popular television show "Mad Men." What he said about stockings applies perfectly to diamonds. The reason we perceive them to be valuable isn't because they're actually rare or special: It's because advertising has convinced us that they are. Diamonds have become a symbol of power, love and romance all over the world as a result of marketing in television, film, and ads paid for by De Beers throughout the years.

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"Songs like Marilyn Monroe singing 'Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,' you know, didn’t come out of thin air," Epstein told Freakonomics earlier this year.

5. Diamonds are forever

The marketing didn't end with Marilyn. "Diamonds Are Forever," one of the most famous advertising campaigns of all time, was created by Frances Gerety, a woman who dedicated her working life to De Beers. The New York Times reports that Gerety's "greatest professional achievement" was to help create emotional attachment to the diamond engagement ring.

A Freakonomics podcast titled "Diamonds are a marriage counselor's best friend" followed a Midwestern couple and their diamond-driven dilemma. The couple won a loose gem valued at $7,500 at a charity auction. That prompted an argument: He wanted to sell it and use the money for something else; she wanted to keep it for herself to wear. You can hear the entire podcast below.

Epstein believes that the woman's desire to keep the diamond is a perfect illustration of the cultural power that diamonds still have.

"Keeping the diamond is just being a prisoner of the illusion," Epstein said in the podcast.

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