Priceonomics

Earlier this year, we explained on this site why diamonds are bullshit

We did not use hyperbole.

Diamonds are neither rare nor valuable. Their perceived scarcity is the result of successful market manipulation by the De Beers diamond companies that have long maintained a near monopoly over the market. With the assistance of Madison Avenue in 1938, De Beers also orchestrated a marketing campaign that turned the common but far from universal custom of a man giving a woman a diamond engagement ring into a stressful social expectation and status symbol that equated the amount of money spent with the magnitude of love expressed. 

In the 1930s, De Beers was in trouble. New diamond mines led to a glut of supply and diamond sales were down. We credited its reversal of fortune to its marketing efforts that sold generations of men on the necessity of wasting money on a diamond ring. De Beers does as well. But we since became aware of another theory. 

According to legal scholar Margaret Brinig, diamonds became popular because women lost the ability to sue men who broke off engagements. Diamond rings were a substitute - an insurance policy against men who made marriage proposals only to sleep with women before calling it off. 

Breach of Promise

On November 23, 1915, a headline in The Washington Post read

She Sues Army Athlete: Girl Claims Lieutenant Merillat Jilted Her and Asks $20,000; Miss Van Ness, of Ohio, Says Officer Wed Another

West Point football star Louis Merillat was engaged to marry Ethel Wynne, the scion of a wealthy Chicago family. The jilted lover was Helen Van Ness, who claimed that she and Merillat were engaged. For a week, the news that Van Ness sought a “heart balm” of $20,000 for emotional distress made front-page news. She presented lawyers (and local papers) with a ring as evidence:

[indent] “And here I have a ring,” the girl said. “Here it is. His West Point ring. It’s just about the same as a college fraternity pin. It has the same significance as an engagement ring. It has my birthstone for a setting.”

Courts ultimately dismissed Helen Van Ness’s claims, but she appealed to a law with longtime precedence. Formally or informally, a promise to marry was considered a binding commitment in many parts of the world. The majority of states had breach of promise laws that considered engagements binding contracts and allowed women to sue men for breaking them. 

The logic was that women needed protection from Don Juans. Since engaged couples often had premarital sex, expectations of chastity until marriage meant that men who broke off engagements could leave women with greatly reduced prospects for marriage. Even as norms became more accepting, breach of promise laws protected women who became pregnant during an engagement or against an exchange of property, money spent on wedding preparations, loss of future income, or emotional loss. 

Beginning in 1935, however, states began repealing breach of promise laws. It became less relevant with changing mores - regarded as more of a means for blackmail and gold digging and a vestige of gender inequality. By 1945, sixteen states had eliminated the law.

A Diamond Insurance Plan

Margaret Brinig suspects that diamond rings grew in popularity because women still needed protection from the fallout of a failed engagement. An expensive diamond engagement ring from a fiancé served as a kind of insurance against him running away. An expensive signalling device showing that a man meant his word. 

The first piece of evidence Brinig lays out in a paper entitled “Rings and Promises” is timing. Diamond sales began to increase after years of decline in 1933-34, four years before De Beers’s began seeding Hollywood engagement scenes with diamond rings as part of its famed marketing campaign.

Brinig also performed a regression analysis that investigated the explanatory power of the end of the breach of promise laws in the United States compared to other factors like average income, the price chosen by De Beers, and the onset of the marketing campaign. Her results for the period from 1935-1960 conclude that the end of legal action best accounted for rising diamond sales. (You can check out her paper and the study here.) 

As much as we like citing people’s regression analyses with authority and explaining emotional behavior with cold economic logic, we’re still skeptical of Brinig’s argument. Expecting Americans to adjust to the repeal of these laws - whose increasingly rare use partly led to its repeal - to such an extent that sales dramatically rose in just a few years seems unlikely. And the decline of engagement rings in the sixties can’t be divorced from the desire for gender equity. 

De Beers’s marketing, however, played to the same fear that motivated the breach of promise laws - telling women that a man truly in love would spend gobs of money to prove it. And despite the end of the laws, whose premise is that women’s social standing, as well as their livelihood, depends on their husbands, the practice of giving diamond rings kept a strong vestige of gender inequality alive. 

Whichever explained the rise of diamonds to the level of a universal expectation, they’re still bullshit, and we eagerly await their demise.

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google Plus. To get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.



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