Friday, April 18, 2008

Book review: The Heartless Stone

I have a diamond ring. It belonged to my grandfather; he gave it to me while I was in high school. It doesn't mean a lot to me. Don't get me wrong -- I was grateful to receive it. At just under a carat, it's an expensive item, an extravagant gift for a high school student (although one my grandfather could easily afford). I appreciate that. But otherwise, to me it's just a pretty, shiny stone. It's quite beautiful -- once every couple of years I remember I have it and take it outside to move it around and watch it wink and sparkle in the sunshine -- but it has no symbolic meaning to me.

And I've never really been able to understand why this should be otherwise. The idea that a shiny rock can have some deeper meaning than its own beauty or its commercial value has always puzzled me.

Which brings us to The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit and Desire by Tom Zoellner. In an earlier discussion of the morals of capitalism, I reached this conclusion:

OK, I think I'm getting it now. You can make any claim you want to sell a product, no matter how absurd, as long as it's vague, non-specific and not fact-based, and still be an honest capitalist. A lie to sell a product must be fact-based in order to make you a criminal.

Diamonds are the quintessence of this idea. Diamond engagement rings are a $4.5 billion business in the USA. Diamonds are symbols of eternal love; many people find the idea of getting married without one unthinkable. Why? The answer is simple: marketing.

As Zoellner tells the story in The Heartless Stone, in the 1930s, diamonds were considered nothing more than "foppish extravagances," "trinkets for the rich." Indeed, "In the public's mind, diamond rings were still associated with aristocrats and stuffed shirts and gangsters... certainly nothing that a young working family would want to buy."

In 1938, diamond cartel DeBeers and its advertising agency set out to change this. They succeeded wildly, through a series of simple claims. Their advertising implied that diamonds are rare, that they symbolize love, that they are symbols of a man's progress in life, that no engagement is proper without a diamond ring, and especially, that all of these ideas are deeply traditional. None of these things were true (at least not until DeBeers started telling people they were) -- in any context but capitalism, they would be called "lies" -- but America believed them, and still believes them, to the tune of billions of dollars per year.

Besides deconstructing the symbolism of diamonds, Zoellner also talks to miners, smugglers, strongmen, and war victims in Africa, child diamond polishers in India (ain't capitalism grand?), more miners in Brazil, Australia, and the Canadian Arctic, scientists and businessmen trying to synthesize gem-quality diamonds, and an engaged American couple, and even gets inside DeBeers headquarters. According to the book cover, he visits 14 countries on six continents.

Through it all, Zoellner weaves his personal diamond story, his difficulties separating himself from the ring his fiancée gave back to him when they called off their wedding. Ironically, despite his deconstruction of the symbolism of diamonds, Zoellner found himself emotionally ensnared in that same symbolism.

The result is an enlightening and entertaining education in the symbols and substance of diamonds.

1 comment:

  1. It's on my list now, Kuri. Thanks for writing such a good review.


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