How An Ad Campaign Invented the Diamond Engagement Ring

In 1938, amid the ravages of the Great Depression and rumblings of war, Harry Oppenheimer, the son of the De Beers diamond mining company founder, recruited the New York-based ad agency N. W. Ayer to polish the image of diamonds in the United States, where the practice of giving diamond engagement rings hadn’t really gained much traction. Meanwhile, the price of diamonds was falling around the world. The folks at Ayer set out to persuade young men in America that diamonds — and only diamonds — were synonymous with romance, and that the measure of a man’s love was directly in proportion to the size and quality of the diamond he purchased. Young women had to be convinced that courtship concluded with a diamond ring. Ayer made sure that movie idols were given diamonds to use as symbols of their indestructible love. The agency also offered stories and society photographs to certain magazines and newspapers that would reinforce the link between romance and diamonds. Ayer’s plan worked. From 1939 to 1979, De Beers wholesale diamond sales in the United States increased from $23 million to $2.1 billion. Over those four decades, the company’s ad budget also soared from $200,000 to $10 million a year. De Beers is still a major player in the diamond industry, though it’s not as dominant as it once was. Nevertheless, the great tag line “A Diamond Is Forever” is still one that sends men running to the jewelry store.