Are diamonds still a girl’s best friend?
What is it about diamonds that are so captivating? And why do women still covet them so much? Bright, brilliant, sparkling diamonds have inspired us for generations; their rarity, value, the way they delicately reflect light, while being the hardest of any bulk material. And, of course, there is their association with romantic love, which has seeped into our culture and popular conscience.
Their pervasive influence is undeniable, yet for all their arcane, fabulous wonder, strangely, they are often laced with a sense of sadness, disillusion or danger. The curse of the world-famous Koh-i-Noor diamond that can be found in a fourteenth century Hindu text is a sentiment that often accompanies the idea of the diamond: “He who owns this diamond will own the world, but will also know all its misfortunes.”
In novels, protagonists usually have a voracious appetite for the stones which lead to danger or disappointment; they become prey to an obsession not just confined to women. King Solomon’s Mines, H. Rider Haggard’s popular adventure story written at the height of the British Empire, was written with boys very much in mind: “I can safely say that there is not a petticoat in the whole history,” Haggard boasts of the storyline.
The book features the intrepid adventurer, Allan Quatermain, as he follows a map drawn in blood to find King Solomon’s legendary diamond mines in Africa, a journey beset with danger. By the time the diamonds are finally discovered, the explorers are clearly drunk on their obsession: “At that moment there was something so ridiculous to my mind in the idea of eating and drinking diamonds, that I began to laugh outrageously, an example which the other followed, without knowing why. There we stood and shrieked with laughter over the gems that were ours.”
F Scott Fitzgerald too, uses diamonds in several works to evoke the feeling of rapacious, destructive wealth and greed, such as in his novella The Diamond as big as the Ritz, and refers to one woman in The Great Gatsby as an “angry diamond”.
In songs diamonds awe, but also unsettle us. Rihanna’s recent song Diamonds, after which she has named her ongoing global tour, is, like so many of her other hits, a mournful song about damaging relationships. In the video, a tearful, emotional Rihanna rolls a joint filled with cascades of tiny diamonds, plumes of smoke rising around her as she smokes it. Fans and critics alike have been quick to assume she is singing about her troubled on-off love affair with the notorious Chris Brown.
Rihanna echoes another unforgettable, iconic song, Diamonds are Forever, sung by Shirley Bassey; her sumptuously rich vocals comparing diamonds with the disappointments of love: Diamonds are forever / They are all I need to please me / They can stimulate and tease me / They won’t leave in the night / I’ve no fear that they might desert me.
Even Marilyn Monroe’s more upbeat, Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend, with Monroe clad in a bright pink ballgown and evening gloves, comes with an aching sense of decay and disillusion: “Men grow cold / As girls grow old / And we all lose our charms in the end / But square-cut or pear-shaped / These rocks don’t lose their shape / Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”
Both songs are assertions of female independence; women choosing reliable diamonds over unreliable men. There’s something ironic and not a little unsettling that while we so commonly associate diamonds with longevity, commitment and purity; the greatest virtues of true love, they have also come to symbolise the fragility and temporal nature of romantic relationships; the idea that they will always pale in comparison to the almost glaring perfection of diamonds.
Elizabeth Taylor’s love affair with jewels was legendary, almost as legendary as her seven marriages. Many men bought her fabulous diamonds, yet none could guarantee her everlasting happiness. Even she understood the underlying message of the cruel diamond, recognising in their shine her own frail immortality in comparison to the brilliance of her beloved jewellery. She wrote sadly in her book Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair with Jewellery: “I’m here to take care of it and to love it, for we are only temporary custodians of beauty.”
Earlier this week, the diamond and sapphire engagement ring given by Napoleon to his beloved Joséphine, sold for more than $948,000 (730,000 Euros) at French auction house, Osenat. It is a simple diamond and sapphire ring, and an Osenat expert, Jean-Christophe Chataignier, commented on it: “At the time Napoleon was a young and promising officer, but he was not rich. He must have broken his wallet to buy this quality ring,” Yet even behind this story, there is sadness. Despite their mutual devotion, Napoleon divorced Joséphine in 1810, when it became apparent she could not give him an heir. Napoleon went on to marry Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria, for whom he commissioned the famous Napoleon Diamond Necklace.
So at last our love affair with diamonds may be waning. The demand for engagement rings featuring gemstones, rather than diamonds, is something that many high-end jewellery retailers have experienced in recent years, with customers preferring more unique gemstones. Jewellery designer Theo Fennell told me that his workshop was making more bespoke rings featuring coloured gemstones than ever: “They can often say much more about the wearer than a big diamond ever can. I think diamond rings have become so common and are so easily graded that, even if couples are still having diamond rings made, they are looking for much more individual settings.”
Graff Diamonds also confirmed a trend for important coloured gemstones in their high end jewellery pieces. Both Graff and Holts commented that some gemstones are actually far rarer that diamonds. Holts chief executive Jason Holt told me: “We are seeing a pattern of the discerning customer preferring the rarity and beauty factor over the more traditional and safer choice of diamonds. There have been instances in the past where customers have come to us with their hearts set upon purchasing a diamond ring, only to change their minds after being confronted with the vast beauty, variety and rarity of coloured gems.”
Michael Wainwright, the managing director of Boodles, concurs: “Diamond engagement rings are still as popular as ever. However, there has recently been a renaissance in sapphires and rubies in the UK (though strangely not emeralds) which will certainly have been impacted by the ‘Kate Middleton effect’.”
Still, for some, nothing will compare to the sparkling brilliance of a diamond. Yet for all their dazzling beauty and their association with enduring love, it is quite extraordinary how, through popular culture, they have become tinged with a haunting sense of dangerous obsession, loss and mortality.