Originally published in ICON Magazine

“It is a symbol of your commitment and maybe the most important gift you’ll ever buy. The ‘two months salary’ rule is not the only thing you need to know about a diamond engagement ring.”

In 1866 a young farm boy in South Africa found a shiny, attractive rock. A neighbor, van Niekerk, offered to buy it. However, the boy’s mother, embarrassed about selling a rock, simply gave it to him.

If she had only known. The rock turned out to be a 21.25 carat diamond later named Eureka. It’s now on display at the Open Mine Museum in Kimberly, South Africa. It’s worth: priceless.

The main reason for the mother’s naivete was that, up until that point, diamond ownership was essentially limited to nobility. And as long as the gems were being obtained only from alluvial deposits in streams, there would never be enough supply to warrant a mass demand.

That all changed after van Niekerk got his hands on this rock. Diamonds, he would quickly realize, were actually ubiquitous. He took up their search in earnest. Two years later, a shepherd gave van Niekerk a fine-quality 83.5 carat diamond in exchange for 500 sheep, 10 oxen, and a horse. That diamond would later be called the Star of South Africa and is considered the final ingredient that ignited diamond fever on the continent – and soon the world.

But the story of the diamond engagement ring certainly doesn’t end there. Its success has as much to do with marketing as it does romance. And contrary to popular belief, if we look at diamonds as a whole – gem diamonds, industrial grade diamonds, and bort – they are not rare. Good diamonds however — those that are natural, gem-quality, and cut from full term rough — are very rare indeed. Why do you think one should cost you two months salary? What exactly does that buy? And when, exactly, did that practice start?


In the 15th century Agnes Sorel, mistress of France’s Charles VII, became the first woman to wear diamonds in public. However, it was Mary of Burgundy, daughter of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, who was the first to receive a diamond engagement ring. The proposal came in the late 15th century from the future Holy Roman Emperor, Archduke Maximilian of Austria. (Proposal jewelry can be traced back to ancient Egypt around 2500 B.C.)

The chronicles report that Maximilian approached his prospective father-in-law for a blessing and assistance in the proposal. Charles the Bold, an avid diamond collector and patron of diamond cutters, elected a round diamond to symbolize a love without end. (A round diamond is still the most popular shape – round diamonds account for 2/3rds of all diamonds sold, and the most amazing fact of the popularity of the round shape is that all the other shapes combined — asscher, radiant, emerald, marquise, heart, pear, oval, cushion, standard radiant, et. al. — equal the remaining 1/3rd. No other shape even comes near the popularity of rounds!)

If Charles the Bold had collected rubies or sapphires with the same zeal he acquired diamonds, it is altogether possible they would be the rage today. Mary of Burgundy wore her new ring on the fourth finger of her left hand, an Egyptian belief that a special vein went from that finger straight to the heart.

From the 16th through the 18th centuries, the French spearheaded the European diamond market. Every estate could be recognized by its dress, and the notables never appeared without an ostentatious display.


In the late 19th century, as roving parties of prospectors set up mining operations in Africa, across the Atlantic Americans were just beginning to appreciate diamonds.

By 1888 Cecil Rhodes, creator of the Oxford University scholarships that bear his name, had gobbled up a number of small mines in Kimberly and De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd. (De Beers was taken from the name of the original owners of the mining area.) Shortly after its formation, De Beers signed contracts with a group of firms to purchase and market its diamonds. The syndicate, as it would later be called, now had the power to regulate the flow of diamonds to the open market and therefore control the world’s pricing structure.

At the time, De Beer’s customer base was still mostly royalty and the very wealthy. Ernest Oppenheimer saw an opportunity. By 1939 he had gone through the ranks at De Beers and was Cecil Rhodes’ successor. Oppenheimer scheduled a meeting with Gerald M. Lauck, president of N.W. Ayer Advertising Agency of New York the same year. Out of that meeting came a new game plan to change the elitist image of diamonds. It’s one of the greatest marketing stories of all time.

De Beers and Ayer started by putting diamonds in movies and on movie stars. Promotional pictures showed stars wearing famous diamonds and Ayer representatives worked with screenwriters to feature the association of diamonds and romance. Their collaboration was apparent in such movies as Skylark (1941) and That Uncertain Feeling (1941). They also worked together on The Pink Panther (1964). Ayer, surprisingly, had no hand in creating “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” the song from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) starring Marilyn Monroe.

Even today, fine jewelers use the movie industry to enhance the diamond’s allure: “Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpel, Tiffany, and Harry Winston all have movie stars wear their diamonds,” says Tony Guzman of the Academy of Motion Pictures Library. “People tend to imitate what they see in the movies.”

With ad campaigns such as “A diamond is forever” and “A one-carat diamond is one in a million,” De Beers instilled that a diamond would never lose its value and each was a one-of-a- kind creation from nature.

Through the decades, the ads have changed to fit the moods of the times, but the basic message of love has remained the same. The connection is so powerful that today, nearly 70 percent of all engaged women in the United States receive a diamond engagement ring. Back in 1920, however, less than 10 percent received them.

By the mid-1950s, America’s fascination with diamonds was well entrenched. De Beers repeated its success throughout the world but especially in Japan. In 1967 less than six percent of the Japanese gave diamond engagement rings, and by 1989 it was up to 77 percent.


The four Cs — carat weight, clarity, color and cut — are still the measuring stick that determines the fifth C: cost. Important note: If you just focus on one or two of the four Cs to the exclusion of the others, the diamond will probably not be good.

If you don’t know what she wants, it’s a good idea to look together first. However, if you choose to look on your own it is fair to say that the “right” stone has no inclusions or blemishes visible to the naked eye (clarity), no yellow in the diamond (color), and is well proportioned to get maximum brilliance and dispersion (cut). The “perfect diamond”, according to the Federal Trade Commission, is a D color (totally colorless), flawless (no inclusions or blemishes under 10x magnification), and properly proportioned and cut. Notice there is no mention of size.

Carat is the measure of weight, not size. The word carat is derived from carob, the bean of the Mediterranean that’s often used as a chocolate substitute. So uniform in weight, a carob was used by early gem traders as a standard measure for diamonds. (A single bean, or seed, of the carob tree is approximately equal in weight to a diamond of one carat.) In the early 20th century, the carat was standardized at 1/142 of an ounce, or 200 milligrams.

Size is only one criterion by which a diamond can be judged, yet in many instances it’s the only one used. “Americans are more size conscious than quality conscious,” says Neil Malhotra, long-standing member of the New York Diamond Dealers Club. “When they make their purchase, size is [usually] their only criteria.”

But, of course, the consumer can only purchase what is available. And fewer than 25 percent of all natural diamonds are gem quality. The advantage of shopping at Harry Winston or Cartier – and paying two to three times more than you could have paid elsewhere – is that quality is guaranteed. The average retailer’s prices are much better, but his inventory of good diamonds is smaller.

Wholesalers and diamond dealers will get you that diamond for an engagement ring at the lowest price. Diamond Dealers Row on 47th Street in New York City is the largest concentrated collection of wholesalers and dealers in the country. But beware: It is almost impossible to get the perfect ring without being an expert. (For help, see LMNOP below.)

There’s no magic to that two months’ salary rule of thumb – it’s just a marketing gimmick established by the diamond industry, a guideline launched by Ayer in 1981. (Most men do not spend that much.) Ayer modified the guideline in other countries. It is one month’s salary in Europe and three months’ salary in Japan.

A small, high-clarity, high-color diamond can often cost more than a large, low-clarity, low-color diamond. According to an April issue of the Rapaport Diamond Report, the average diamond sold in the United States is approximately three eights of a carat, has inclusions or imperfections you can see with the naked eye, is slightly tinted yellow, and sells for approximately $1599 at the average retailer. The color scale goes from D, being colorless, to Z, being yellow. For $22,000 you can get a one-carat, investment grade, internally flawless (F color, IF) diamond or a slightly yellow, included (J color, I-1), two-carat diamond. For $63,000, you can buy a diamond just under three carats (2.9), white, and slightly included (I color, SI-1) or a 1.25 carat, D color, internally flawless diamond. Of course, these figures fluctuate daily and price guides may differ.

The mounting or setting that holds a diamond engagement ring can be made in white gold, yellow gold, or platinum. The setting is broken down into two pieces – the head (the prongs that hold the diamond) and the shank (the base ring). Yellow prongs can make a colorless diamond appear more yellow, so white gold prongs or platinum prongs should be used. The shank color is a matter of personal preference.

It’s true that shrewd marketing strategies and misperceived rarity have increased the diamond’s appeal. But the ancient origin of its name – adamas, Greek for “the unconquerable,” reveals why the diamond remains a fitting, if optimistic, symbol of a strong marital bond. Today’s popularity of diamonds is not just marketing; diamonds are forever, and so too, is our need for enduring, meaningful, and beautiful symbols of our love.


LOOSE - Always look at loose, not mounted, diamonds.

MAGNIFY - Always look at the diamond through a jeweler’s loupe or microscope, which will reveal imperfections not seen by the naked eye.

NEGOTIATE - Most retailers dramatically increase prices. Never pay the sticker price unless you have shopped around and you know they are already giving you the wholesale price.

OPINION - Always insist that the final sale be contingent upon the opinion of an independent appraiser. If the appraiser agrees with the grade of the stone, you’ve done well. The sale will be final.

PLOT - Always have the diamond flaws plotted on a drawing of the stone. That way you will be able to identify your diamond by the location of its blemishes and inclusions.