Monday, February 13, 2006
Diamonds were never Omofolabo Ajayi's best friend.
The Nigerian-born professor grew up with a profound distaste for the gems, which were common status symbols in her country.
"I thought the way people used them was just obscene," says Ajayi, who teaches women's studies and theater at KU. "When I learned that diamonds were mined in South Africa, and South Africa was an apartheid country, it jut put me off the more."
Why then, at age 26, did Ajayi accept a diamond ring as an engagement gift?
"It seemed to be the thing to do," explains the 55-year-old professor. "I was just too overwhelmed with all the preparation for the wedding. If I had really thought about it, I would have realized that by accepting it, I was supporting the apartheid system that I was against."
Ajayi doesn't want to sound ungrateful - after all, it was a "nice gift" that she still values sentimentally. But perhaps she would have done things differently if she had a second chance.
"I said, 'OK, it's just for the ceremony.' And I never wore it," Ajayi says. "I could have explained my situation and he would have agreed. We would have found something else. I just wasn't doing enough analysis."
Diamonds have been the gem of choice for newlyweds - at least for the last 75 years. Part of America's fascination with the cut stone can be attributed to its seductive interaction with light. Just as much, however, can likely be attributed to a genius marketing campaign by the infamous De Beers company.
Diamonds, after all, have only been "forever" since the 1940s. Shortly after the depression ended, De Beers' covertly disguised marketing firm unveiled the famous slogan and hooked up Hollywood starlets with big rocks. Inspired by its success in the American market, De Beers later created the "tradition" of diamond engagement rings in Japan.
Today, the company claims that 83 percent of American brides receive a diamond engagement ring. The diamond has become so pervasive that many would-be brides would be disappointed by anything else.
"I'm sure (giving something besides a diamond) exists out there somewhere, but not in my realm," says Stephanie Pearson, a 24-year-old KU law student who recently received a diamond engagement ring. "It's something we look forward to and expect. I think all women do."
Pearson attributes her expectations to being immersed in fairy-tale notions of marriage since she first walked down the toy aisle at Wal-Mart. As she got older, she explains, some of that disappeared - but not the part about the diamond ring.
"I've had probably 20 of my girlfriends get married in the last three years and I can't remember any that didn't have a diamond," she says. "It means more sentimentally then we let on."
The inquisitive consumer, however, may discover that purchasing a diamond comes with a plethora of moral implications.
Kanye West's Grammy-winning hip-hop track "Diamonds from Sierra Leone" is bringing the notion of "conflict diamonds" - which come from countries that where the diamond trade leads to violence against its citizens - back into the national spotlight.
Though it's thousands of miles away
Sierra Leone connected to what we go through today
Over here, it's a drug trade, we die from drugs
Over there, they die from what we buy from drugs
The song, as well as an upcoming movie titled "The Blood Diamond" that stars Leonardo DiCaprio, have diamond companies scurrying once again to defend and legitimize their trade. Though the majority of the industry is currently monitored by the UN-sanctioned Kimberly Process, questions remain about smuggling and the effectiveness of such regulations.
For Marta Buechler, a KU junior and a member of Lawrence's Solidarity collective, the absence of an apartheid system in South Africa offers no assurance that the diamond trade has shaped up its act.
"Even if I had money, I would not buy a diamond because of what I've heard about the conditions of the workers in those mines," Buechler says. "There has to be some kind of coercion involved, whether someone can't afford to say 'no' to a job like that or it's the equivalent of slavery."
Representatives from The Kimberly Process assert that the number of conflict diamonds has dwindled exponentially in recent years. Instead, they urge consumers to remember that diamonds represent the main source of legitimate revenue for many African countries.
If humanitarian concerns aren't enough to turn away consumers, the monopolistic structure of the diamond industry may also serve as a deterrent.
KU economics professor Gautam Bhattacharya says that De Beers' stake in the diamond industry - though dwindling - is still "as close to a monopoly as one can think of." The company's price-fixing efforts have resulted in a number of anti-trust violations, he says.
"De Beers, since it controls the diamond supply, makes sure that the price remains high by selling small parts of it," Bhattacharya explains. "Monopolies have a very strong incentive not to sell too much because the more they sell the more they create potential competitors. That's why booksellers change the edition so frequently."
Bhattacharya says that De Beers' overzealous labor practices, though shrewd, wouldn't affect his decision to purchase a diamond.
"Microsoft has done bad things, but we still use Windows everyday," he says. "Legal problems are not criminal. They are violations of laws, but not criminal laws like stealing or cheating."
Gem of an idea
Lovebirds looking for alternatives to the diamond status quo have plenty of alternatives.
Lawrence caterer Tina Stamos, 35, recently received a ruby engagement ring from her fiance, Lawrence artist John Stamos.
Rubies - which are typically much more affordable than diamonds - were the gem of choice in pre-diamond America and are still the most popular marriage stone in countries like India and Italy.
"It's exactly what I would have picked out," Stamos says. "It was more meaningful, not only because I liked the stone but because it's also his birthstone."
Stamos says that she was adamantly opposed to receiving a diamond ring because she views the diamond industry as something built on "genius marketing."
"They're supposedly some of the most precious and valuable things, but they're really not - there's tons of them," Stamos says. "I think that traditions should work for you and you shouldn't just do something because you're supposed to do it."
Recently engaged Lawrence couple Lowen Sapp and Chris Millspaugh picked out wooden wedding bands from a Canadian company called Touch Wood, which promises an "eco-friendly" alternative to diamond rings.
Sapp says she was initially concerned about the lifespan of the rings, but decided the risk was worth taking.
"We just decided that we wouldn't mind if they broke because it'd be an opportunity to get new rings," she says. "That way our rings could evolve along with our marriage."
Some of the most affordable and meaningful rings are family heirlooms such as the diamond ring set that Fatso's manager Gavin Smith recently gave his wife Melissa. Recovered from a safety deposit box in Texas, the rings were given to Smith's great grandmother in 1911.
"It was a way for my family to show Melissa that she was becoming part of the family," Smith says. "She adores it. They don't make jewelry like that anymore."
The gift did come with one drawback, however.
"She's made me buy other pieces of jewelry," Smith says. "I think to make up for it."
Consumers sold on the promise of a diamond must navigate through a marketplace that's more complicated than ever.
"Buying a diamond is just as bad as buying a car," says Greg Bender, owner of Lawrence's Kaw Valley Supply. "After you sign the paperwork, you just have that sinking feeling like, 'I know I just got hosed.'"
Bender should know - he's bought three of them. The recently engaged 36-year-old Air National Guard serviceman purchased two diamond rings during his first marriage (one was an "upgrade" ring) and recently shopped online for a $7,500 rock.
Bender says that he avoided retail stores this time around because he believes they mark up prices too high.
"A decent quality one-carat diamond is going to run about $5,000 on the wholesale side and about $7,000 if you go to a store," Bender says. "If you go and shop retail, you're basically pushed towards whatever they happen to have in their inventory."
Bender says that he saved "at least" $3,000 by purchasing his ring from a Houston-based online wholesaler - partly because he didn't have to pay sales tax. He says that online research is a must for any discerning diamond buyer.
"With the internet, I think most people could either scare themselves silly or learn enough to go into a retail store and really look at a diamond and say, 'Yeah, you're not telling me the whole story - this thing's a piece of crap,'" Bender says.
Synthetic diamonds have also hit shelves in the last two decades, further crowding an alternative marketplace that also includes Cubic Zirconia and Moissanite.
According to local jeweler Peter Zacharias, consumers are often confused by the plethora of diamond alternatives and modifications.
"In the last 20 years, the jewelry business in America has changed into disposable jewelry: Wal-Mart-type stuff which is essentially industrial diamonds sold as gems," says Zacharias, who owns Goldmaker's on Mass. St.
"The U.S. has no standards on gem stones," Zacharias adds. "It's the only industrialized country that doesn't, and that's because of lobbying by the mass merchandisers."
These chain stores often sell impure diamonds that contain "fracture filling" plastic or glass injections, Zacharias says. Even worse, consumers are rarely informed of these modifications.
"Ten years ago we could take in repairs without any questions," he says. "Now, every pair that comes in has to be checked under the microscope for fracture filling, excessive flaws or not being set properly ... It's almost a daily occurrence and we get a lot of irate people because of it."
Small retailers like Goldmakers retain their competitiveness by educating potential buyers about the ins-and-outs of diamonds - carat, clarity, color, cut, crown, etc.
"They've never managed to make a synthetic diamond that's better than tinted yellow," Zacharias says. "Anyone who takes a few minutes to look into it and has the opportunity to look at stuff under a microscope cannot be fooled."