It's diamonds, darling

Local anthropologist mines the meanings behind the sparkle

WE'VE ALL heard plenty about diamonds: They're romantic, they're forever, they're a girl's best friend.

They’re also everywhere: Every day thousands of hopeful suitors plunk down two months’ salary for one to present their beloveds. Pop stars croon about them. No Best Actress nominee would be seen on the red carpet without a few of of Harry Winston’s draped around her neck.

But what makes these little chunks of compressed carbon so special, and what drives our cultural obsession with them?

It's diamonds, darling
SCAD's Dr. Susan Falls examines our attachment to sparkly things in her new book. Photo by Jon Waits/@jwaitsphotos

SCAD anthropology professor Dr. Susan Falls has spent the past decade researching these most precious stones and parsing their value. But along with exploring their economic and anecdotal worth in her book, Clarity, Cut and Culture: The Many Meanings of Diamonds, Falls also examines diamonds through the lens of semiotics, the study of meaning.

“This is a book about a lot of things, and one of them is how things have meaning. What meaning is, how it is acquired, how it is established,” says the North Carolina native, who is scheduled to speak at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home Sunday, Oct. 5.

“I had been thinking about meaning and how it operates for a long time, which brought me to the study of semiotics. I wanted to focus on it with a regard to material culture.”

She had felt fairly ambivalent towards gems in general, but it turned out that diamonds were the perfect example to show how we create value and identity through particular objects.

“There’s not a lot of external variation, it’s carbon. It’s not like shoes, where you have high heels, boots, all of kinds of different manifestations,” explains Falls.

“Still, there are ways that their value and meaning may be motivated by the form that it takes.”

Before she could glean their significance, however, she had to study those forms. Falls began her research on New York’s City’s Diamond Row, the busy block of Forty-Seventh Street near Fifth Avenue where gems are traded on the Diamond Dealers Club Exchange and legions of jewelers and gem cutters broker deals in shops. So much volume moves through this spot that it’s not uncommon to find an errant gem stuck in the cracks of the sidewalk.

Diamond Row is also where Falls earned a basic certification from the Gemological Institute of America on how to grade a diamond using the all-important 4 C’s: Carat, cut, color and clarity. The experience gave her a greater appreciation for the variations in particular stones that aren’t evident to the naked eye.

“When you look at diamond magnified through a loupe, the difference between a well-cut stone and one that’s not becomes apparent, or one that’s clear compared to one that has a bunch of junk in it,” she says.

Many diamond consumers know about the 4 C’s (it’s sometimes accompanied by a fifth, “certification,” as in the kind the GIA bestows) but in her interviews Falls found that few could actually discern them.

“Most people can’t tell by looking what’s good quality, what’s poor quality, even the difference between a good simulated stone and a real diamond, yet they still have very strong preferences about what they want to have,” she observes, adding that the way value is assigned depends on the individual.

“For some people, the actual object can dematerialize in a sense, it just acts the storybook. For other people, it really is the stone itself.”

Falls tracks the history of diamonds, gathered in rivers and streams as early as 400 BCE. While they were supernaturally hard and useful as tools, rough diamonds were difficult to cut and not particularly pretty, looking more like greasy bits of gravel than the perfectly-sheared gems we recognize. They gained popularity in Europe as ornaments in the 1400s, and Brazil enjoyed a brisk market in the 1700s. By the time entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes founded De Beers Consolidated Mines in South Africa in 1888, diamonds were big business.

“When De Beers was established, diamonds had already become something associated with women, in rituals of romance,” notes Falls.

“What De Beers was really good at was capitalizing on these cultural meanings. Not only did they capture the consumer market that way, they owned the site of production and streamlined the way diamonds were distributed. Very masterful, really.”

De Beers took it to the next level with their 20th-century American marketing campaign “A Diamond is Forever,” perhaps the most iconic advertising tagline in the history of humanity. Falls devotes a large chunk of Clarity, Cut and Culture to this enduring phrase, which has had tremendous influence on our cultural perceptions.

There are also the countercultural perceptions: The phenomenon of diamonds as bling is examined as a way to rebel against the marketing narrative of middle class, heterosexual suburbia. At some point in the 1980s, diamonds became signs of the urban, oppositional and/or masculine, especially when touted by a rapper or placed somewhere unexpected, like someone’s front tooth.

“Is it a display of wealth, is it a critique of wealth? It’s very provocative,” muses Falls. “Part of its power is what happens when we see diamonds in a surprising context.”

Even more surprising is the documentation of the market for diamonds made from the compressed bones of cremated loved ones.

“It’s just carbon, why not?” she grins.

Touching on the subject of blood diamonds and the efforts to keep unethically-sourced stones out of the exchange, Falls reports that the industry has not suffered a marked decrease in public perception.

“The diamond industry has a vested interest in keeping it to a minimum because they know the market might be affected. If not for moral reasons, then for economic interest, they at least have to give the appearance of regulating the black market.”

Ultimately, Clarity, Cut and Culture exposes the mythology of diamonds and their value as human conceit.

“We put the meaning on them. They’re much more than a mirror than anything,” she says. “We see that how we ascribe meaning to anything is constructed.”

As for attaching her own meaning to diamonds, Falls remains equivocal: Other than one she inherited from her grandmother, she doesn’t wear any regularly. In fact, she eschewed a diamond ring when she became engaged to her husband, musician and Deep director Dare Dukes.

“I was so embroiled in my research back then that it made it hard to think about,” she laughs. “I still don’t know how I feel about them.”