Japan and diamond engagement rings

Fascinating 25-year old article in The Atlantic on the modern history of De Beers and the diamond engagement ring. The bit about Japan’s postwar manufactured love affair with diamond rings reminds me of the mania surrounding luxury brands today.

Until 1959, the importation of diamonds had not even been permitted by the postwar Japanese government. When the [De Beers advertising] campaign began, in 1967, not quite 5 percent of engaged Japanese women received a diamond engagement ring. By 1972, the proportion had risen to 27 percent. By 1978, half of all Japanese women who were married wore a diamond; by 1981, some 60 percent of Japanese brides wore diamonds. In a mere fourteen years, the 1,500-year Japanese tradition had been radically revised. Diamonds became a staple of the Japanese marriage. Japan became the second largest market, after the United States, for the sale of diamond engagement rings.

After reading this, I fear the power of advertising.
Have You Ever Tried To Sell A Diamond? – 82.02
I’ll put the entire Japan section in “more”

THE campaign to internationalize the diamond invention began in earnest in the mid-1960s. The prime targets were Japan, Germany, and Brazil. Since N. W. Ayer was primarily an American advertising agency, De Beers brought in the J. Walter Thompson agency, which had especially strong advertising subsidiaries in the target countries, to place most of its international advertising. Within ten years, De Beers succeeded beyond even its most optimistic expectations, creating a billion-dollar-a-year diamond market in Japan, where matrimonial custom had survived feudal revolutions, world wars, industrialization, and even the American occupation.
Until the mid-1960s, Japanese parents arranged marriages for their children through trusted intermediaries. The ceremony was consummated, according to Shinto law, by the bride and groom drinking rice wine from the same wooden bowl. There was no tradition of romance, courtship, seduction, or prenuptial love in Japan; and none that required the gift of a diamond engagement ring. Even the fact that millions of American soldiers had been assigned to military duty in Japan for a decade had not created any substantial Japanese interest in giving diamonds as a token of love.
J. Walter Thompson began its campaign by suggesting that diamonds were a visible sign of modern Western values. It created a series of color advertisements in Japanese magazines showing beautiful women displaying their diamond rings. All the women had Western facial features and wore European clothes. Moreover, the women in most of the advertisements were involved in some activity — such as bicycling, camping, yachting, ocean swimming, or mountain climbing — that defied Japanese traditions. In the background, there usually stood a Japanese man, also attired in fashionable European clothes. In addition, almost all of the automobiles, sporting equipment, and other artifacts in the picture were conspicuous foreign imports. The message was clear: diamonds represent a sharp break with the Oriental past and a sign of entry into modern life.
The campaign was remarkably successful. Until 1959, the importation of diamonds had not even been permitted by the postwar Japanese government. When the campaign began, in 1967, not quite 5 percent of engaged Japanese women received a diamond engagement ring. By 1972, the proportion had risen to 27 percent. By 1978, half of all Japanese women who were married wore a diamond; by 1981, some 60 percent of Japanese brides wore diamonds. In a mere fourteen years, the 1,500-year Japanese tradition had been radically revised. Diamonds became a staple of the Japanese marriage. Japan became the second largest market, after the United States, for the sale of diamond engagement rings.

5 comments on “Japan and diamond engagement rings
  1. Anil says:

    I first found out about that story in the comments of my post on diamonds and it struck me as one of the most amazing marketing triumphs I’ve seen. Part of me wonders whether marketing companies will be able to pull off this sort of scam in the future or even the present, since consumers have much better access to product information now.

  2. Christian Gates says:

    The whole diamond industry is a scam, everyone knows it and everyone still buys diamonds.
    Diamonds are fairly common, shiny rocks. Good lord!
    They’ve brilliantly created an entitlement mentality among women, poorly educated and elite, such that there is an expectation, while simultaneously suckering men into believing in the same entitlement. Amazing.
    I’m surprised that DeBeers was able to do this in Japan, actually, given Japan’s rich history of ritual and ceremony.
    cdg

  3. This is pretty amazing. My girlfriend and I have been talking abou marriage and have been trying to work out a reasonable schedule that takes into account such things as current and future visa status, finding a decent venue for he party and so forth.
    I have to admit that I have been considering buying a ring soon so that she would be surprised (we probably won’t get married until 2006).
    In spite of the fact that it seemed rationally absurd to spend a significant amount of cash on a functionless accesory, I guess I never seriously thought about foregoing the tradition.
    We’ll save the money and take a longer or more interesting trip somewhere.
    -s

  4. Shannon:
    Uh huh. Have you cleared that theory with your intended?
    Because I was fully aware of what a cheesy scam diamonds are, and like you I have a lot of skepticism about functionless objects.
    But when push came to shove, the way to my bride’s heart was through a diamond.
    Think what you like about misplaced priorities and the fact that to this day, we drive a car worth less than that diamond (because I’m really cheap, and because the car works fine). But in all other ways my lovely wife is a woman of surpassing qualities, making the desire for overpriced carbon a minor issue at best.

  5. Johanna says:

    “The way to my bride’s heart”…. ???? Uh-oh, better start budgeting for the one-year anniversary pendant, the five-year earrings, the ten-year anniversary ring, etc. Otherwise, she might not love you anymore.
    The DeBeers “Seize the Day” campaign makes me puke. So little progress…
    http://www.adiamondisforever.com/hot/asadvertised.html