Not My Best Friend
A Contribution to the Survey of Overrated Items
by Mama Redcloud
Diamonds. The hardest substance on earth, a thing of rare beauty, a symbol of love, and a girl's best friend. How can such a thing be over-rated?
Diamonds can be very useful, for drill bits, burglar tools, or writing poems on the windows in case you are imprisoned in the Tower of London. They are also used in targeting devices for smart bombs and cruise missiles. But these are all rather specialized uses. Many of us could go through life without encountering any of them.
The form in which most of us are likely to encounter diamonds is in the engagement ring. Now, this happens to be a hot button of mine. Those who know me know that, like Pavlov's dogs, I can be counted on to respond predictably to certain stimuli. One of them is that De Beers commercial, you know, "How else can two months' salary last forever?" At this point I invariably begin to sputter, "Two months' salary? That's real money! What's he gonna do, take out a loan?"
The tradition, if you want to call it that, of the diamond engagement ring was originated in the 1920s by an advertising agency hired by, you guessed it, De Beers. De Beers, incidentally, is not a company that sells diamonds. It is THE company that has a monopoly on virtually all of the diamonds in the world. Buying a diamond from De Beers is like buying oil from OPEC. De Beers is the descendant of the company formed by Cecil Rhodes, the Rhodes Scholarship (q.v.) guy. His career started with deceit and trickery, and went on to dictatorship, by way of exploitation, racism, and imperialism. It's not just in romantic fiction that the history of diamonds is a history of blood. And if you think that is all safely in the past, go to your favorite Web browser and type "conflict diamonds." Be warned, though – don't do it if you don't like looking at pictures of people whose hands have been chopped off with machetes.
Anyway, De Beers had a problem. The cachet of diamonds was based on the fact that they were very rare. But in the late 19th century, enormous diamond deposits were discovered in southern Africa. How to keep up the price of something that was no longer all that rare? The traditional czars, emperors and so on could buy up only a small fraction of the supply.
Enter the ad agency. They had the brilliant (get it?) idea of creating a demand for diamonds outside the traditional diamond-owning classes by convincing impressionable young people that a diamond ring was an essential part of the courtship ritual. So pure, so beautiful, so indestructible – a perfect symbol for your love. (And you thought you thought of that all by yourself. Now don't you feel like a chump?)
For something so chaste and respectable, diamonds seem to keep a lot of bad company. There's Diamond Lil, the original "come up and see me some time" gal, from the play of the same name by Mae West. (Her re-creation of the character on film helped bring in the Motion Picture Production Code.) There's Diamond Jim Brady, railroad tycoon and famous eater. In addition to vast quantities of consumables, this looney spent his dough on such durable goods as a dozen gold-plated bicycles. And let's not forget Legs Diamond, racketeer and patron of the Hotsy Totsy Club.
The beauty of diamonds is, in the immortal words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a meretricious beauty-- flashy, vulgar, valued for being valued rather than for any intrinsic worth-- the essence of over-rated.
Remember "The Necklace," that story by Guy de Maupassant? Of course you do. You read it in high school French class, just like I did. If you're young enough, you may have read it in English in middle school, around the same time you read "The Ransom of Red Chief."
Anyway, you remember the story. An annoying, whiny woman gets invited to a posh affair and feels that she simply cannot go without some diamonds, so she borrows a necklace from a rich friend. At the big shindig "She danced madly, ecstatically, drunk with pleasure, with no thought for anything, in the triumph of her beauty, in the pride of her success, in a cloud of happiness made up of this universal homage and admiration, of the desires she had aroused, of the completeness of a victory so dear to her feminine heart." (Really, Guy!) But she loses the necklace and… well, I won't tell you what happens next, except that the kidnappers try to return the kid and… she sold her hair to buy him a… well, let's just say that she comes to a bad end, and winds up having to do dishes and stuff. Quel horreur!
If you want to "glitter and be gay"-- and who doesn't, from time to time-- go for sequins, rhinestones, mylar, mirrors, Christmas tree lights, or even de Maupassant's "paste." (I don't think of paste as particularly sparkly, except for glitter glue, but maybe he wasn't thinking of the kind we used to eat in elementary school.) Something happy and sparkly and untouched by evil. Forget Cecil Rhodes, forget De Beers, forget the gangsters and the gold-diggers and the machetes. Don't become an incitement to crime, or a party to it. Save the two month's salary for something you really want, like food and shelter, or a really cool vacation. Who cares whether your sparklers are "real"? Make your own reality, and get out there and glitter for all you are worth.
I am embarrassed to admit, after this prolonged rant, that I actually own some, not to put too fine a point upon it, diamonds. When my grandmother died, she left me a ring containing some small You Know What. (She once tried to give me her diamond engagement ring, but I had to decline. I love you, Grandma, but not that way.) I don't hold Grandma's diamonds against her. Jewels and furs were her generation's 401(k) plan. When she had money, she bought over-rated items, knowing she could always sell or pawn them when times got hard. If she had just put the money aside, in the mattress or in the bank, it would be too easy to get it out and spend it. And in those days before FDIC, the money might have been safer in the jewelry box, or in the hock shop, than in the bank.
So, kids, when the time comes for you to pop the question to your sweetie, don't go to De Beers. Come to me, Mama "Legs" Redcloud, and we can do some business. No questions asked, but you will have to do the dishes.