Hair and diamonds

In Love Entwined, Sheumaker discussed the nineteenth century practice of exchanging hairwork engagement rings (gifts private and intimate in nature) followed by gold wedding bands (a public expression of a legal union). I wondered if marketing campaigns by De Beers had helped kill hairwork, initially a somewhat silly thought* but then I decided it was worth googling the timeline.

The U.S. market was “flooded” with diamonds in the 1870s, after the opening of South African diamond mines. This was the height of hairwork’s popularity; Sheumaker details a decline during the final years of the nineteenth century, and a sort of zombified hairwork market shambled into the 1920s. De Beers experienced a sales slump starting in 1919; in the 1930s, it started seriously marketing diamond rings; in 1947, it asserted that “A Diamond Is Forever”; by 1965, 80% of American women had diamond engagement rings. But it wasn’t just a case of marketing campaigns driving consumer behavior. Sales of diamond rings started trending upward in advance of De Beers’s marketing. In the 1930s, jilted fiancées were no longer able to recover monetary damages in court. A diamond engagement ring offered a financial guarantee of the groom’s intentions, or at least compensation for a damaged reputation.

I was not surprised to learn that De Beers did not kill hairwork (though I was rather pleased that a marketing juggernaut was not the sole factor influencing social behavior). But I like the way the decidedly unsentimental engagement ring calculus fits in after the hairwork arc Sheumaker describes: the small-scale production of a highly personalized product, adaptable to a certain degree of professionalization and commodification, but ultimately unsuited to a market gearing toward large-scale automated production.


* Not least because Sheumaker, having devoted significant research time and verbiage to the rise and decline of hairwork—including analysis of advertisements in a variety of publications—did not touch on the impact of gemstones.

This involved slightly more than thirty seconds of research: hitting a couple sources used by Wikipedians. For additional amusement, note the link to a Wikipedia article in one of the sources cited on Wikipedia. Doesn’t make it useless; just a reminder to pay attention.

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