Thursday, June 10, 2010

Diamonds and Pearls

(A Courier article)

I've been talking a little bit about values – about how we value the world and the many wonderful things in it – and about how to understand what theologians call 'idolatry', which is simply what happens when we get our priorities wrong. I want this week to talk about some of the pressures that lead us to get our values muddled, and to do that I want to share talk about diamonds.

Everybody knows that diamonds are a girl's best friend. Everybody also knows that they are a girl's best friend because they are incredibly valuable, and can be counted on to remain committed to the girl even if the boy ups and leaves. Why, though, are diamonds valuable? After all, they are basically just a stone, a rock, something that is dug up from the ground. Yes, when they are cut and polished they can look very pretty, but why should that make them valuable? Yes, they are extremely hard, and therefore useful in industrial processes (and industrial processes can now manufacture diamonds at will), but why should that make them valuable? Most of all, why are diamonds seen as more valuable than rubies and emeralds and sapphires – all at least as beautiful, and in fact much rarer.

The simple answer is: Advertising. In 1947 an advertising agency working for De Beers (who used to control over 80% of the diamond market – imagine Murdoch controlling not just Sky and the Times but BBC, ITV, the Daily Mirror and even our humble Courier and you get an idea of how dominant De Beers was) came up with a new advertising slogan, “A Diamond is Forever”, and began to associate the purchase of diamonds with the idea of eternal love. All the talk about 'how to make one month's salary last a lifetime' and how to show the seriousness of your love for your fiancee – all this was created for marketing purposes. After all, why should the giving of a clear lump of carbon symbolise love? Why couldn't it be rubies (red for the heart)? Or something else completely different, like the keys to a house, or a portrait, or a meal?

My point here is simply that the cultural significance of diamonds is something that was created, and created not all that long ago. Yes, there is some intrinsic value to a diamond, but not much, and certainly not as much as our culture gives. In other words, I see diamonds as a perfect example of the way in which our values can be distorted by wordly pressures. We as individuals value diamonds because our culture as a whole has accepted the advertising slogans about diamonds. It's all an illusion.

Of course, it isn't just with diamonds that we go along with peer pressure and value what other people value. It applies to what we eat and how we dress, how we travel and how we entertain ourselves. We do it with most of our choices, and doing so actually makes life easier and more convenient for everyone. Imagine what it would be like if there were no shared values! There wouldn't be much of a community left. Yet alongside the positive 'social glue' there is the danger that who we are, who we are meant to be, gets squashed by the majority.

For in the end, if we simply go along with the crowd, we stand to lose all that is most essential in our own lives. We gain the world, but lose our own soul. When Jesus talks about this, he uses the language of 'living in the Kingdom'. He said “the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great price, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13.45) In other words, rather than simply going with the flow, and accepting the values that the wider society have given to us, finding heaven involves finding the one thing that needs to be given a higher value than anything else in our lives. Once we have that in place – and we can give up everything else in order to get it – then we get everything else as well, in its proper place. We see the world clearly, and we have our lives in proportion.

I believe that our present way of life has rather too much of diamonds, and not enough of pearls. We have accepted certain things as having a very high value – such as economic growth and technological progress – but we have ended up giving them too much value. As a result, we are destroying the ecological basis for our existence, and losing our humanity in the process. We need to recover a proper sense of priorities, and remember what it means to be human.


  1. I'm quite interested in the manipulation of human values through advertising etc. I'm especially interested in how workplaces are organized and why. Did you ever see the Centuary of the Self documentaries ?

    There're up on youtube/google video if you missed them :
    Clicky .

    I don't agree with a lot of it but it's worth looking at.

  2. Nice. I like the point you're making. However, were diamonds really just another gemstone prior to the 1940's? This has made me curious about diamonds and their historical symbolism. I note (as a random example that springs to mind) that we have the suit of diamonds in standard playing cards but not say rubies or sapphire. According to the Wiki article, this goes back to the 15thC.

  3. "....In other words, I see diamonds as a perfect example of the way in which our values can be distorted by wordly pressures. We as individuals value diamonds because our culture as a whole has accepted the advertising slogans about diamonds. It's all an illusion."

    I believe that your understanding of economics is deficient. An object like a diamond, a glass of water, or an automobile does not possess intrinsic economic value. Its value is assigned by the human mind. An object is only valuable because some individual believes that the object can help satisfy his personal desires.

    A perfect example would be a painting that was attributed to Rubens being deemed to be painted by one of his 'lesser' students. In an instant, the market value drops by 95% even though the painting is exactly the same as it was before. The price did not fall because anything changed with the painting. It fell because collectors prefer Rubens to his students.

    How about the later paintings of Giorgio De Chirico, which are valued at much lower levels because he is accused of self-forgery. Poor Giorgio decided to paint in his older style because collectors preferred it to what he did later. Yet, those paintings, are considered worth less because they are 'forgeries,' even though they are by the same artist and look as good or better than the previous works.

    Suppose I have a beautiful flower in my garden that can cure breast cancer but nobody knows of its healing properties. If I try to sell the flower I would not get a huge sum that it would fetch for its medicinal value. No, I would get a price that reflects its value as a part of a cut flower arrangement.

    We also have to keep in mind that when we make a decision about the value of one object against another we are looking at those objects only, not the entire class that the object belongs to. It is because of this fact that a diamond, which is only desired because of its beauty, is more valuable than a glass of water even though the water is essential for life. A particular diamond that we look at is valued because it is scarce. A bottle of water is not very valuable because it is plentiful. As such we pay a lot more for the diamond than we do for a bottle of water. Of course, if we were thirsty and in a desert we would gladly exchange a diamond for a glass of water.

    The bottom line is fairly simple. Value is subjective.

    And I ask you to reconsider the advertising creates value line of thinking. No matter how much Columbia Pictures spent promoting the movie it could not make Ishtar a hit because the advertising could not convince people to see the movie. The same is true of diamonds. Their value does not come from the advertising but because people have decided that diamonds are of value to them.

  4. This article claims that the manipulation of scarcity began in the 19thC.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.