Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Diamond Intervention Chapter 0

In Japan, the matrimonial custom had survived feudal revolutions, world wars, industrialization and even the American occupation. Up until the mid-196os, Japanese parents arranged proper marriages for their children through trusted 'intermediaries. The ceremony was then consummated, according to Shinto law, by the bride and groom both drinking rice wine from the same wooden bowl. This simple arrangement had persisted for more than a millennium. There was no tradition for romance, courtship, seduction and prenuptial love in Japan; and no tradition that required the gift of a diamond engagement ring.
Then, in 1967, halfway around the world, a South African diamond company decided to change the Japanese courtship ritual. It retained J. Walter Thompson, the largest advertising agency in the world, to embark on a campaign to popularize diamond engagement rings in Japan. It was not an easy task. Even the quartering of millions of American soldiers in Japan for a decade had not resulted in any substantial Japanese interest in giving diamonds as a token of love.
The advertising agency began its campaign by subtly suggesting that diamonds were a visible sign of modern Western values. It created a series of color advertisements in Japanese magazines showing very beautiful women displaying their diamond rings. The women all had Western facial features and wore European clothes. Moreover, in most of the advertisements, the women were involved in some activity that defied Japanese traditions, such as bicycling, camping, yachting, ocean-swimming and mountain-climbing. 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 in these ads was clear: diamonds represent a sharp break with the Oriental past and an entry point 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 1968, less than 5 percent of Japanese women getting married 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 on their ring finger. And, by 1981, some 6o percent of Japanese brides wore diamonds. In a mere thirteen years, the fifteen-hundred-year Japanese tradition was radically revised. Diamonds became a staple of the Japanese marriage. And Japan became, after the United States, the second largest market for the sale of diamond engagement rings. It was all part of the diamond invention.
The diamond invention was an ingenious scheme for sustaining the value of diamonds in an uncertain world. To begin with, it involved gaining control over the production of all the important diamond mines in the world. Next, a system was devised for allocating this controlled supply of gems to a select number of diamond cutters who all agreed to abide by certain rules intended to assure that the quantity of finished diamonds available at any given time never exceeded the public's demand for them. Finally, a set of subtle, but effective, incentives were devised for regulating the behavior of all the people who served and ultimately profited from the system.
The invention had a wide array of diverse parts: these included a huge stockpile of uncut diamonds in a vault in London; a billion-dollar cash hoard deposited in banks in Europe; and private intelligence network operating out of Antwerp, Tel Aviv, Johannesburg and London; a global network of advertising agencies, brokers and distributors; corporate fronts in Africa for concealing massive diamond purchases; and private treaties with nations establishing quotas for annual production.
The invention is far more than merely a monopoly for fixing diamond prices; it is a mechanism for converting tiny crystals of carbon into universally recognized tokens of power and romance. For it to ultimately succeed, it must endow these stones with the sort of sentiment that would inhibit the public from ever reselling them onto the market. The illusion thus had to be inculcated into the mass mind that diamonds were forever-- "forever" in the sense that they could never be resold.
The invention itself was a relatively recent development in the history of the diamond trade. Up until the late nineteenth century, diamonds were a genuinely rare stone. They were found only in a few river beds in India and the jungles Brazil. The entire world production of gem diamonds amounted to only a few pounds a year.
In 1870, however, there was a radical change in this situation. Huge diamond "pipes" were discovered near the Orange River in South Africa.
These were the first diamond mines ever discovered. Now, rather than finding by chance an occasional diamond in a river, diamonds could now be scooped out of these mines by huge steam shovels. Suddenly, the market was deluged a growing flood of diamonds. The British financiers who had organized the South African mines quickly came to realize that their investment was endangered: diamonds had little intrinsic value, and their price depended almost entirely on their scarcity. They feared that when new mines developed in South Africa, diamonds would become at best only a semi-precious gem.
As it turned out, financial acumen proved the mother of invention. The major investors in the diamond mines realized that they had no alternative but to merge their interests into a single entity that would be powerful enough to control the mines' production and, in every other way that was necessary, perpetuate the scarcity and illusion of diamonds. The instrument that they created for this purpose was called De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd., a company incorporated in South Africa.
As De Beers penetrated and took control of all aspects of the world diamond trade, it also assumed many protean forms. In London, it operated under the innocuous name of the Diamond Trading Company. In Israel, it was known under the all-embracing mantle of "the syndicate." In Antwerp, it was just called the CSO-- initials referring to the Central Selling Organization (which was an arm of the Diamond Trading Company). And in Black Africa, it disguised its South African origins under subsidiaries with such names as the Diamond Development Corporation or Mining Services, Inc. At its height, it not only either directly owned or controlled all the diamond mines in southern Africa, it also owned diamond trading companies in England, Portugal, Israel, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland. It was De Beers of course that organized the Japanese campaign as part of its worldwide promotion of diamonds.
By 1981, De Beers had proved to be the most successful cartel arrangement in the annals of modern commerce. For more than a half century, while other commodities, such as gold, silver, copper, rubber and grains, fluctuated wildly in response to economic conditions, diamonds continued to advance upward in price each year. Indeed, the mechanism of the diamond invention seemed so superbly in control of prices-and unassailable-that even speculators began buying diamonds as a guard against the vagaries of inflation and recession. Like the romantic subjects of the advertising campaigns, they also assumed diamonds would increase in value forever.
My interest in the diamond invention was sparked originally by a chance meeting that I had with an English diamond broker in St. Tropez in the summer of 1977. The .broker was Benjamin Bonas, and he represented De Beers' Diamond Trading Company. He was visiting some friends of mine for the weekend, and during the course of a leisurely lunch the subject of diamonds was broached. Bonas explained that despite revolutions, hostile governments and general turmoil in Africa, De Beers still firmly controlled the production of diamonds. He pointed out that this arrangement had proved so successful that even the Soviet Union sold the diamonds from its Siberian mines to De Beers. He did not elaborate at this point on the actual mechanisms used De Beers to lock up the flow of diamonds from diverse quarters of the world. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the idea that a South African company, aided and abetted Black African and Communist nations who were pledged a total embargo of South African business, had succeeded putting together a truly global alliance to protect the value and illusion of diamonds. As the former Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique got their full independence, the pressures throughout Africa, and most of the world, to isolate South Africa would drastically escalate. How would the diamond cartel survive?
In Washington, later that year, I filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for all the investigations of the Justice Department concerning the diamond Cartel. The resulting archive of documents provided a fragmentary picture of De Beers' conflicts and near collision with antitrust laws of the United States, the clues all pointed to mining companies in South Africa and the distribution arm in London. I therefore began my inquiry into the nature and future of the diamond invention in Johannesburg.

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