Much Ado about Diamonds

Invincible, indestructible, proper, and untamed, diamonds also known as “adamas” have been associated with strength, wealth, power and love. Some cultures believed it bestowed on their warriors the power of invincibility hence, they wore it to battle.

The slightly distorted octahedral shape is known particularly for its durability and lustre, as well as its use in jewellery making, such as rings or necklaces. Its spectacle appealed to many and slowly the transparent crystal was ingrained in marriage. Believed to represent the circle of life (sun, moon, the bond between couples and all in between), the concept of engagement ring was born. A symbol of an eternal journey, yet to begin.

As a betrothal gift, engagement rings are exchanged,though women are often at the receiving end. It is a tradition that dates back to Egypt. Previously made of reeds and hemp, engagement rings transcended to metal, brass, gold and eventually diamond studded rings came along and knocked the competition face down.

The hardest natural mineral substance on earth was synonymous to the rich due to its presumed rarity and cost. However, the discovery of diamonds in South Africa in 1867 didn’t help much in terms of price, though it made the precious stone more available in the market.

The DeBeers Mining Company’s 1948 campaign tagged “diamonds are forever” saw people spend as much as 3 months salary on the purchase of a diamond studded ring for an engagement.

Over the last century, there has been a dramatic shift in the process of marriage in most developing countries. These changes are largely attributed to pronounced worldwide socio-cultural transformations and the contemporary Africa that is known for her adoption of foreign cultures and has bought into the idea of using a “brilliant cut” diamond ring for marriage proposal.

For Africans, the ring symbolizes an engagement that has taken place. More trendy is when the ring comes with diamonds embellished on it (a better reason to flaunt the ring on social media handles).

“Why the fuss?”

Diamonds originate from around 25 countries which are mostly from Africa (Botswana, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Angola, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Central Africa Republic, Congo and Namibia among others). An estimated 47% of the world’s diamonds are sourced in African countries and together, they consistently have been producing over one million carats per year.

Although diamonds are mined in Africa, they are however exported for refining, and the continent ends up purchasing the polished product. The diamond trade contributes approximately $7.6 billion per year to Africa.

According to 2017 Jewellery & Engagement Study Statistics, average engagement ring-spend amounts to $6,351, the average time spent looking for ring is between 3-3.5 months. Meanwhile the average time spent planning a proposal takes about 4.5 months with 26 average number of rings looked at before purchase.

Latest data from a continental perspective showed that Asian countries accounted for the highest dollar worth of imported diamonds, with purchases valued at $66.4 billion or 56.5% of the global total. In second place is North America at 21.2% while 18.9% of worldwide diamond imports were delivered to European countries. Much smaller percentages were delivered to Africa (2.7%), Oceania (0.4%) and Latin America excluding Mexico and the Caribbean (0.1%).

With all the fuss of buying and receiving a diamond engagement ring, only 2.7% of polished diamonds are delivered to the continent. Are they really putting money where their mouth is or are they barely making noise? If they are, then why go through the hassle when the African culture does not demand diamond rings for engagement?

Engagements in African countries

Today, the diamond engagement ring has become a tradition and is regarded as an essential part of the process of getting married, though this is was not the initial ‘African symbol’ of engagement. Now, lets revisit what it use to be.

Previously, engagements in Africa were mostly arranged. Here, the parents of the groom find a suitable and ‘homely’ bride for their son (vice -versa). If the families agree to the  arrangement, then the engagement begins.

Symbols of engagement differ according to culture. In Northern Kenya, ornate beadings are worn around the men’s neck, with certain colors to indicate engagement.

In Ghana, mainly among Ewe communities the bridegroom’s maternal and paternal aunts send the bride’s father a pot of palm wine, which is essentially a message asking if their nephew can have the daughter’s hand in marriage.

Traditional rites are to be carried out in Malawi for a man and a woman to be considered engaged. In some tribes, live chickens are exchanged. The man’s family presents a cock to the girl’s family, while the girl’s family in turn presents a hen.

When a potential bride is found in Rwanda, the family of the groom-to-be goes ‘Gusaba’ (a verb meaning to ask). If the proposal is accepted drinks are exchanged signifying engagement.

For an Egyptian engagement, the groom-to-be gives his bride-to-be money known as Mahr. This money is used to buy jewellery called Shabka and furniture. Afterwards, henna tattoos are applied on the bride’s feet and hands in preparation for her wedding.

In some West African cultures, libation ceremonies are carried out to signify engagement. Alcohol (which is thought to connect the living world with the spiritual) is poured onto the ground towards each of the cardinal directions. Kolanut sharing is also a symbol of engagement in some other cultures (especially in Nigeria and Senegal).

To signify interest in a lady, an engagement ceremony referred to as “Kwanjula” in the Buganda culture of Uganda is carried out. The intending groom is required to write a letter to the lady’s family in fluent Luganda (one of the official languages in Uganda).

Diamonds and Investment

Regarded for its ability to reflect light in an extremely dazzling way, diamonds are a beauty to behold and even more a treasure to possess. This however, does not justify the outrageous price it goes for.

diamond uncut

In 1999, diamonds purchased just after mining, cost around $7.3 billion and are sold to jewellers for almost double the price at $14 billion. The circle then continues as jewellers once again double the cost of the diamonds by adding almost $14 billion to the production cost, bringing the cost to $28 billion that leaves the retail margin at a 100%; meaning consumers pay as much as $56 million for the diamonds.

Convincingly, people argue that diamonds are bought as an investment. However, the  question is ‘do diamonds really make good investments?’

An investigation carried out by Edward Jay Epstein to determine a diamond’s value as investment revealed that unless a person is a certified diamond seller, one would not be able to sell a diamond ring for more than the price it was bought for. Reason being that with diamonds, one buys at retail price and sell at wholesale price; that is if there is a possibility for sales.

Up until 1800’s diamonds were considered rare, but this notion became a thing of the past when prospectors in South Africa discovered a large crater in the city of Kimberley containing a treasure trove of diamonds.

Although the process of extracting diamonds are arduous because mines move many tons of dirt per carat of diamond found, and gem-quality diamonds are relatively few (only about 1 in 1 million diamonds are quality one carat stones, only 1 in 5 million are 2-carat and 1 in 15 million are 3-carat), diamond itself is not rare in the economic sense because its supply exceeds demand.

However, because of the stereotype that diamonds are special and the fuss attached to the carat of the diamond, people believe that diamonds are rare, when indeed they are not.