Tag Archives: The Atlantic

How De Beers Diamonds Won over the Japanese…and everyone else

Thanks to Kevin Kelly’s list of the 100 Best Magazine Articles Ever, I came across this 1982 Atlantic article, “Have You Ever Tried to Sell A Diamond?” by Edward Jay Epstein.

Most of the controversy today attached to De Beers seems to be its alleged financial role in propping up African strife. Hence the term, conflict, or “blood diamonds“. De Beers supported reforms for conflict-free diamonds, though that didn’t stop Leo DiCaprio’s “Blood Diamond” from being made.

But Epstein’s article was written in 1982, before much of the African conflict that led to diamond-for-arms selling, and so the ~10,000 word piece is all about De Beers’ unparalleled ability to drive consumer demand for diamonds, a scheme that – minus the death and suffering – is as unsettling as the idea of inadvertently propping up Third World conflicts.

During the “Blood Diamond” movie uproar, the NYT’s Donald McNeil Jr. wrote that “creating new markets is the genius of DeBeers. Getting African-American men to wear bling works for them as well as their 1950’s campaigns to get Japanese brides to demand solitaires.” The creation of the latter market makes up one of the most interesting sections in Epstein’s 1982 article, as he describes how De Beers turned post-war Japan into the second biggest market for diamonds.

Until 1959, Epstein writes, Japan hadn’t even allowed for diamonds to be legally imported. In 1967, when De Beer’s began its campaign, only 5 percent of Japanese brides received diamond rings. In 14 years, Epstein writes, that percentage rose to 60 percent.

Their strategy? Good ol’ Euro/Western-envy:

Until the mid-1960s, Japanese parents arranged marriages for their children through trusted intermediaries. The ceremony was consummated, according to Shinto law, by the bride and groom drinking rice wine from the same wooden bowl. There was no tradition of romance, courtship, seduction, or prenuptial love in Japan; and none that required the gift of a diamond engagement ring. Even the fact that millions of American soldiers had been assigned to military duty in Japan for a decade had not created any substantial Japanese interest in giving diamonds as a token of love.

J. Walter Thompson began its campaign by suggesting that diamonds were a visible sign of modern Western values. It created a series of color advertisements in Japanese magazines showing beautiful women displaying their diamond rings. All the women had Western facial features and wore European clothes. Moreover, the women in most of the advertisements were involved in some activity — such as bicycling, camping, yachting, ocean swimming, or mountain climbing — that defied Japanese traditions. 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 was clear: diamonds represent a sharp break with the Oriental past and a sign of entry into modern life.

I had always thought that diamonds were the pinnacle of a frivolous consumerism: it’s a rock. And not even that practical when compared to other fashion accessories. But I would’ve chalked my attitude up to being a cheap bastard who, if I had the money, would blow it all on a fancy diamond just to show everyone that hey, I really do love my fiancee, and here’s the giant, extremely valuable ring to prove it.

But, according to Epstein, diamonds weren’t even all that rare or precious. From the time De Beers became big, to when Epstein’s article was written, the company has had to devise some amazing marketing campaigns to assure buyers that diamonds would always be valuable. The most well-known of these initiatives was the “Diamonds are forever” campaign, named by AdAge has the best slogan of the century and still used today.

As Epstein wryly notes, “diamonds can in fact be shattered, chipped, discolored, or incinerated to ash” but the mantra, besides affirming the permanence of the rock (and by association, the relationship in which it was given), pushed the idea that diamonds should not be resold.

And so anyone who tried to resell their diamonds, Epstein wrote, would find that in some cases, they would’ve gotten a better return on investment by stuffing money under their mattresses. In one notable experiment, a magazine bought £400 worth of diamonds. Nine years later, the highest price those diamonds fetched, when adjusting for inflation, was £167…a nearly 60% drop in value.

The magazine tried the experiment again, with a larger gem and in a one-year period. The gem’s resale value dropped 25 percent. When they tried reselling an even more expensive gem, purchased one week earlier, their loss was 62 percent (again, to repeat, in one week).

Even stealing diamonds was a terrible scheme; in one case, a thief got only $200 for diamonds insured at $50,000.

So with millions of carats entering the market each year, and with very few of existing diamonds being sold or destroyed, how did De Beers keep the price up? Just brilliant marketing. For older married women who needed to be reminded how much they were loved, there was the “eternity ring,” encrusted with as many as 25 small diamonds. Why small diamonds? Because De Beers needed to handle the influx of the smaller rocks coming from the Soviet Union, according to Epstein. The unintended consequence of De Beers convincing women that size didn’t matter was, amusingly enough, a setback to sales of large diamonds.

At the time Epstein’s article was published, De Beers was reportedly scrambling to buy up the world’s supply with diamonds as more sources were being found. Epstein concluded that the company and its “diamond invention” might “disintegrate and be remembered only as a historical curiosity.”

Clearly, since 1982 when Epstein published, this hasn’t happened. Despite being hit hard by the global recession, De Beers recently posted a 74 percent increase in year-to-year sales, with net earnings of $255 million (this graphic purports to show a relatively stable price for diamonds). The supply seems to be as strong as when Epstein wrote, with De Beers predicting that they’ll produce 40 million carats next year.

If we lowball the world’s annual output of diamonds at about 100 million carats per year, that means ~3 billion carats of diamonds have been produced since Epstein wrote, entering a marketing ecosystem in which it is taboo to destroy or resell diamonds. And, judging by the most cursory of Google searches, those old diamonds aren’t getting any more valuable.

I’ve only summed up a small part of Epstein’s article. It only gets better; read the entirety of it here. Also, The Atlantic’s Stuart Reid, in 2006, mentioned Epstein’s piece in a roundup of other Atlantic articles about diamonds and the trouble they’ve caused in Africa.

Visit Epstein’s homepage to read the book version of The Atlantic’s piece.

Fries and Flavor

For your Friday reading pleasure, a 2001 Atlantic article (adapted from his “Fast Food Nation“) by Eric Schossler on Why McDonald’s Fries Taste So Good:

The taste of a french fry is largely determined by the cooking oil. For decades McDonald’s cooked its french fries in a mixture of about seven percent cottonseed oil and 93 percent beef tallow. The mixture gave the fries their unique flavor — and more saturated beef fat per ounce than a McDonald’s hamburger.

In 1990, amid a barrage of criticism over the amount of cholesterol in its fries, McDonald’s switched to pure vegetable oil. This presented the company with a challenge: how to make fries that subtly taste like beef without cooking them in beef tallow. A look at the ingredients in McDonald’s french fries suggests how the problem was solved. Toward the end of the list is a seemingly innocuous yet oddly mysterious phrase: “natural flavor.” That ingredient helps to explain not only why the fries taste so good but also why most fast food — indeed, most of the food Americans eat today — tastes the way it does.

Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker apparently wrote about the same subject area in 2001, concentrating more on McDonald’s attempts to make healthier versions of its food (remember the McLean? (sub-parenthetical thought: there’s far fewer Googlable articles about the McLean than I thought there would be, given its notoriety))

My favorite part of Schossler’s article is his exploration of the flavor chemical industry, by which one drop of something like methyl-2-pyridyl ketone can make a jelly-bean taste like popcorn.

Some excerpts:

A nose can detect aromas present in quantities of a few parts per trillion — an amount equivalent to about 0.000000000003 percent…The quality that people seek most of all in a food — flavor — is usually present in a quantity too infinitesimal to be measured in traditional culinary terms such as ounces or teaspoons. The chemical that provides the dominant flavor of bell pepper can be tasted in amounts as low as 0.02 parts per billion; one drop is sufficient to add flavor to five average-size swimming pools. The flavor additive usually comes next to last in a processed food’s list of ingredients and often costs less than its packaging. Soft drinks contain a larger proportion of flavor additives than most products. The flavor in a twelve-ounce can of Coke costs about half a cent.

How to make something taste like a strawberry:

A typical artificial strawberry flavor, like the kind found in a Burger King strawberry milk shake, contains the following ingredients: amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate, anethol, anisyl formate, benzyl acetate, benzyl isobutyrate, butyric acid, cinnamyl isobutyrate, cinnamyl valerate, cognac essential oil, diacetyl, dipropyl ketone, ethyl acetate, ethyl amyl ketone, ethyl butyrate, ethyl cinnamate, ethyl heptanoate, ethyl heptylate, ethyl lactate, ethyl methylphenylglycidate, ethyl nitrate, ethyl propionate, ethyl valerate, heliotropin, hydroxyphenyl-2-butanone (10 percent solution in alcohol), a-ionone, isobutyl anthranilate, isobutyl butyrate, lemon essential oil, maltol, 4-methylacetophenone, methyl anthranilate, methyl benzoate, methyl cinnamate, methyl heptine carbonate, methyl naphthyl ketone, methyl salicylate, mint essential oil, neroli essential oil, nerolin, neryl isobutyrate, orris butter, phenethyl alcohol, rose, rum ether, g-undecalactone, vanillin, and solvent.

The difference between natural and artificial flavors:

A natural flavor is not necessarily more healthful or purer than an artificial one. When almond flavor — benzaldehyde — is derived from natural sources, such as peach and apricot pits, it contains traces of hydrogen cyanide, a deadly poison. Benzaldehyde derived by mixing oil of clove and amyl acetate does not contain any cyanide. Nevertheless, it is legally considered an artificial flavor and sells at a much lower price. Natural and artificial flavors are now manufactured at the same chemical plants, places that few people would associate with Mother Nature.

Also, there’s a bit about how food-coloring is about as important as flavor to how humans perceive taste:

Food coloring serves many of the same decorative purposes as lipstick, eye shadow, mascara — and is often made from the same pigments. Titanium dioxide, for example, has proved to be an especially versatile mineral. It gives many processed candies, frostings, and icings their bright white color; it is a common ingredient in women’s cosmetics; and it is the pigment used in many white oil paints and house paints. At Burger King, Wendy’s, and McDonald’s coloring agents have been added to many of the soft drinks, salad dressings, cookies, condiments, chicken dishes, and sandwich buns…

Flavor researchers sometimes use colored lights to modify the influence of visual cues during taste tests. During one experiment in the early 1970s people were served an oddly tinted meal of steak and french fries that appeared normal beneath colored lights. Everyone thought the meal tasted fine until the lighting was changed. Once it became apparent that the steak was actually blue and the fries were green, some people became ill.


Grainger had brought a dozen small glass bottles from the lab. After he opened each bottle, I dipped a fragrance-testing filter into it — a long white strip of paper designed to absorb aroma chemicals without producing off notes. Before placing each strip of paper in front of my nose, I closed my eyes. Then I inhaled deeply, and one food after another was conjured from the glass bottles. I smelled fresh cherries, black olives, sautéed onions, and shrimp. Grainger’s most remarkable creation took me by surprise. After closing my eyes, I suddenly smelled a grilled hamburger. The aroma was uncanny, almost miraculous — as if someone in the room were flipping burgers on a hot grill. But when I opened my eyes, I saw just a narrow strip of white paper and a flavorist with a grin.

Speaking of flavor, one of the more interesting angles I got out of the New York Times recent investigation into the food industry’s efforts to combat salt limits is how integral that compound is to making many foods taste good, from cookies to coffee. The industry argues that with less salt, they’d need better ingredients to keep a food’s flavor. Good reading if you have even more time to read about food today:

Even as it was moving from one line of defense to another, the processed food industry’s own dependence on salt deepened, interviews with company scientists show. Beyond its own taste, salt also masks bitter flavors and counters a side effect of processed food production called “warmed-over flavor,” which, the scientists said, can make meat taste like “cardboard” or “damp dog hair.”

…As a demonstration, Kellogg prepared some of its biggest sellers with most of the salt removed. The Cheez-It fell apart in surprising ways. The golden yellow hue faded. The crackers became sticky when chewed, and the mash packed onto the teeth. The taste was not merely bland but medicinal.

“I really get the bitter on that,” the company’s spokeswoman, J. Adaire Putnam, said with a wince as she watched Mr. Kepplinger struggle to swallow.

They moved on to Corn Flakes. Without salt the cereal tasted metallic. The Eggo waffles evoked stale straw. The butter flavor in the Keebler Light Buttery Crackers, which have no actual butter, simply disappeared.

Bon Appetit!

Hat-tip to Longform.org; if you haven’t bookmarked this Instapaper-friendly site, do it. It’s made my gratuitous purchase of an iPad almost worth it.