THE SYMBOLIC STONE: UA SOCIOLOGISTS STUDY WHY AMERICANS COVET DEADLY AND DAZZLING DIAMONDS

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - Researchers at the University of Arkansas say women who received diamonds this Valentine’s Day may have gotten more - and less - than what they bargained for. In a study examining the social value of this coveted stone, UA sociologists declare that a diamond’s worth has become largely symbolic. They also assert that cultural symbolism hardly justifies the political and personal atrocities committed by portions of the diamond industry.

A man in the United States may shell out two months’ salary for a diamond engagement ring, but in some parts of the world, diamonds cost a great deal more. In Sierra Leone, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, people daily lose hands, arms, their children or their own lives - victims of civil wars driven by the diamond trade.

"Today’s soon-to-be brides may be surprisingly unaware that the diamonds they slip on their fingers may have cost a farmer, his wife or child their own finger at the hands of rebel soldiers. While these conflict diamonds only account for five percent of the global diamond trade, it’s very possible that the diamonds we buy in our jewelry stores are the result of a brutal mutilation," the UA researchers write.

Because the United States accounts for more than 80 percent of diamond consumption worldwide, UA sociologists Lori Holyfield, Anna Zajicek and Denise Huggins and graduate student Leslie Bracy set out to study why Americans value and desire these gemstones, even in light of the gems’ potentially bloody origin. What they found was a mix of blissful ignorance, deeply entrenched symbolism, and culturally constructed fantasies that showed little relation to the material value of the stone.

The researchers presented their initial findings this month in Tempe, Arizona, at the Couch-Stone Symposium - the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction. Because the study encompasses multiple lines of research, Holyfield and her colleagues will continue to collect data and conduct analyses over the next several years.

They began their project by surveying more than 250 male and female undergraduate students. The surveys asked respondents a number of questions, including what diamonds meant to them and what they felt diamonds represented in American culture.

Students were also asked to complete the statement, "A conflict diamond is .." Results from the initial study revealed a lack of awareness among consumers and the need for more education on this topic.

With these questionnaires in hand, the researchers next completed an analysis of diamond advertisements dating from 1892 to the present day. According to Holyfield, the researchers focused on the DeBeers Corporation because the company long monopolized the diamond industry and currently controls about 60 percent of diamond production worldwide.

The researchers found a strong correlation between survey responses and the messages portrayed through DeBeers advertisements. Perhaps most famous for its 1940s slogan, "A diamond is forever," DeBeers has consistently attempted to associate diamonds with concepts of commitment and love while simultaneously promoting status, seduction and sexual objectification.

This dichotomy is reflected in the different perceptions men and women hold about diamonds, Holyfield said. Surveys showed that female students overwhelmingly equated diamonds with romance and love, while male students considered diamonds symbols of social status, strength, prestige and wealth.

"But everyone agreed that diamonds were a necessary component of getting engaged," Holyfield said. "Advertisers have socially constructed this notion of diamonds as an obligatory symbol that men must produce to signify their commitment to a woman."

It’s a notion further promoted by the $56 billion jewelry industry, she added. During a field research excursion among local jewelry shops, one jeweler commented, "If you don’t get her a diamond, she won’t say yes." The comment illustrates how layer upon layer of social influence has bestowed qualities, values and meanings on diamonds that have no basis in the gems’ material composition or worth.

In fact, even the material worth of diamonds amounts to a socially constructed myth, Holyfield said. Diamond producers like DeBeers promote rarity as a justification for the gems’ exorbitant price. In reality, these corporations create a false sense of rarity by closely controlling the number of diamonds on the market at any given time. More than 328,000 carats are mined daily around the world, and more than 870 million diamonds are produced each year, the UA researchers report. In light of such steady production, some experts have estimated the actual cost of diamonds at no more than $30 per carat.

"One of the reasons DeBeers can prolong this myth of rarity and the reason rebel soldiers can continue committing atrocities is because consumers cannot or will not connect their consumption with the commodity’s origin," Holyfield said.

"The actual, material value of a diamond is so much less than what we pay in the jewelry store and so much less than the value of another person’s life or livelihood," she continued. "If all we’re doing is exchanging a socially-constructed symbol, maybe it’s time we find one less deadly."

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