Moriah Robinson knew exactly what kind of engagement ring she wanted: a silver double halo with a diamond at the center. She was 20; her boyfriend was 21. Technically, they’d gone to high school together, but they didn’t really meet until after graduation, when they both went to college in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Their real, official meet-cute happened at a dance, which Moriah had attended as someone else’s date. Two years later, they were talking about marriage. The traditional ring would make everything feel official.
“I went into the store, and I hated it on my finger,” Moriah remembers. “It was this gorgeous diamond ring that I had seen all over the place, and it was so stunning, but I was like, ‘Well, crap.’”
That night, she combed through Pinterest and Google, looking at pictures of “unique engagement rings.” There, she came across morganite, the light pink stone she’d eventually receive. Morganite is a variety of beryl, a clear mineral that forms in hexagonal crystals. Its other varieties include emerald (green beryl) and aquamarine (light blue beryl).
Morganite can range from pale pink to coral. It was discovered in Madagascar in 1910 by George F. Kunz, the chief gemologist at Tiffany & Co. and the personal gemologist of banker J.P. Morgan. Morgan was an avid gem collector; Kunz named the new pink stone in his honor. Today, morganite is available from sellers on Etsy and from midmarket jewelers like Kay and Zales. According to a 2017 engagement ring survey by the Knot, it’s the second most popular non-diamond stone, after sapphire.
On a dollar-per-carat basis, morganites are much less expensive than diamonds. A single carat costs about $300, compared to $2,000 or more for a diamond. In 2002, Ben Affleck proposed to Jennifer Lopez with a 6.1-carat pink diamond ring that reportedly cost $2.5 million. The same size ring, in morganite, is on sale for about $1,799 on Etsy. At this price, even a budget-conscious couple can afford to make a show on social media if they want.
Moriah found her ring on SamNSue, a web-based jeweler that sells morganite, moissanite, aquamarine, and sapphire engagement rings, in addition to regular diamonds. She was drawn to a simple, traditional setting to offset the nontraditional pink stone. When she showed the ring idea to her boyfriend, he was worried it wouldn’t be durable enough. (Morganite is slightly softer than diamond.) The rest of her family was skeptical too. “My parents were like, ‘I think it’s a horrible idea,’” Moriah said. “They definitely all had to kind of be talked out of the idea of a diamond. Society kind of says that diamonds are the way to go.”
Who says an engagement ring needs to have a diamond?
Though diamonds may be naturally occurring, their precious image is entirely man-made. Back in 1888, when diamond mines were so prolific that diamonds were actually declining in price, diamond mining interests banded together and formed De Beers Consolidated Mines, a cartel to control the gem’s supply and reputation. At the height of this arrangement, in the 20th century, De Beers controlled most of the world’s diamond supply and kept prices high by keeping supply low. Not only did it succeed in rationing the stone, but they it enshrined the diamond’s reputation as prized.
As Edward Jay Epstein wrote in 1982, in his incredible profile of the diamond cartel, “The diamond invention is far more than a monopoly for fixing diamond prices; it is a mechanism for converting tiny crystals of carbon into universally recognized tokens of wealth, power, and romance.”
In 1938, De Beers sent a special envoy to New York to meet with the president of N.W. Ayer, a leading ad agency of the era. Their goal was to forge a new image for the diamond as an integral part of marriage and courtship. At that time, most Americans who bought diamonds bought tiny, inexpensive stones. The campaign goal was to sell the illusion that a larger diamond was inherently a greater expression of love. “We are dealing with a problem in mass psychology,” concluded a 1947 strategy plan.
Ayer enlisted the stars of screen and stage to model new diamond-buying habits for the masses. Tabloids began to cover the size and price of celebrity rings, implying that “bigger” equated to “more love.”
That year saw the launch of “A Diamond Is Forever,” the campaign slogan so deeply ingrained that it now reads more like folk wisdom than ad copy. By equating diamonds with eternity, De Beers hoped to get ahead of a looming crisis. By 1986, there would be more than 500 million carats of “used” diamonds in circulation — a testament to the cartel’s success, but more than 50 times the number of “new” diamonds being taken out of mines.
By making diamonds seem so precious, De Beers had created its own competition — a horde of independent diamond owners that might resell their rings at any time, flooding the market with too much supply and thereby lowering prices. “A Diamond Is Forever” aimed to combat this crisis by asserting the romantic value of diamonds, but also their status as unsellable heirlooms. For years, the biggest threat to the diamond was the fear of too many diamonds for sale.
Has the diamond met its competition?
Today, however, the biggest threat to diamonds might be brides like Moriah who are increasingly willing to consider other stones. This year saw a spate of millennial-panic pieces warning that a diamond might not be forever. “Polished diamonds were one of the worst performing commodities in 2017, with the gem’s reputation tarnished by fakes and stones mined in conflict zones,” wrote Bei Hu in a piece for Bloomberg called “Millennials Are Snubbing Diamonds.” Other writers contested this prognosis, including one who suggested that “self-gifting” would save the diamond’s failing reputation.
As consumers continue to think about ethics as part of the overall branding of a product, the specter of the “blood diamond,” mined by child labor, is an image the industry will have to overcome. While diamond alternatives are not always “conflict-free,” at least they don’t suggest the same historical baggage. This is an advantage from a marketing perspective as couples seek rings more reflective of their values.
Still, among millennial and Gen Z brides, the diamond remains the most desired stone, even as De Beers concedes it might be out of reach. “Most of these youngest consumers have yet to reach the level of affluence that will allow them to increase their active interest in diamonds,” said the 2018 Diamond Insight Report.
As middle-class stability becomes less assured, and new social norms challenge age-old wedding dogmas, both brides and businesses are betting on alternatives. In 2016, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway bought Gemvara, a jewelry startup that carries conflict-free diamonds but also diamond alternatives like moissanite, sapphire, emerald, and ruby. Brilliant Earth, a San Francisco-based online jeweler, carries lab-grown diamonds, recycled precious metals, and gemstones like sapphire, aquamarine, moissanite, and morganite.
“While diamonds are still the most popular gemstone used in engagement rings, other gemstones, including morganite, are becoming increasingly sought after,” says Brilliant Earth co-founder and co-CEO Beth Gerstein. “We continue to see an increasing interest in pink engagement rings following the rise of millennial pink in 2017.”
Right now, the main concern surrounding morganite seems to be its unknown cultural status. Diamond imitators like cubic zirconia have long been judged low-class or second-rate; a Google search for “morganite” yields the recommended query, “Is morganite tacky?” On the Knot, one bride recounts, in tears, returning her ring because morganite didn’t “feel bridal” enough. On a WeddingBee discussion board, another writes, “I can hear my mum and mother-in-law saying it’s tacky and looks fake.”
In geological terms, morganites are actually rarer than diamonds. Their price stems not from cheapening abundance but rather from recent and limited demand. Still, we know that matters of taste are not known to adhere to petty things like logic. Weddings especially, as family events, are subject to the dogmas of multiple generations. In the face of 100 years of diamond branding, morganite still has a lot to overcome.
In Moriah’s case, her family and now-husband eventually came around. The morganite she chose was actually smaller than what they could afford. “You can get a huge stone — I mean, massive! — for $3,000.” In the end, the affordable price allowed her to have the exact ring she wanted. When it finally arrived, in its tiny leather box, her family declared, “Well that’s the most beautiful stone we’ve ever seen!”
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