You may see them all year long, but ad campaigns for sparkly jewelry really ramp up between Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day. And in the past few years, the usual suspects — "a diamond is forever" and "he went to Jared" and "every kiss begins with Kay" — have been joined by a newcomer: The "chocolate" diamond.
The term "Chocolate Diamond" is a registered trademark belonging to Le Vian Corp. I reached out to Eddie LeVian, the designer and CEO of Le Vian Corp, to ask him: What are Chocolate Diamonds? He replied, via email:
Chocolate Diamonds® are Le Vian's proprietary brand of natural fancy color diamonds that are chosen for their rarity and chocolate flavor. Le Vian owns the international registration for the Chocolate Diamonds® trademark worldwide.
There are color, clarity and cut criteria, as well as responsible, traceable sourcing criteria for being branded as Chocolate Diamonds®.
Chocolate Diamonds® came from Le Vian® and was inspired by our friend Bill Furman's passion and addiction to the food chocolate. While many people things this brand is a color designation, in truth it is a brand that speaks to the obsession, addiction and passion that is common in chocoholics to the food chocolate and is designed to emulate the same obsession, passion and addiction to the ChocolateDiamond® jewelry.
Le Vian® branded Chocolate Diamonds® in 2000 and achieved registration by 2008 and now enjoys worldwide trademark registration and rights. We employ multiple internal and external attorneys who are continuously prosecuting and protecting the brand from common counterfeiters around the world.
What LeVian glosses over, of course, is that "chocolate" diamonds are just brown diamonds. And brown diamonds are the most common kind of diamonds. There are tons of them. Tons.
I spoke with Dr. George Harlow, who holds a PhD from Princeton, is trained as a geologist specializing in mineralogy and crystallography, and is employed as a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Dr. Harlow confirmed that when it comes to diamonds, "The most common color is brown, and then colorless." The so-called "fancy" colors — yellow, pink, green and blue — are more rare. (The Hope Diamond, the most famous diamond in the world, is blue.) "Blue diamonds and red diamonds are extremely rare," he explained. "The most rare." True greens are also rare. But most diamonds are brown. Why haven't we really seen or heard about brown diamonds before? "Brown is not considered an attractive color," Dr. Harlow said. He pointed out that there have been "various attempts over the years to market" brown diamonds, but they were not very successful; although, apparently, briefly, in the '70s, "cognac" diamonds were a thing. But still: Up until very recently, brown diamonds were not something anyone was interested in. Unless you just needed something hard and sharp, because you were running a factory.
Dr. Harlow put it this way:
But the thing is with brown, there's an oversupply. So there's a desire to try and change them from industrial diamonds, which is what they generally are, to a gem buyer.
Normally, industrials are the lower grade [stones], full of inclusions. Or off-color. That's essentially 80% of the overall production — is really industrial.
All gems, all diamonds, are graded according to their size, color and clarity, and inclusions. And there's a grading system that affects these things in any case.
So if you had a really fine brown diamond that was 100 carats, I'm sure it wouldn't turn into a grinding stone. It would be preserved.
I asked: "But if you had a very find brown diamond that was the same size, clarity, cut, color, carat weight as a white one, the brown one would be cheaper?" He replied: "All other things being the same, yes." But a fancy color — pink, yellow or red — would be more expensive than white? "Correct."
Dr. Harlow also warned that sometimes a company can trademark a term and, by doing so, mislead the public:
[Some jewelers] use a trademark symbol. And the real problem that happens in the gem industry is it may not even be a diamond. I'm not saying it isn't. It probably is a diamond. But when you get a trademarked term, Particularly if it's two words, like 'Chocolate Diamond,' with a trademark, you've got to check that it isn't a synthetic stone. It's probably not going to be a natural stone if it isn't a diamond. But they've marketed synthetics in this fashion. Like 'red emerald' was a popular thing for a very short time. It was a gemstone — it was beryl — but not emerald.
According to LeVian, Chocolate Diamonds are, in fact, diamonds. But the fact that he calls them "fancy" — when traditionally, yellows, pinks, reds and blues were the only "fancy" diamond colors — is interesting. The website for the Gemological Institute of America notes:
Brown diamonds were typically considered good only for industrial use until the 1980s, when abundant quantities of them began to appear in the production of the Argyle mines.
In other words, they were considered to be just for factories until people realized that there were so many of them there was no way to make money just selling to factories. How do you sell millions of brown rocks when no one likes brown rocks? Fashion them into jewelry and call them "chocolate."
In 1982, Jay Epstein wrote an in-depth article for The Atlantic, titled "Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?" It was an exposé of the diamond cartel, detailing the manipulative, supply-controlling methods of the diamond industry. He also explains how the movie industry was in cahoots with the diamond industry, with film stars flaunting big rocks to help drum up business; songs about diamonds making their way into movies, and plotpoints in romantic films being centered around diamonds. He also delves into how the pendulum swings back and forth for the popularity of large diamonds and small diamonds, depending on what the industry has more of at the time. Even though it's been decades since this piece was published (you can find it here, please take the time to read it, it's incredible), Epstein is still asked about diamonds and the phenomenon of marketing diamonds, "the most brilliant illusion in modern history." In the course of his research, Epstein bought a diamond, as he discusses in the video above:
While doing this book, I decided I had to buy and sell a diamond. So I bought a diamond for $1500, retail price, from the diamond district, 47th street in New York. A day later, I took the diamond and tried to sell it. And I found that people were offering me one-fourth or one-fifth the price — or nothing at all. They were now pointing out that it really wasn't very valuable, that it was too small, it had flaws … Most women, when they receive a diamond, they think they've received something of everlasting value. That their fiancé paid a few thousand dollars for it, and it's going to gain in value every year, so if God forbid, something should happen to their marriage, or their husband, they can always sell the diamond.
In 2008, scholar, college professor, and author Ken Mondschein penned a piece for Nerve, calling diamond engagement rings "profoundly anti-feminist." He also offered up a bit of background on the diamond business:
For much of human history, diamonds were found in only a few hard-to-reach places — the jungles of Brazil, and a couple of riverbeds in India. They were so rare, in fact, that only the ultra-wealthy could afford them. Archduke Maximillian, who would soon be Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, gave one to Mary of Burgundy to seal their 1477 betrothal in what is often cited as the first historical example of a diamond engagement ring. However, this situation changed in the 1870s, when massive diamond mines were discovered in South Africa. Poorly-paid, abominably treated native African workers could now strip the gems from the earth by the ton. Faced with the prospect of a massive oversupply of diamonds, the investors (chiefly arch-racist Cecil Rhodes and his partner C. D. Rudd) formed the De Beers mining company in 1880.
By the end of the century, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer had managed to collect all the colonial African diamond discoveries under the De Beers banner. To quote Epstein, the cartel was (and to some extent still is) "the most successful cartel arrangement in the annals of modern commerce," carefully controlling the supply of diamonds to assure their scarcity and value.
But what about the demand side? How to convince the world that an isometric-hexoctahedral crystal lattice allotrope of carbon was something they absolutely needed to buy?
The answer was marketing.
And, of course, the marketing geniuses also had to keep people from buying used (cheaper!) diamonds:
The next step was a psychological approach: consumers everywhere had to see the diamond as the universally recognized symbol of love, commitment and the social status derived from middle-class domesticity. The slogan "a diamond is forever" debuted in 1947, giving consumers not only the idea that the diamond is a symbol of enduring love, but that it shouldn't be resold. This was because diamonds lose considerable value in resale, and since there's no point in paying De Beers full price when you could get a cheaper one second-hand, De Beers loses a lucrative sale on every diamond resold.
If you wore it on a chain and took care of it, a paper clip could be forever, too. But through relentless marketing and advertising, it's been drilled into us that diamonds are associated with love.
I chatted with Mondschein recently, curious about his feelings regarding chocolate diamonds. He noted that first of all, "diamonds are a created market, a created fetish commodity." And he wondered if the whole "chocolate" thing wasn't, in some way, related to race in America: "As a white person, I don't feel I have a right to say it, but [it's like] BROWN is bad, but CHOCOLATE is OK."
He went on:
Throughout history, people have displayed their wealth through conspicuous consumption… Claudius in Hamlet grinds up and drinks a pearl. The Romans gilded their food. We do it with diamonds, They're completely a created commodity, but they serve a real need to show everyone what a bourgeois mofo you are. We should not misunderestimate (thanks GWB) the need for well-off people to show everyone how well-off they are.
But the real issue with chocolate diamonds is how they're aggressively marketed as a thing women should buy for themselves. A treat, like chocolate. Except they're not a cheap, sweet, delicious snack. A LeVian chocolate diamond ring can cost from $1,300 to $8,000. And what are you really paying for? What is the value of that piece? What is it actually worth? There's no resale market. The "chocolate" label is really just a brainwashery way to convince women to spend their hard-earned dollars on something that they don't need — and something the jewelry industry has trouble getting rid of. And if it's trendy now, the trend will pass. Imagine trying to sell a chocolate diamond in 20 years.
Maybe it doesn't matter to you, maybe you have the money to spend. It's not like a flatscreen TV or a new iPhone have good resale value, either. But with chocolate diamonds, their existence seems especially suspect. The name and marketing campaign is insulting on a few levels: Women won't be able to resist, because it's chocolate! Women won't care that they're just brown rocks if we call them chocolate! Women love to treat themselves, and indulge — and will buy something even if it's not good for them!
Knowing how the diamond industry operates, knowing the truth about diamonds, knowing the truth about brown diamonds, why would anyone be interested in chocolate diamonds? Dr. Harlow, ever the measured scientist, is actually rather forgiving:
It's up to the individual. Jewelry is a personal expression for adornment. The point would be, if you want a diamond, and you don't want to pay the bucks for something else, you do have a diamond! And if you like brown, or if it goes with your couture, what's the problem? To me, the big thing is knowing that you got what you really got. That it's authentic. And if you make that choice that's fine. That's your choice, and you can tell people, no, these are diamonds! You just don't know your diamonds. That's fine. That's what fashion is about. It's about statement, it's about identity. So it's fine. It's just that in the marketing agenda, you gotta make sure you're not being hustled.