In the Western world, nothing says “I love you” like diamonds. These sparkling, glistening and extremely expensive stones are the ultimate symbols of undying love and commitment.
This is most typified by the relatively recent ritual of the engagement ring, where the general rule is that the suitor should spend at least two months of their salary on the ring they present.
As well as being a commercialised token of romance, diamonds are also used as a visual shortcut to display wealth, with Hollywood A-listers, blinged-out rappers and social media wannabes all draping themselves in the envy-inducing stones.
Closer to earth, anniversaries, birthdays and other notable occasions are also often celebrated with gifts of earrings, necklaces, and bracelets encrusted with these incredibly precious, exceedingly rare and eye-wateringly costly stones.
But “diamonds are not rare, they’re ubiquitous,” says Jason Kohn. “We’ve been sold a false bill of goods.”
If anyone would know, it’s Jason. The award-winning film-maker’s new documentary, Nothing Lasts Forever, scratches away the romanticised ideal of the diamond and lays bare the mythology that the diamond industry has spent billions of dollars and decades creating. Subsequently, it’s guaranteed to completely up-end the way you view diamonds.
Firstly, because diamonds are actually as common as old rocks. Their perceived scarcity, and hence value, is a direct result of majority control and manipulation of the diamond market held by global diamond company De Beers.
Secondly, and much more devastating to the industry, diamonds can now be manufactured in factories. These synthetic diamonds are made with exactly the same chemical compounds as natural diamonds and are completely indistinguishable from those dug out of the ground.
The only differences between the two are the price, with lab-grown diamonds being massively cheaper — and the advertising-led, romantic mythology that surrounds natural diamonds, adding to their value.
“Our desire and need to believe certain stories always surprises me,” says Jason. “We seem to have an unlimited capacity to believe — and want to believe in — stories that reinforce ideas that we hold valuable. The diamond is a very good way to explore why that is and a way to explore larger ideas around the power of narrative. To me, this movie’s not about diamonds. It’s just not.”
Jason first read about the manufacture of synthetic diamonds back in a 2003 issue of technology magazine Wired. It left him convinced the end was nigh for the natural diamond industry.
“Here are these man-made, big beautiful diamonds, and you can’t tell the difference,” he says. “I thought that story was powerful enough that it was going to kill the natural diamond industry. What I didn’t understand was that the old story was gonna fight back.”
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De Beers did so by reinforcing branding around what it now calls “real” diamonds, and a larger advertising spend to convince us that true love deserves true diamonds.
It begs the question: given natural diamonds are exceedingly common and lab-grown diamonds are made in factories, has the diamond industry been playing us for rubes?
“I understand how somebody would come out of the movie potentially thinking that,” Jason says, selecting his words carefully. “Whenever we believe a story, I’m hesitant to be so judgmental. Because you can tell this story as if it’s a company pulling one over on millions and millions of people. But I’m not 100 per cent convinced it’s as simple as that.”
As an example, he tells a story about his mother. She absolutely loved a pair of diamond earrings given to her by his father. Even though they’d divorced, she cherished her diamond earrings and placed great value in them.
One night, when he was a boy, they were watching television and a news segment came on that went inside a Russian diamond vault. The room was filled with floor-to-ceiling shelving that were straining under the weight of huge sacks stuffed with diamonds. The host estimated there were millions of them.
“Afterwards, it was like the curtain had been lifted. Diamonds weren’t rare. I imagined that her earrings would no longer be so valuable to her. But yet, they were always just as precious. So, what does that tell you? How does that change the story? Wanting to believe is really powerful. We’re kind of complicit in this. It’s not simply a company selling us a false bill of goods, we really want to believe certain things.
“My mother still loves her diamonds. She even wore them to the premiere of the film — with pride!”
For Jason, the diamond is a sparkling, irresistible metaphor for what we believe and why, what we value and where we get our values from. These are the unbelievably complicated questions that his film explores, so perfectly symbolised by a common rock and its identical man-made counterpart.
Nothing Lasts Forever is screening at the New Zealand International Film Festival. Nziff.co.nz
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