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Why Engagement Rings Are Made With Diamonds

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The idea of giving a ring as a sign of betrothal isn’t a particularly new one. The Romans were known to swap modest betrothal rings of iron; in later periods they switched over to gold. The rings’ popularity hit a lull for hundreds of years before picking back up in the 12th century, when Pope Innocent III laid down some new ground rules about weddings. All weddings had to take place in a church, and the bride had to receive a ring. Moreover, couples had to observe a new waiting period between their betrothal and marriage. European aristocrats began giving engagement rings to their beloveds while they counted down the days until they could actually wed.

Put a Thimble on It

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Engagement rings still weren’t quite the wedding staple that they are now. Other customs competed against slipping a ring on a bride-to-be’s finger. In England, one practice involved the man and woman breaking a piece of gold or silver and each keeping half. They would then drink a glass of wine, and the engagement was on. As late as the 19th century, some American women received thimbles as symbols of their engagements; after the wedding they would often cut the bottom off of their thimbles and wear them as rings.

While engagement rings have been around for centuries, diamonds are a fairly late addition to the party. For many years, there simply weren’t all that many diamonds on the world market, so diamond engagement rings were pretty rare. The rock Archduke Maximilian of Austria gave to Mary of Burgundy in 1477 was an early exception.

Despite that high-profile ring, things stayed pretty quiet on the diamond front through the late 19th century.

In the 1870s, though, miners began discovering huge veins of diamonds in South Africa, and ice started flooding onto world markets. Diamonds had quickly gone from being a scarce gem to a pretty common commodity, which was bad news for everyone in the diamond business who wanted to fetch high prices for their wares. These mine owners realized they would have to be clever if they wanted to keep getting top dollar for an increasingly common gem.

It didn’t take long for the producers to hit on a plan. In 1888 several major South African mines merged together to form De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd. The merger created a cartel that could effectively control the flow of diamonds from South Africa onto world markets. As diamonds became scarcer and more valuable, their popularity as the gem on engagement rings began to rise, too.

A Diamond Is Forever. Since When?

That explains how De Beers helped prop up the price of diamonds and create an illusion of scarcity, but how did diamonds become such an integral part of the marriage process? Depending on your point of view, you can thank or blame De Beers for that one, too. While we may think of the diamond engagement ring as a time-honored tradition, it’s really just the end result of a brilliant marketing plan De Beers rolled out in the late 1930s.

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In 1938, De Beers’ execs were in a bit of a tight spot. Diamond demand and prices had been on a slow decline since 1919, and the tanking economy had led consumers to favor more modest rings that included intricate metalwork rather than gems. The cartel needed to tap into a new market to jumpstart its revenues. De Beers approached New York ad agency N.W. Ayer for help convincing Americans that they desperately needed diamonds.

The agency’s campaign was undoubtedly one of the most effective of all time. N.W. Ayer embarked on a multi-pronged attack that completely overhauled Americans’ view of diamonds. The agency got Hollywood’s biggest stars to wear diamonds and encouraged leading fashion designers to talk up diamond rings as an emerging trend. The plan worked beautifully; in the first three years of the campaign American diamond sales shot up by over 50 percent.

 



Those results were certainly encouraging for the diamond industry, but the De Beers-N.W. Ayer partnership hadn’t even played its masterstroke yet. In 1947, Ayer copywriter Frances Gerety penned the slogan “A Diamond is Forever,” a line so elegant and effective De Beers is still using it almost 70 years later. The slogan helped underscore the diamond’s significance as an enduring, unbreakable symbol of love, and the sales of diamond engagement rings shot through the roof. Within 20 years, 80 percent of American brides were sporting rocks.

As the demand for rings has shot up, so have the stakes involved. In 2010, online diamond retailer Blue Nile rolled out a ring-buying app, and moved a $250,000 ring to an iPad user. Not everyone’s throwing around that kind of loot, but the Canadian paper The Globe and Mail reported that a $5,000 ring “is on the high end for the average person.”

Should She Give It Back?

With so much money moving around, engagement rings have become both symbols of love and valuable assets. Naturally, when engagements go sour, both parties would like to end up with the rock. It would seem courteous for the person who breaks off the engagement to let the other party keep the ring, but the situations are often not that simple.

Rings are tricky little things from a legal point of view, and the laws governing who gets to keep the bling if the engagement flounders vary by state. Some states, like New York, hold that the ring is a “conditional gift” given on the condition that the marriage actually takes place. If the marriage doesn’t come through in these states the condition hasn’t been met, and ownership of the ring reverts to the giver. Other states, like Montana, view a wedding ring as a normal gift that can’t legally be taken back once given.

But wait, it gets more complicated! Many states view the rings differently if they’re given on a birthday or a holiday. At that point, they’re just regular old gifts, not conditional ones. Hence, the law entitles the woman to keep the ring even if she breaks off the engagement.

International laws are a bit different. Those polite Canadians have a rule that whichever party breaks the engagement forfeits all claim to the rock. British law holds that a fiancée can only be forced to legally give up her ring if there were a previous agreement dictating that condition in place.

Given all these potential headaches and marketing manipulation, why buy an engagement ring in the first place? De Beers chairman Nicky Oppenheimer probably put it best in 1999 when he said, “Diamonds are intrinsically worthless, except for the deep psychological need they fill."

This post originally appeared in 2010.

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#TBT
The Highs and Lows of the Dell Dude
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John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu

Benjamin Curtis was just 19 years old when he went to the open audition that would change his life, but he still felt like a senior citizen. He was surrounded by child actors from the ages of 12 to 17, most of them accompanied by their mothers. The group was part of a casting call for Dell, the personal computing company well-known to business and educational customers but an unproven commodity for the home market.

Dell’s ad agency, Lowe Worldwide, hoped to change that reputation by introducing the character of Steven, a sharp, tech-savvy teen who would extol the virtues of Dell’s desktop and laptop offerings in a charmingly goofy manner. Even though he was two years outside the age range, Curtis’s agent believed he had a shot.

He read. And read again. And then read a third time. By December 2000, Curtis had gotten the part and was quickly becoming known as the “Dell Dude,” a pitchman who rivaled the Maytag Man in terms of commercial popularity. But by 2003, the character would disappear, victimized by a peculiar kind of corporate hypocrisy. While the Dell Dude’s stoner wisdom was good for laughs and increased sales, Curtis being arrested for actual marijuana possession was not.

In 1984, Michael Dell was a pre-med student at the University of Texas when he began tinkering with home computing hardware. A serial entrepreneur—he once made $18,000 as a teenager collecting data to find new subscribers for the Houston Post—Dell figured that custom machines and aggressive customer support would help fill a niche in the growing PC market.

He was right. Dell racked up $1 million in sales that year and spent the next decade and a half expanding into a billion-dollar enterprise. But a lot of Dell’s business consisted of commercial accounts like schools and government offices, leaving direct-to-consumer sales largely untapped. To help introduce Dell to those users, the company hired Lowe Worldwide to create a campaign that would appeal to people who felt intimidated by the personal computing phenomenon.

Lowe conceived of a precocious kid who could rattle off Dell’s specs and lend a human face to their line of hardware. But the “Dell Dude” wasn’t fully realized until Curtis walked in the door.

Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Curtis grew up interested in performing magic and drifted toward theater in an attempt to strengthen his stage presence. He went on to earn an acting scholarship to New York University and had a roommate who knew a commercial talent agent. Having been introduced to her, he began going out on casting calls. One of them was for Dell.

Embodied by Curtis, the Steven character morphed into a Jeff Spicoli-esque surfer archetype, fast-talking and charming. In his first appearance, Steven makes a videotaped appeal to his father for an $849 Dell desktop “with a free DVD upgrade” because he knows his dad “likes free stuff.” In another, he encourages a friend’s family to gift his buddy with a Dell for $799, complete with an Intel Pentium III processor.

The commercials debuted in 2000, but it wasn’t until DDB, the Chicago ad agency that took over Dell’s account, introduced a catchphrase that Steven acquired his nickname. In his fourth commercial, he announced to his friend, “Dude you’re getting a Dell!”

From that point on, Dell’s splash into residential home computing was guaranteed. Sales rose 100 percent, with Dell’s market share growing by 16.5 percent. The awareness was almost exclusively the result of Curtis’s popularity, which grew to include numerous online fan pages and calls for personal appearances. Younger viewers wrote in and wondered if he was available for dates; older viewers considered him a non-threatening presence.

By 2002, Steven had starred in more than two dozen Dell spots. In some of the later ads, he took a back seat, appearing toward the end of the ads. The cameos prompted some concern among fans that Dell would be sidelining Curtis, but company representatives denied it. In early 2003, however, the Dell Dude found himself out of a job.

“Dude, you’re getting a cell” was the headline in media accounts of Curtis’s arrest in February 2003 on suspicion of attempting to purchase marijuana. Curtis was on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and sporting a kilt he recently acquired in Scotland when an undercover officer spotted him purchasing the drug from a dealer. After being held in custody overnight, Curtis was released and the case was adjourned. If he stayed out of trouble for a year, his record would be expunged.

The New York Times compared the relative innocuousness of his arrest to that of actor Robert Mitchum, who was arrested on a marijuana-related charge in 1948. Despite living in a more conservative era, Mitchum’s career was largely unaffected. The same didn’t hold true for Curtis, however; he was promptly dropped by Dell as their spokesperson. According to Curtis, the company had a strict no-drugs policy for employees, and one strike was all it took to force his dismissal.

Feeling ostracized from commercial work and typecast by the role, Curtis juggled gigs while working at a Mexican restaurant in New York and enduring daily recognition from customers. “They’ll get really drunk, and they’ll start yelling things at me,” he told Grub Street in 2007. “I either ignore them, or if it’s way out of hand, I go up and say, ‘I appreciate your support, but my name is Ben.’ That usually doesn’t work so I smile and ignore them.”

Dell never found a mascot as well-liked as Curtis. They hired singer Sheryl Crow to appear in spots beginning in 2005, but she didn't sway consumers as much as Steven had. In 2010, the company attempted to battle back from negative press over selling defective computers to customers between 2003 and 2005. Today, they typically occupy a list of the top three PC companies, trailing Lenovo and HP.

Curtis, meanwhile, made a segue into off-Broadway performing and now operates Soul Fit NYC, a holistic wellness center in New York that offers yoga, massage, personal training, and life coaching services. Although he’s expressed interest in coming back to Dell as a spokesperson, the company may not appreciate his latest indiscretion: In 2013, he admitted to owning a MacBook.

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History
Why Lucky the Leprechaun Was Missing From Some Lucky Charms Boxes in 1975
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Sarah Mahala Photography & Makeup Artistry, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

It’s hard to picture a box of Lucky Charms without a smiling leprechaun plastered on the front of it. But cereal fans living in New England in the 1970s may remember a brief period when Lucky was nowhere to be seen. In his place was a forgetful wizard who was barely given a chance to make a blip in cereal mascot history.

As Atlas Obscura shared in a recent story, Waldo the Wizard became the face of Lucky Charms in select stores in 1975. At that point, Lucky had been representing the brand since it was introduced over a decade earlier, but General Mills was toying with going in a different direction with the marketing.

Lucky’s shtick hasn’t changed much since Lucky Charms was introduced in 1964: In commercials, the leprechaun is enjoying his treasured cereal when a group of hungry kids comes along. Instead of offering to share, Lucky plots to keep his Lucky Charms to himself and always fails. It’s not exactly controversial as far as kids' ads go, but in the mid-1970s, executives worried that the mascot's unfriendly attitude towards children would rub consumers the wrong way.

Enter Waldo: a wizard who wore a green cloak spangled with hearts, stars, clovers, and moons, and, like Lucky, adored Lucky Charms. But unlike Lucky, Waldo was always warm with kids and never hesitated to share his breakfast. Instead of running away, his gag was that he was always forgetting where he put his box of Lucky Charms, to which the kids responded by reminding him that he could just conjure some up with magic.

Shoppers responded positively to Waldo during his trial run in New England stores, but after less than a year, General Mills pulled the plug on the experiment. It turned out that having a slightly more innocuous character wasn’t worth abandoning the original mascot after spending so much time and money promoting him.

While he’s undergone a few redesigns in the past 50 years, Lucky is still prominently displayed on every box of Lucky Charms. His cereal-hoarding tendencies have also remained the same, though Lucky was written to be a bit friendlier following Waldo’s short-lived era.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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