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Diamonds have more best friends than ever

Through aggressive advertising, the gem industry hoped to offset negative images in `Blood Diamond.' Sales continue to increase.

December 08, 2006|Valli Herman | Times Staff Writer

The diamond industry had reason to fear "Blood Diamond."

The movie, set in 1990s Sierra Leone, is two-plus hours of brutal violence and corrupt gem dealing -- opening smack in the middle of the biggest diamond-buying season of the year. Early on, its star, Leonardo DiCaprio, went on record saying he now forbids his dates to wear diamonds. Amnesty International and Global Witness took the opportunity to publicize human rights abuses. The World Diamond Council, a trade group, asked the filmmakers to add a disclaimer (they refused).

It was looking as if diamonds were on their way to becoming the next fast food or global warming -- issues brought to the fore by a controversial movie ("Super Size Me" and "An Inconvenient Truth"). And so, the World Diamond Council hired damage control experts, ramped up oversight groups and spent millions to launch and advertise a website designed to reassure consumers about its business practices.

And now that the film is finally opening?

Diamond sales have never been better.

Diamond jewelry is already one of this season's top holiday sellers, trade journals report. Tiffany & Co., the world's second-largest jeweler, reported its holiday sales have exceeded expectations.

Retail diamond sales in the United States have been steadily increasing for years, from $26.3 billion in 2000 to $33.7 billion in 2005, according to the Diamond Information Center. If shopping patterns hold, then the industry may take in 20% of its annual sales between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

While "Blood Diamond" was creating an early furor this fall, the jewelry industry was increasing its advertising spending to $61.8 million in the third quarter alone, up from $50.3 million in the same period last year, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

Many of the campaigns featured diamonds as an accessible luxury -- even Sam's Club has a holiday catalog devoted to them, the "Little Book of Dreams."

And most of the advertising is, as always, heavy with symbolism. "Right-hand rings" represent a single woman's independence. With a three-stone ring, couples can commemorate "past, present and future," and with new four-stone "journey" designs, the gradually increasing size of each diamond illustrates "how their commitment grows."

There was also more publicity about efforts to educate and reassure the public about conflict-free diamonds. Some producers, such as the Canadia brand, are marking gems to verify that their diamonds are ethically mined and origin-certified.

Despite fear of a celebrity diamond boycott, the season's movie premieres and public appearances include the usual ransom of diamonds. Even "Blood Diamond" star Jennifer Connelly has been wearing modest ear studs to the movie's promotional appearances. She said Bulgari provided all of the new legal guarantees.

In interviews at the film's screening last week in Hollywood, actors and filmmakers had a noticeably softer tone, emphasizing how diamonds contribute to the African economy, rather than the industry's past human rights abuses.

Connelly, costar Djimon Hounsou and filmmaker Edward Zwick all held forth on the Kimberley Process, the system that now tracks the shipments of rough diamonds across international borders. Connelly and Zwick recently shot public service announcements to help Amnesty International and Global Witness further awareness of conflict diamonds. The filmmakers also started an informational Web page, www.blooddiamondaction.org, with those groups.

"It's important for people to think about what we consume daily and how it affects people in other parts of the world," Connelly said. Hounsou said he "would be happy to wear diamonds" because "they are a prime resource in the economy of many African nations."

"This is not a propaganda film about not wearing diamonds," he added.

Still, it is difficult to feel good about diamonds after seeing the movie, which shows children being drugged, kidnapped and shot, families slaughtered and diamonds literally covered with blood. Consumers may come into the theater understanding bits and pieces about diamonds and their social responsibility issues, said Lars Perner, an assistant professor of clinical marketing at USC, but the movie could consolidate the message and make people uncomfortable about buying diamonds.

"It's much more difficult to dismiss those feelings once you've had a heavy dose of information," said Perner.

Just look at trans fats and SUVs.

valli.herman@latimes.com

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