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Why Are Diamonds Worth So Much?


The largest diamond discovered in a century went on auction this week. It's as big as a tennis ball, and the highest bid for it went up to $61 million. That wasn't high enough for the sellers. The sale fell through. That somebody was willing to pay so dearly for what is, after all, a rock may make you wonder what makes diamonds so costly. Rachelle Bergstein is author of a new book, "Brilliance And Fire: The Biography Of Diamonds." She joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

RACHELLE BERGSTEIN: Thank you so much for having me.

S. SIMON: So what does make a diamond worth so much, particularly when it's possible to make replica diamonds that you have to get out a jeweler's eyepiece to find out are not the real ones?

BERGSTEIN: Diamonds are so costly in part because people are willing to pay the high price for them. You know, De Beers and other diamond sellers have been telling us that diamonds are not only beautiful rocks, but they are symbols of status, of wealth, of romance, of glamour. And we've really internalized those messages, and we're willing to pay a high price to be a part of that.

S. SIMON: You're saying diamonds are so costly just for the same reason that people buy toothpaste? Or - what? - that it's just been advertising?

BERGSTEIN: Toothpaste is not selling you a dream. I mean, I guess in a very small sense, toothpaste is selling you the dream of white, clean teeth and good breath. But...

S. SIMON: Good breath leads to romance and...

BERGSTEIN: (Laughter) Good breath does lead to romance.

S. SIMON: That's where toothpaste begins to cross into the diamond's territory.

BERGSTEIN: I suppose if we were advertisers we could probably make that argument that toothpaste will land you a diamond ring eventually. But the diamond ring, in particular, has been marketed to Americans as a rare earthen treasure. Now, there was a time when diamonds were legitimately rare. However, diamonds, as most people know, are not rare anymore. So the fact that they still do command such a high price is thanks, in large part, to the messaging that we've received over and over that they're worth it.

S. SIMON: Let's return to the story - the highest bid this week. Now, what makes this rock worth $61 million?

BERGSTEIN: Well, worth it is kind of (laughter) - it's a tough point to defend. If you look back at sales of large stones of this kind, people in the industry have used diamonds like this to tantalize the public and the press.

So a great example is Harry Winston, the New York-Hollywood jeweler. In 1935, he bought a very large stone. I think it was between 700 and 800 carats rough, and he had the diamond sent directly to the Museum of Natural History, where he made it open to the public. Then when he hired a cutter to cut it, he invited the press to his office to watch the process and got people excited about that. So in an instance like that, he was able to use that purchase and leverage it into an enormous and longstanding press opportunity.

S. SIMON: That's a lot of press opportunities.

BERGSTEIN: But think about this time, and would we be talking about the mining company that put it on auction if they didn't put a diamond like this for sale?

BERGSTEIN: Do you have any feeling, Ms. Bergstein, as to what might happen to this diamond?

BERGSTEIN: I believe, in the articles, they say it might be sold in a private sale. It also might mean it will get polished before it's sold, which is interesting. You know, I think that they were giving the buyer the opportunity to fashion it and polish it the way that they wanted. But maybe that's not something that's appealing to someone who's going to spend $70 million on (laughter) a diamond. Maybe they want it to be finished.

S. SIMON: Rachelle Bergstein, author of "Brilliance And Fire: The Biography Of Diamonds." Thanks so much for being with us.

BERGSTEIN: Thank you so much for having me.


PAUL SIMON: (Singing) She's a rich girl. She don't try to hide it. Diamonds on the soles of her shoes. He's a poor boy. Empty as a pocket. Empty as a pocket with nothing to lose. Sing ta-na-na, ta-na-na-na (ph). She got diamonds on the soles of her shoes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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