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Clarity, Cut, and Culture

Clarity, Cut, and Culture: The Many Meanings of Diamonds

Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Clarity, Cut, and Culture
    Book Description:

    Images of diamonds appear everywhere in American culture. And everyone who has a diamond has a story to tell about it. Our stories about diamonds not only reveal what we do with these tiny stones, but also suggest how we create value, meaning, and identity through our interactions with material culture in general.Things become meaningful through our interactions with them, but how do people go about making meaning? What can we learn from an ethnography about the production of identity, creation of kinship, and use of diamonds in understanding selves and social relationships? By what means do people positioned within a globalized political-economy and a compelling universe of advertising interact locally with these tiny polished rocks?This book draws on 12 months of fieldwork with diamond consumers in New York City as well as an analysis of the iconic De Beers campaign that promised romance, status, and glamour to anyone who bought a diamond to show that this thematic pool is just one resource among many that diamond owners draw upon to engage with their own stones. The volume highlights the important roles that memory, context, and circumstance also play in shaping how people interpret and then use objects in making personal worlds. It shows that besides operating as subjects in an ad-burdened universe, consumers are highly creative, idiosyncratic, and theatrical agents.

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-7743-0
    Subjects: Anthropology
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-vii)
  3. [Illustration] (pp. viii-viii)
  4. List of Figures (pp. ix-x)
  6. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pp. xvii-xx)

    In one sense, diamonds are just little rocks. But they are extraordinary rocks, jam-packed with value and significance. This book explores what diamonds mean, how those meanings come about, and what our interactions with these stones can tell us about ourselves and our relationships with material culture, especially mass-marketed, mass-produced, and mass-consumed commodities. Examining the way people relate to diamonds, we gain insight into the way we make sense of all kinds of commodified goods, the kinds of feelings and even self-understandings they evoke, and the way cultural contexts—like advertising strategies and historical narratives—influence our engagement with ordinary...

  8. 1 FROM ROCK TO GEM (pp. 27-56)

    Once they are cut and polished, diamonds are quite valuable—especially considering how small they are. But how do we get from “just a rock” to “such a gem”? Where does a diamond’s value come from? How is its value defined, produced, and recognized? What is “value” anyway?

    Moving beyond economic models of value that hinge upon exchange, anthropological theories of value consider a broad array of variables such as labor, use, sentimentality, morality, semiotics, and more. The anthropological lens is multivalent, even kaleidoscopic. As Paul Eiss and David Pederson (2008, 283) point out, “from Smith and Ricardo to Marx...

  9. 2 VALUING DIAMONDS (pp. 57-76)

    How are differences in price orchestrated and maintained when, to look at them, most diamonds look virtually identical? What’s the difference between an investment-grade stone and “junk”? The Gemological Institute of America (GIA) creates meaningful discriminations through a highly contrived grading system that is then mapped onto a grading sheet called a “certificate.” Control over grading is assured by the use of specialized jargon, tools, and knowledge, all carefully leaked to the public in an effort to guide perceptions. What grading does, then, is maneuver the seemingly similar into a hierarchy of value.

    One place we are taught to pay...

  10. 3 A DIAMOND IS FOREVER (pp. 77-104)

    As ever more diamonds have been mined over the last seventy-five years, the industry has needed to develop a market willing to absorb new stocks (while making sure that there was little or no resale value). To achieve this, De Beers has spent millions of dollars each year on advertising through its marketing arm, the London-based Diamond Trading Company (DTC), and the Diamond Information Center (DIC).¹ The DTC sets goals that are then executed by an ad agency, partly by using the DIC as a mouthpiece. For example, De Beers’s online site ( keeps site visitors, over two hundred thousand...

  11. 4 DIAMONDS AND EMOTIONS (pp. 105-128)

    I met Corinne, an educational psychologist in her early thirties, through a mutual friend. When she sat down for our interview she immediately said, “Oh, diamonds, humph. I think diamonds are strange.” When asked to elaborate, she began talking about her husband, Brent, and her family in relation to diamonds. Later, when I complimented her large, emeraldcut diamond, she confided in me,

    I would never tell Brent, but frankly I am ashamed of it. And I don’t always wear it. Sometimes I tell him that I’m not wearing it because I don’t want it to get stolen, or that it’s...

  12. 5 DIAMONDS AND BLING (pp. 129-157)

    This is a chapter aboutostranenie(from the Russian остранение), or defamiliarization. Normally a poetic device associated with literature that forces us to see everyday, ordinary things from a new perspective,ostraneniemakes them seem unfamiliar or strange, thus reframing our experience of them. It makes us see the world in a different and less automatic way. And while the wearing of “bling”—big, super-flashy diamonds—can be understood as a kind of creative poetic practice in its own right, as used by hip-hop performers and celebrities, it can also operate asostraneniewhen it stands out from and against...

  13. 6 DIAMONDS AND PERFORMANCE (pp. 158-178)

    Carla and Gene, successful thirty-somethings, live uptown. Carla writes children’s books. Gene is a novelist. Carla and I scheduled a meeting to talk in a bar in downtown Manhattan. She arrived wearing a suit and lugging a briefcase overflowing with papers. After some small talk, Carla told me that when she and Gene were first married, five or six years ago, she had refused to wear a ring, much less a diamond. Then her aunt, seeing that she was without, gave her one to wear. Her aunt was very excited and proud to be able to give Carla a diamond....


    When I started doing research for this project, I was surprised by the variety of ideas, images, and metaphors in consumers’ stories that diverged from the ad-based associations with class and romance that I had expected. Going far beyond those symbolic associations, people treat diamonds as if they have personalities, give them sacred histories, see them in terms that are primarily metaphorical or poetic, or deploy them performatively. Noting the variety of consumers’ engagements with diamonds, I began looking for social theory that would embrace such idiosyncrasy, since accounting for variation, difference, and the unexpected is a prerequisite to making...

  15. NOTES (pp. 191-198)
  16. BIBLIOGRAPHY (pp. 199-210)
  17. INDEX (pp. 211-216)
  18. ABOUT THE AUTHOR (pp. 217-217)