MAY 2013 – Why diamonds remain the ultimate luxe buy.
Since the first diamond was discovered along the banks of the Orange River, South Africa has remained one of the world’s most important producers of this sought-after commodity and a choice destination for the world’s elite and discerning jewellery and diamond lovers. And with an astonishing 65% of the world’s diamonds being produced here, it’s no surprise that celebs who visit these shores make sure not to leave empty handed, citing quality, a unique design aesthetic and good value as the main reasons for their purchases.
In Johannesburg, a jeweller (who prefers to remain anonymous) boast names such as Celine Dion and local A-listers Precious Motsepe and Wendy Luhabe among her high-profile clients, while Cape Town legend Uwe Koetter says their international clients include the likes of supermodel Kate Moss, Joan and Jackie Collins and even Nicholas Cage, who rumour has it recently commissioned a gold-handled walking cane studded with tanzanites, emeralds and other precious gems. Johan Louw of Uwe Koetter says their constant bestseller remains diamond jewellery and he is steadfast in his opinion that South African jewellers and designers are among the best in the world: ‘We are well respected in the industry because we have demonstrated our knowledge in terms of cutting-edge technology, design and trends. We treat our customers with the respect they deserve. That’s why they keep coming back.’
Many high-end jewellery designers such as international brand Cartier and local legend Lorraine Efune, who offers bespoke services to visiting sultans and princes, prefer to keep the identity of their clientele private for security reasons, but there’s no doubt that discreet calls are regularly made from five-star hotel concierges to arrange for private store visits that involve multi-carat brilliant buys from well-heeled clients flying under the radar.
When the first diamond was discovered here by a lowly shepherd in 1866, South Africa’s role in the global economy was instantaneously rewritten and the ensuing diamond rush transformed the young country’s economy, placing it firmly on the global map. In the manner of an epic tale, investment soon started pouring in and by 1889 De Beers Consolidated Mines, founded by Cecil John Rhodes and partners, manoeuvred its way into owning a majority share not only on the local but also on the international diamond trade front. It remains one of the largest diamond suppliers in the world today. By the 1980s diamond trade in South Africa accounted for over 15 percent of the GDP; today it is a more sober two percent, still a significant number. Experts remain resolute, however, that diamonds are still one of the most worthwhile investments to make. Daphne Neethling, brand marketing director at African Romance, explains: ‘Unlike any other high-value luxury items, diamonds hold their value over time and their beauty forever.’ And among the cognoscenti, South African jewellery design is regarded as one of the best and most innovative in the world. According to Uwe Koetter’s Johan Louw, the unexpected combination of unusual precious and nonprecious materials makes for a unique, distinctive style. Experts agree that, thanks to the diversity of cultures and a lingering European influence, the South Africa jewellery aesthetic is unique.
For centuries diamonds have been inextricably linked with myth and urban legend. Some have been alleged to have brought misery to the women who wore them and the men who sought to possess their priceless brilliance. One of the most notorious is the 69-carat Taylor- Burton ring worn by Elizabeth Taylor, she of multiple-marriage status. The diamond, which was originally called the Cartier diamond, is said to be jinxed. And who has not been enthralled by tales of world-renowned diamond heists, the most famous being the theft of over $100 million worth of diamonds, gold and other spoils from the Antwerp Diamond Centre in 2003? To this day, the sparkling loot has never been found. The infamous 112-carat Hope Diamond is believed to have brought misfortune to its owners, among them the ill-fated Marie Antoinette and Louis VXI.
Today the intrigue continues on a more politicised level, with the infiltration into the market of blood diamonds. So named for their ties to funding coups and underhand political dealings in areas of conflict and war, blood diamonds accounted for four percent of the world’s diamond production in the late 1990s, according to the United Nations. Today blood diamonds reportedly account for less than one percent, and responsible dealers uphold strict international codes of conflict-free diamond resale thanks to an international certification system that can trace diamonds back to the source.
The popular notion that diamonds are synonymous with everlasting love and marriage can be traced back to a 1938 De Beers’ advertising campaign that became the most successful in advertising history, thanks to the coining of the phrase, ‘A diamond is forever.’ The slogan and campaign worked on two levels – firstly, diamonds last forever in the physical sense and, secondly, they represent an everlasting love. The concept became so entrenched in the minds of lovers the world over that 20 years later the agency credited the campaign with having successfully influenced the American public (and later the world) to consider a diamond engagement ring a necessity. Thanks to the campaign and its prophetic words, engagement proposals have been synonymous with diamonds for close to a century now. The campaign, it is said, made women less likely to part with their diamonds or even to buy previously owned diamonds from other women because of the sentiment and value attached to them.
And so the question is, what should you be buying in terms of trend and investment? Jewellery aficionados should look out for brown or chocolate diamonds hitting the market, say some trend spotters. A leading diamond company’s spokesperson explains: ‘Diamonds offer versatility and make a statement about style, fashion, status, success and sophistication. [Nowadays] a must-have is the right-hand diamond ring [bought for women by women],’ she says. ‘These symbolise 21st-century values that women are not weak, they have money and they can run the world.’ Lorraine Efune, founder and managing director of the eponymous local brand, says, ‘There’s a big demand right now for timeless three stone rings symbolising the past, present and future.’ Another local jeweller says that the white princess-cut diamond will always remain the most popular cut, and also notes that the tennis bracelet will always be a much-requested classic.
Kathleen McLoughlin, marketing manager at Cartier where two new-look tennis bracelets are about to be launched, sums it all up, ‘The classic tennis bracelet is still very much alive, but there has been an evolution in design, volume, shape.’ And with stars such as Jessica Biel, Gwen Stefani and Scarlett Johansson sporting them on the red carpet, tennis bracelets will stay on the fashion radar for many years to come.
Just as in the world of fashion, celebrities continue to exert enormous influence on the jewellery world and it goes without saying that status, wealth and diamonds are inextricably linked. Superstar songstress and multiple Grammy Award-winning Beyoncé is often seen sporting an 18-carat engagement ring from well-known US jewellery designer Lorraine Schwartz – a ring that’s valued at an incredible $5 million. Diva Mariah Carey’s 17-carat diamond is worth a cool $2,5 million, while Jennifer Lopez’s love of coloured diamonds is favourite tabloid fodder. Her first engagement ring (from Hollywood actor Ben Affleck) was a huge pink diamond, while her most recent proposal of marriage came with a lavender-coloured stone, its appearance sparking an unprecedented demand for similarly coloured diamonds.
Locally, self-titled ‘queen of bling’ Khanyi Mbau is often loaned diamond jewellery to wear to special events and functions, guaranteeing her temporary bling benefactors valuable front-page coverage.
In Kimberley’s diamond heyday, it is said to have contained more millionaires per square metre than anywhere else in the world. This Northern Cape city that is the birthplace of South Africa’s diamond industry was also the birthplace of mining magnate Harry Oppenheimer, the patriarch of one of South Africa’s most illustrious diamond families. Nowadays, the spirit of monopolisation has been tempered by the requirement that South African mining companies be at least 26 percent black-owned by 2014. This has allowed names such as Tokyo Sexwale of Mvelephanda Diamond, Ayanda Bam, who is co-founder of the first black-owned and -managed mine Kuyasa, and Mohseen Valli Moosa, CEO of the wholly black-owned African Romance, to bring fresh blood and competition to this much-monopolised industry. For these emerging market forces there are a multitude of challenges, including securing stable rough supply, building brand awareness and making the brand accessible to its target markets. Some of these black-owned and -controlled international African luxury diamond-jewellery brands and design houses, such as African Romance, have already made a distinct impression on the industry with their lauded commitment to conflict-free diamonds and a varied customer base that ranges from beauty queens to global music stars, Olympic medallists, foreign dignitaries and state officials.
While fashion, hairstyles, cars and travel destinations all lose their allure from one year to the next, the good news for diamond mines, dealers, jewellery manufacturers and investors – if South African trends and economic indicators of the past 140 years are anything to go by – is that it is doubtful that diamonds will ever go out of favour. Diamonds continue to be a symbol of wealth and eternal love, an expression of everlasting commitment and passion. And, despite their ever-increasing rand value, diamonds’ true power is their ability to take a relationship to the next level, mend a broken heart, celebrate a milestone or transform an ordinary gal into a striking glamazon; it is this that make them absolutely priceless.