It’s a shame that the word “semantics” doesn’t begin with a “c.” If it did, it might prove as powerful a pillar of diamond merchandising as any of the four famous “c” words: color, clarity, cut and carat weight. Nowhere is the transforming power of semantics in gemstone market-making better illustrated than with Argyle Diamond’s decision to sell its mostly brown stones as “Champagne diamonds.”
Argyle, of course, was making a virtue of necessity. For centuries, brown diamonds have been shunned, forcing stones with this color to be described with scores of aliases, most of them color-names with proven allure—chocolate, coffee, and the like.
Even Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, the great seafaring jeweler of the 17th century, wasn’t above mincing words when it came to the presence of brown in diamonds. In his book “Travels in India,” he describes the color of a famous 137-carat Indian stone known as the Florentine, stolen in 1920, as “citron.” The word is French for lemon, which suggests yellow. But since pure yellow Indian diamonds were as rare as hens’ teeth, some scholars think he meant a brownish color.
Tavernier’s book proves a tradition of disgust with brown diamonds that over the centuries had hardened into avoidance. Given such negativity, you can imagine the reaction at Western Australia’s Argyle Diamond Mine when around 1985 it was learned that 50% of this mammoth deposit’s stones were shades of brown.
To make a market for its diamonds, Argyle had to take on the daunting task of changing people’s minds about brown stones. This is the same task De Beers faced but avoided when its mines at Kimberley, South Africa, became as known for yellow diamonds in the 1890s as Argyle’s mine has become for browns a century later.
Luckily for De Beers, its emergence as a cartel solved the yellow-diamond disposal problem by allowing the company to blend in typically whiter goods from other mines it represented and stockpile its own lesser-grade stones. The company never had to win hearts over to what are still derisively called “Capes.”
Argyle, on the other hand, had no choice but to win hearts over to its Cape counterparts. To do this, it pitted euphemism against prejudice by rechristening brown stones as “Champagne” and “Cognac” diamonds respectively. These labels, with their Pavlovian suggestions of affluence, have worked wonders to raise consumer receptivity to all brown diamonds—from tan and tawny to amber and auburn.
Before the Argyle mine was discovered in 1979, the last diamond deposits found that featured colored stones were those of South Africa’s Cape district in the early 1870s. At first dubbed “Cape diamonds” for their geographic origin, these stones became known simply as “Capes” because of their characteristically yellowish color. Indeed, it could be argued that the late 19th century’s sudden flood of “Cape” diamonds was the forerunner of the late 20th century’s sudden flood of “Champagne” stones.
But Argyle took a completely different approach to flood control than De Beers. “Using common color items like champagne and cognac is an effective way to describe color,” says colored diamond specialist Alan Bronstein, Aurora Gems, New York. “It makes it so much easier for the consumer to relate to stones.”
No doubt about it, Argyle deserves much of the credit for the recent quantum leap in appreciation for off-color—as well as colored—diamonds.
Of course, economic conditions aided and abetted Argyle’s efforts. As jewelers took refuge in increasingly lower grades of commercial-white diamonds in the 1980s, Champagne diamonds became viable alternatives by offering a wide gamut of attractive hues at very competitive prices. “Most 1-carat Champagne diamonds will cost $500 to $2,500 per carat,” Bronstein says. “This is roughly what most jewelers want to pay for so-called white stones these days. But the buys are better in colored than colorless diamonds because you get so much more beauty and value for your money.”
In the Pink
Before it launched its “Champagne diamond” campaign, Argyle wisely focused world attention on the smattering of distinctive plum-like purple-pink stones in its annual production. So important to its company are these stones—for promotion purposes as well as revenue—that it secured exclusive rights to them in its second five-year contract with De Beers signed in late 1991.
The success of Argyle’s spectacular pinks is now so great that the company spends about all of its annual U.S. marketing budget ($5 million for both 1991 and 1992) “to develop broad consumer awareness and buying motivation” for Champagne diamonds,” says Senior Corporate Affairs Officer Ray Sparvell. As of mid-1992, the program has raised brand recognition for Champagne diamonds to almost 90% with jewelers and 12% among their customers—marketing feats for which the company is justly proud. More are coming.
Creating favorable attitudes toward Champagne diamonds has not proved as hard as history would lead you to expect. In fact, the biggest obstacle to acceptance has been tradition-bound jewelers who based their opinions of Cape and Champagne diamonds on erroneous assumptions about the acceptability of these stones. Or so Argyle found out when it did an end-run around the trade and sampled consumers directly. The company’s research indicated consumers were more apt to be turned on, not off, by Champagne stones, especially set in contrast—lighter or white diamonds against richer-colored ones.
To get jewelry manufacturers thinking in terms of light- and dark-contrast settings for Champagne diamonds, Argyle inaugurated an annual design competition with a total purse of $250,000. It also announced 5% advertising rebates for jewelers who enroll in its Champagne Diamond Registry and promote special Champagne diamond designs made by the 60 or so manufacturers in the program. To date, more than 400 retailers have signed on.
With full-scale mine production slated until 2005, Argyle will have had two decades to raise trade consciousness about its Champagne diamonds. But already it is safe to say “brown” is a taboo word in most jewelry stores, at least in connection with diamonds. In its place, consumers hear “champagne.” Inevitably, the lessons from Argyle’s stunning market makeover will be applied throughout the gem world. One of those lessons is undeniably semantic: Brown is beautiful but no match for Bubbly.
Please note: this profile was originally published in 1992 in Modern Jeweler’s ‘Gem Profiles/2: The Second 60’, written by David Federman with photographs by Tino Hammid.
The champagne diamonds shown in the header on this page are courtesy of Argyle Diamond Mines, Perth, Australia.