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The Perfect Gift

The hard facts about girls and diamonds

By Leah McLaren, The Globe and Mail
Saturday, November 24, 2001

The Perfect Gift
  • Sparkly jewellery says love, a Cuisinart says what's for dinner
  • The hard facts about girls and diamonds
  • Great gifts for the Christmas cook
  • Getting into the holiday spirits
  • Fashion List
  • Toy List
  • Goods List

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  • 'Tis the season to be careful
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  • Leah McLarenThere are few more rarefied pleasures than shopping for diamonds. But shopping for diamonds in Montreal during a pre-Christmas snow dusting is Canada's version of the consumer divine.

    The Birks flagship location on St. Catherine Street has recently been renovated and restored to its original splendour - a vast space filled with chandelier light glinting off dazzling reflectives.

    My male companion and I bypass the lesser baubles and move directly to the shark tank. There, behind the glass, is a spread of diamond solitaire engagement rings set in platinum and gold, all one carat or above. This is serious uptown princess stuff - the sort of hardware that decorates the hand of every pedicured, thirtysomething female guest currently checked into the Four Seasons in Maui.

    I point to the stone that catches my eye (the huge and perfect one). The salesman slips it on my left ring digit. "That's a 1.2 carat flawless, with a D-colour rating," he says, though not to me. The price is $30,400.

    "So, er, honey," says my companion, "what do you think?"

    "Mmmm," I sigh, holding out my arm and flexing my fingers backward like a Disney cartoon Cinderella. "Sparkly."

    My companion produces a 10-power loupe, holds it up to the stone and studies it. "I think I see a little pique there," he says.

    "That is only dust, sir," the salesman insists. "The diamond is flawless."

    "This is the ideal cut," my companion tells me, "a 58-facet cut invented in 1914 by Tolkowsky. This is a very nice rock. Diamonds are not rare, but stones like this are hard to find."

    Okay, so Matthew Hart isn't here to buy me a diamond. In fact, the man has never bought one in his life. And despite being the author of the recently published book about the precious commodity, Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession, he is not feeling particularly romantic about precious stones this Christmas season.

    "Let's just say I don't have anybody in mind for a diamond right now," says the tall, white-haired Toronto writer. "I was married once, but my wife already had a huge diamond from her grandmother, so what could I do for her?"

    It is a favourite saying among diamantaires that their entire industry depends upon two pillars: vanity and greed. Luckily, they point out, the human race can be relied upon for a perpetual supply of both. Hart's book, which opens up the subject of the rock in all its facets, from war-fuelling "blood diamonds" to the ad slogans that shaped the industry, shows that the reality of the business is far more complicated.

    The romantic appeal of diamonds, Hart says, is an entirely manufactured desire. One fuelled in large part by De Beers's monopolistic price controls on the commodity.

    "Without price controls, diamonds would lose their mystique," he explains. "You don't want to spend 75 bucks on a ring your buddy bought for his girlfriend for $6,000 last season. They're not pork bellies - they're jewels. They are a luxury. If you took away all the diamonds in the world right now, no one would suffer except the people in the diamond industry."

    Fat, fiery rocks are certainly ostentatious, but I've always rather admired that about them. What bothers me about diamonds is the way they make a woman, particularly a young woman, look like the property of a man. Wearing a high-set Tiffany solitaire is akin to having the word "TAKEN" tattooed on your forehead - but as my dying-to-get-engaged friends hungrily point out, this is the whole point.

    Hart is well-versed the sexual politics of diamonds. Eighty-five per cent of American women own a piece of diamond jewellery, he reports. And in the case of married women, 80 per cent received their diamond as a gift, usually from a man. The same goes for 64 per cent of single women. Popular reports of single girls buying their own diamond rings in recent years haven't made a discernable dent in these numbers.

    Even the method by which the stone is mined is fraught with intimate connotations, as Hart's description of the kimberlite pipe demonstrates: "Gases in the kimberlite expand, in the way that gases in a bottle of champagne expand when the cork is pulled. The kimberlite gushes wildly the final distance to the top, accelerating to at least a hundred miles an hour, and explodes through the surface. The blast spews up a fountain of ejecta into the air - boulders, lava, and billions of mineral grains, including, sometimes, diamonds."

    Ultimately, however, the popular image of the diamond as the classic love token was spearheaded not by tradition, but by a copywriter by the name of Frances Gerety, who, in 1948, came up with the now-ubiquitous slogan, "A diamond is forever." Within three years, 80 per cent of American marriages were starting with a diamond ring and Gerety's line had been dubbed the greatest advertising slogan of the 20th century.

    Hart and I discuss diamonds unromantically, like the couple of cynical journalists we are, while wandering into Kaufmann de Suisse, a plushy 48-year-old boutique on Crescent Street. "I'm not a diamond girl," I shrug.

    "Don't speak so soon," says the older and wiser Hart. "They might grow on you."

    E. Puis Kaufmann, the dapper, elderly proprietor, greets us and pulls out his best merchandise. Hart is captivated by a five-carat, canary yellow diamond. He handles it like a grade-school nerd tending to a $163,000 pet rock. Kaufmann quietly hands me a pair of one carat each, $21,000 diamond solitaire earrings. I put them on thinking, whatever. When he turns the mirror toward me, I am transfixed.

    Kaufman, the courtly diamond dealer, smiles. "Given in love and hopefully received in love," he says. While I can tell he has said this to hundreds, possibly thousands of young women before me, I swoon.

    Email Leah McLaren

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