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Diamond Portraits - Mary Frances Gerety

Mary Frances Gerety is not a name that many people are familiar with, even those in the diamond industry. She produced one of the most brilliant pieces of diamond marketing ever, and all of us working in diamonds owe our livelihoods in part to her. Gerety, who went by her middle name Frances, coined the immortal marketing slogan "a diamond is forever". When it was launched, it helped to associate diamonds with love, and solidified the role of diamonds in marriage and engagements. Today's diamond industry owes its survival largely to this successful marketing drive.

By the late 1930s, after suffering through nearly 10 years of the Great Depression, the market for diamonds had mostly disappeared, and prices had collapsed. De Beers had closed most of its operating mines, and was desperate to make diamonds appeal to a wider customer base. In 1938, Harry Oppenheimer was sent to New York to develop a new marketing strategy in the United States. He hired the Philadelphia-based marketing agency N. W. Ayer & Son.

At the time, N. W. Ayer & Son was the oldest marketing agency in the country, having been established in 1869. Throughout its history, it was known for its ability to create memorable slogans for its clients, including "reach out and touch someone" on behalf of AT&T, "when it rains it pours" for Morton Salt, and "be all you can be" for the US Army. Oppenheimer had given Ayer president Gerold Lauck a commitment that Ayer would become De Beers' exclusive ad agency in the United States if it could help push customers towards larger, higher-valued diamonds. By 1943, the firm had still not delivered anything to De Beers that they were satisfied with, and a new team was brought in to look for new opportunities.

Frances Gerety was a copywriter assigned to the De Beers account. At that time, women in advertising generally only worked on accounts that involved selling something to other women. "A diamond is forever" came to her as she was getting ready to go to sleep, and she wrote it down on a piece of paper beside her bed late at night. In the morning, when she presented it to her superiors, who were all men, they initially dismissed it because of its incorrect grammar. Even Gerety had felt that it was not one of the best ideas she had come up with. However, it achieved the goal of casting diamonds as a symbol of love and the eternity of marriage, and so was adopted and put into print in 1947.

After World War II, there was an unprecedented flood of marriages in the US, as young soldiers returned home from Europe. Diamonds had not yet become associated with engagements, and De Beers and Ayer had struck upon an opportunity to change that. Before World War II, less than 10 percent of marriages featured a diamond engagement ring. By 1951, just four years after the launch of the slogan, that figure had risen to 80 percent, and has not changed much ever since.

The slogan was a big change to the conceptual wisdom of advertising. It did not represent a particular brand, and did not reference a particular sale. The goal was simply to convey the eternal emotional value surrounding the diamond as a general category. Gerety's previous work had also focused on the themes of permanence and timelessness. The brilliance of the slogan also suggested to both men and women that a marriage wasn't forever without a diamond. By the 1950s, jewelers were reporting that a woman didn't consider herself to be engaged without a diamond ring. According to the New York Times, N. W. Ayers' plan was to "create a situation where almost every person pledging marriage feels compelled to acquire a diamond engagement ring." The ads even went as far as to consistently reference "the engagement diamond tradition". In fact, no such tradition had ever existed, but consumers still felt compelled to follow through with what everyone else seemed to be doing.

Frances Gerety would continue on the De Beers account for the rest of her career, and was in charge of all De Beers marketing until 1970. Her message shifted several times in response to the needs of the diamond mining company. For example, her advertising had long featured the subscript, "the bigger, the better" to nudge customers towards larger stones. However, in the 1960s, De Beers had a large surplus of small diamonds that were in low demand, and so the advertising changed to "size isn't everything." The ads would later go on to suggest that a man should commit to a certain budget for his diamond purchase with the phrase "how else could two months' salary last forever?"

The slogan would gain even more credibility with a 1956 Ian Fleming book, the fourth in his James Bond series, named Diamonds are Forever. A movie of the same title would follow in 1971, with an immortal theme song performed by Shirley Bassey. De Beers would continue to use the slogan as part of its generic diamond marketing drive until the late 2000s. At the time, the company's market share had contracted considerably, and De Beers felt that it was no longer prudent to spend money on marketing that would largely benefit its competitors. A few years later, De Beers started using the slogan again, this time solely to promote its own diamonds, its diamond brand Forevermark, and retail chain De Beers Jewellers.

While Frances Gerety may not be known to many, she was instrumental in positioning diamonds as a symbol of love, achievement, and status. Ironically, the woman who turned the marriage proposal on its head never got married herself. She was a dedicated career woman, which at the time was a rarity. J. Courtney Sullivan immortalized Gerety further as the lead character in her best-selling book The Engagements. Gerety died in 1999, just a few weeks after Advertising Age named "a diamond is forever" the greatest advertising slogan of the 20th century.

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