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 marketing 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 pale 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 aversion to brown in 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 percent 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.
Argyle, on the other had, had no choice but to win hearts. 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 twentieth century’s sudden flood of “Champagne” stones.