I just recently bought a diamond for someone I love very much. I need to open with that. Yet, the purchase of diamonds today reveals some interesting issues of the brain and relationships.
It used to be that diamonds were unique: beautiful in their ways of reflecting light, durable with a hardness still unexcelled. For these reasons, and their rarity, they became prized. They became expensive. They came to represent types of status: romantic or economic.
For most of us diamonds never have a utility other than as a representation of something implied – romance or wealth. We put them in various carrying devices we call jewelry so that they may be displayed and announce their message. Whole industries have developed to ensure that they carry the “right” message – thus ensuring their status and price.
Times are changing. Part of the story of diamonds is that we aren’t. Since the 1970’s a competitor has been available – cubic zirconia (zirconium dioxide), CZ. It is a man made alternative to diamond – admittedly a lesser alternative. How does it compare? Only the rarest and most expensive (very, very expensive) diamonds are flawless – containing no disruptions in the crystal lattice structure. CZ is man made and always flawless. Also, the structural characteristics of CZ are such that it has more “dispersion” the ability to separate white light into its color components. Thus, CZ may have more eye appeal to those looking for “fire” in the stone. Fortunately for diamond, other comparisons leave CZ behind. It is not as hard (facet edges of CZ may round out with time); and, if you leave CZ in the sun for a long time it may become milky.
But the story of competition for the coveted value of diamonds is not over. Humans keep trying. In the late 1800’s Henri Moissan found a naturally occurring stone in Arizona. While first confused with diamonds, the stones were later identified as comprised of silicon carbide (whereas diamond is nearly all carbon). The stones found by Moissan were exceedingly rare but had some appealing characteristics. Thus, much later, and very recently, manufacturers found a way to make silicon carbide into another man made diamond look-alike – Moissanite. These began to appear in jewelry in the late 1990’s.
Moissanite, as a man made stone, is flawless routinely. It refracts light better than diamond. It is nearly as hard as diamond. Because it is man-made it is also much less expensive than diamond – particularly given that it is routinely flawless. While jewelry of Moissanite is protected by patent in some countries (thus raising the price), the patents are due to expire in 2015 (see Wikipedia for more).
Going further, there is the “blood diamond” issue. While less dramatically called “conflict diamonds”, there is the problem that some real diamonds are mined in some parts of Africa to finance war. Miners are exploited, and the proceeds are used to propagate conflict. Not a pretty picture. Thus many customers try to avoid “blood diamonds” (as we did). Yet, you can’t tell by looking. The only reassurance is the reputation of the seller.
So, what are the hard-data perspectives of the diamond equation today? Well, for a given amount of money a customer can buy a smaller, flawed, less colorful stone which might have been mined by a man (or woman or child) slaving in a war-ravaged jungle. Or, for the same amount of money a customer can buy a much larger, not flawed, more colorful stone manufactured in comparative safety. Your choice. When Moissanite goes off patent in a few years the equation may shift further.
Now let’s return to the beginning. I just bought a diamond. Why did I do that? Because what I was giving to my dear love is an idea – the object is only a demonstration of that idea. And right now, the idea is best represented by diamond.
So now switch gears. One of Malcolm Gladwell’s contributions to our collective insights is his book, “Tipping Point“. Therein he distills through stories the perspective that in the collective human consciousness there are ways of doing things which have become established over time. Those ways have become traditions. They are propagated by feelings that “this is the way you do it” (whatever “it” may be). Yet new information may build to the point where feelings change – sometimes with dramatic abruptness.
The concept of the tipping point is the real story behind the story of diamonds. Whether diamonds will reach a tipping point or not remains to be seen. But, these stones provide an interesting perspective on facts, circumstances, and beliefs. Situations of individuals or of organizations may build to a point where sentiment suddenly shifts. Businesses which fail to “see it coming” may fall prey to abrupt change in consumption patterns. So, when it comes to businesses built upon feelings of consumers it is critical to look what supports those feelings, and what may challenge those feelings. It is both true and false that people don’t like change. Feelings may be tenacious in the face of mounting contrary evidence. In this way change may be resisted. Yet, the human brain does notice new information. After sufficient time and examples, new information may erode the basis for feelings. And, a tipping point may happen. When it happens there is no going back.
Whether the topic is diamonds, the latest fashion, brand loyalty, the stock market, or a host of other “feeling supported” topics, the perspective is the same. Feelings may run deep; yet, they are vulnerable to change. And when they do shift the whole way of “seeing” a subject may change.