Geraldine Bedell: Diamonds are for never in the modern world

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The Independent Online

Diamonds ­ this was the 1930s ­ were deliciously symbolic of desire and power, sexily feminine and fabulously glamorous. So what went wrong? De Beers, which controls 80 per cent of the world diamond market, yesterday announced a 25 per cent fall in its half-year sales.

The first problem for diamonds is that they don't go with denim. There are, these days, very few wearing occasions for tiaras, big brooches and chunky diamond bracelets. Even diamond rings, despite their relative smallness, have annoying sticking-out bits which get tangled up in children's hair when you are washing it, or jammed in the printer when you're trying to free the paper.

As Mae West implied, diamonds also acquired a reputation for being bestowed on women in return for sexual favours. And we like to think we don't have those sorts of transactional relationships any more. The whole ritual of engagement-wedding-eternity rings (with diamond necklace for the mistress in due course, if you're that sort of bloke) has become rather unfashionably H Samuel. You can, after all, buy gold and diamond jewellery in Argos these days, and the stuff you get from those pyramid jewellery selling operations looks almost like the real thing.

Some women earn more than their partners, some make most of the sexual demands: for them, the overtones of reimbursement must be rather confusing. The old idea, presumably, was that even if the man disappeared, you got to keep the jewels: it was like him giving you money without quite having to say: "Here you are dear, I think of you as a prostitute." But how valuable are diamonds, if you can't wear them because they look stupid with your trainers?

This is not to say that women (even high-earning, predatory women) don't like getting presents. In truth, how much women like getting presents probably cannot be overestimated. But you can wear a Prada cardi on the bus without looking like you're asking to be mugged. And if a guy wants to make a really grand gesture, what's wrong with a car? A painting? A house? A private island? The great thing about all of those is that you can't lose them down the back of the dressing table. And when you have the burglars, they won't be nicked.

There is, of course, a more serious reason why diamonds have fallen out of favour, which is that they are sometimes a branch of the arms trade. In Angola, the Congo, Sierra Leone and Liberia, rebel forces have mined diamonds to fund brutal wars. And although De Beers has campaigned, latterly, against this trade, it remains impossible to know whether the solitaire you buy in Hatton Garden has on it the blood of people in Africa. Campaigners have predicted that diamonds could go the way of fur.

I still, I admit, get a lump in my throat when I see those diamond-is-forever ads at Christmas time, aimed at blokes who have no sense of what to buy their wives. They usually feature women with swan-like necks, wearing diamond pendants and nothing else (and we know why).

My lump in the throat is a throwback: the only people who wear jewels today are dowagers with make-up clogging their pores. In an era of Naomi Klein and Gothenburg, when we are all experiencing consumerism ennui, it is no longer cool to flaunt your wealth. (It's OK to have it, of course, just not to have it on your body in a gaudy, meretricious kind of way). Today you're supposed to use money to heighten and perfect your experience. Unconvinced that there's much we can shore up against the future, what we want is memories.

Forget diamonds being forever, and all that stuff; let's go to Africa ourselves and climb Mount Kilimanjaro.