Diamonds versus Gold

I divide my writing into two kinds: gold versus diamonds. Sometimes I knowingly palm cubic zirconia or pyrite onto you guys, but mostly I make an honest attempt to produce diamonds or gold. On the blog, I mainly attempt to hawk rough diamonds and gold ore. Tempo was more of an attempt at creating a necklace: polished, artistically cut diamonds set in purified gold.

I find the gold/diamond distinction useful in most types of creative information work.

What do I mean here? Both are very precious materials. Both are materials that are already precious in their natural state, as rough diamonds or gold ore. Refinement  only adds limited amounts of additional value. Both are mostly useless, but do have some uses: gold in conducting electricity, diamonds for polishing other materials. But there the similarities end.

Gold is almost infinitely adaptable. It is malleable and ductile. It can be worked very easily and finely using very little energy and tools made of nearly any other metal It is a nearly perfectly fungible commodity. Financially, it is practically a liquid rather than a solid. It plays very well with other materials and adapts to them. Its purity can be measured with near-perfect objective precision, and its value is entirely market-driven. It has no identity. Its value is entirely intrinsic and based on the rarity of the metal itself.

Gold can be melted, drained of history, and reshaped into new artifacts. When you add gold to gold, the whole is equal to the sum of the parts. When you subtract gold from gold, the pieces retain all the value of the whole. You can work gold in reversible ways.

Diamonds are not adaptable at all. They are the hardest things around, and the only thing that can work a diamond is another diamond. They are nearly perfectly non-fungible. The more precious ones are so non-fungible, they have names, personalities and histories that are nearly impossible to erase. As economic goods, they transcend mere brandhood and aspire to sentience: we speak of cursed or lucky diamonds. Diamonds do not play well with other materials. Other materials — gold in particular — must adapt to them. Purity and refinement are not very useful concepts  to apply to a diamond. In fact, a diamond is defined by its impurities. The famous Hope diamond is blue because of trace quantities of boron. Color, clarity and flaws can be assessed, but ultimately working a diamond is about revealing its personality rather than molding it. Diamonds that win personality contests go on to become famous. Those that fail to impress the contest judges are murdered — broken up into smaller pieces or degraded to industrial status.

The value of a diamond is in the eye of the beholder. At birth, rough diamonds are assessed by expert sightholders, and at every subsequent transaction, human judges assess value. A diamond is born as a brand. An extreme, immutable brand that can only be destroyed by destroying the diamond itself. And finally — and perhaps most importantly — a diamond’s value has nothing to do with its material constitution. Carbon is among the commonest elements on earth. A diamond’s value is entirely based on the immense amounts of energy required to fuel the process that creates it. They are found in places where deep, high-energy violence has occurred, such as the insides of volcanic pipes.

Diamonds are forever. They cannot be drained of history. When you break up a diamond — you cannot add diamonds — the pieces have less value than the whole. Diamonds can only be worked in irreversible, destructive ways.

Diamonds represent a becoming kind of value; the products of creative destruction. If you’ve read my Be Slightly Evil newsletter issue, Be Somebody or Do Something, you know the symbolism I am getting at here. You also know where my sympathies lie.

I find it particularly amusing that the value of gold is measured in purity carats, while the value of diamonds is measured in weight carats. Purity and weight are what are known as intensive and extensive measures. The size of a diamond is a measure of the quantity of tectonic violence that created it.

I prefer diamonds to gold, perhaps because I am not an original thinker, but a creative-destructive one. I am not very good at discovering rare things. I am better at applying intense pressure to commonplace things, in the hopes of producing a diamond. Sometimes I stumble upon natural rough diamonds, but more often, I attempt to manufacture artificial ones from coal. They are not as pretty, and it is very hard to manufacture large ones, but when I succeed, I produce legitimate diamonds, born under pressure.

Gold, I rarely mine myself (and earth-bound humans cannot manufacture it; only dying suns can). I buy gold in the form of second hand jewelry at the bookstore, melt it down, and rework into other things. Most often, into settings for diamonds.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Aaron Davies says

    Nice metaphors. Can you work in alchemy, real (nuclear) or other?

  2. Interesting. I was expecting you to conclude the opposite based on the fact that your ideas are adaptable. I can take your stuff, combine it with something else and mold it into something different. I suppose given your use of the analogy that would mean we are playing with the same carbon, or perhaps designing different settings for the same diamond.

    • The key factor is in whether an idea maintains its identity and history on its journey of citations/references/incorporation. Gold ideas are more like those urban legends or common idioms that nobody can quite trace to an origin, I’d say.

      Don’t want to push the metaphor too far though.