When the word came that the women of America had to give up their diamonds for the cause of human rights in South Africa, the first response was shock. Life without a little glitter and sparkle was going to be hard. With no precious gems to line up, look at and polish, what would distract the average female from the more mundane problems of life such as a nasty boss, a nagging backache and a son who was failing geometry? After a few days' hesitation, though, it became clear that the little darlin's would rise to the challenge.

Among the first and most exemplary volunteers were the ladies of the Shadyside Nursing Home in Winnonee, Wis. They remembered World War II, after all, when homemakers were asked to contribute used tin cans and stacks of old newspapers. If diamonds were needed for another worthy cause, they were willing to make the sacrifice. Long, triple-strand diamond necklaces -- relics of the '20s -- were the most common pieces of jewelry at Shadyside, and they made quite a show when they were carried garland-style by six spry octogenarians down to the collection center.

Whole neighborhoods organized in Alabama, where at designated homes women met to drink sweet iced tea and pry diamond chips out of old fraternal order rings. At a federal prison for women in West Virginia, inmates searched through their most precious keepsakes -- Bibles, love letters, pictures of their children, precious gems -- and came up with a wide variety of diamond ankle bracelets, all for a good cause. Punk rockers pulled the sparklers from ears and noses. Collections were taken up in laundromats and bingo parlors. And in small towns from Cliff Hollow, Ky., to Lost Creek, Alaska, women who would never have stepped outside the front door without their diamond chokers made the sacrifice.

Tens of millions of working mothers took time during lunch hour to run over to safe deposit boxes and dig out the large, uncut stones that had been saved for college tuitions. Welfare mothers gave what they could -- usually just a few baubles and trinkets, but of good quality. And three women in St. Louis, who heard the request for donations while shepherding a Little League team through the fried chicken line at Roy Rogers, immediately took off their tiaras and mailed them in.

The whole campaign was really an inspiration, and it had the added benefit of giving women the chance to believe they had done something important for a change. For that, a vote of thanks is due to Donald Regan, the White House chief of staff, who thought the whole thing up. Where do you suppose that man gets all his marvelous ideas?