Diamonds are not forever

Last modified on June 11th, 2007

While sitting on the couch tonight waiting patiently for my groceries to magically unload themselves into the cupboards, I stumbled upon a very interesting article on the dupe of the century — diamond engagement rings. I encourage everyone to read that article.

Before I get into it, I’m going to state, for the record, that my ex-girlfriend and I fought over this topic on more than a few occasions. You see, about four months into the relationship, I started noticing a lot of wedding material around her house — the odd magazine, the web-browser left conveniently open to a wedding ring website, pictures of wedding dresses on her desktop, etc. At first, I kind of just shrugged it off — she seemed happy, and who was I to say anything. The main problem was of course, at the time we had just started to enter into our endless-spiral, and I thought discussing marriage was pretty much the last thing we should have been worried about as a couple dealing with our very existence as a couple.

Finally my curiosity got the better of me and I finally just asked her what the deal was. Eventually, that conversation lead into the discussion of wedding rings and what she had always envisioned for her wedding, which of course was rather large and elaborate for both the ceremony and the ring. At the time, I was a struggling student with about $40,000 worth of debt on my shoulders, so I simply said there was no way in hell I’d be able to afford anything like that in the next few years, which of course, completely upset her. You see, I completely refuse to go into further debt for a wedding, under pretty much all circumstances. I don’t mind, as a couple, setting aside money each month to finance a wedding, but taking out tens of thousands of dollars for a ceremony straight out of Cinderella just simply isn’t my style, especially considering that most of the best weddings I have ever been to have been small and informal. To that end, I recognize most women have dreamed about that moment for most of their lives, so I’ll definitely have an open ear when the time comes — the only constraint I am putting on it is that it must, in true Ukrainian style, have an open bar.

If you consider that most couples nowadays strive to have equal responsibilities in a marriage, then the ring is pretty much one of the only inequitable components of the modern relationship:

The retail fantasy known as a “traditional” American wedding comprises many delicious absurdities, ranging from personalized wedding stamps to ring pillows designed for dogs to favors like “Love Mints.” Of all these baubles, though, perhaps the most insidious is the engagement ring. Most Americans can say no to the “celebrity garter belt” on offer for a mere $18.95 from Weddings With Class. But more than 80 percent of American brides receive a diamond engagement ring (at an average cost of around $3,200) before they get married. Few stop to think about what, beyond the misty promise of endless love, the ring might actually signify. Why would you, after all? A wedding is supposed to be a celebration. Only the uncharitable would look a sparkly diamond in the eye—never mind a man on his knee—and ask what it means.

But there’s a powerful case to be made that in an age of equitable marriage the engagement ring is an outmoded commodity—starting with the obvious fact that only the woman gets one. The diamond ring is the site of retrograde fantasies about gender roles. What makes it pernicious—as opposed to tackily fun—is its cost (these days you don’t need just a diamond; you need a good diamond), its dubious origins, and the cynical blandishments of TV and print ads designed to suggest a ring’s allure through the crassest of stereotypes.

I’ve purposely brought this topic up when in the presence of female friends, and you’re welcome to try this at home if you’re brave enough (I recommend copious amounts of liquor prior to heading down this path though). Start with the topic of equal rights between men and women, and everyone in the room will nod their heads in agreement. Eventually make your way into the topic of ring-inequality, and most women in the room (at least most women I’ve ever encountered) will stare at you blankly, shaking their heads in unison and muttering ‘he just doesn’t get it’ under their breath.

Most couples would probably be surprised to learn that the super-expensive engagement-ring tradition didn’t actually begin until part way through the 1900s, when De Beers, a large diamond producer, started a massive marketing campaign to promote the diamond:

In 1919, De Beers experienced a drop in diamond sales that lasted for two decades. So in the 1930s it turned to the firm N.W. Ayer to devise a national advertising campaign—still relatively rare at the time—to promote its diamonds. Ayer convinced Hollywood actresses to wear diamond rings in public, and, according to Edward Jay Epstein in The Rise and Fall of the Diamond, encouraged fashion designers to discuss the new “trend” toward diamond rings. Between 1938 and 1941, diamond sales went up 55 percent. By 1945 an average bride, one source reported, wore “a brilliant diamond engagement ring and a wedding ring to match in design.” The capstone to it all came in 1947, when Frances Gerety—a female copywriter, who, as it happened, never married—wrote the line “A Diamond Is Forever.” The company blazoned it over the image of happy young newlyweds on their honeymoon. The sale of diamond engagement rings continued to rise in the 1950s, and the marriage between romance and commerce that would characterize the American wedding for the next half-century was cemented. By 1965, 80 percent of American women had diamond engagement rings. The ring had become a requisite element of betrothal—as well as a very visible demonstration of status. Along the way, the diamond industry’s guidelines for the “customary” cost of a ring doubled from one month’s salary to two months’ salary.

Now to be honest, while me penning this entry at all may convince some females I’m completely against engagement rings and anything of that sort, the truth is that I’m not. But my problem arises from my last relationship where the cost of the ring and the lavishness of the ceremony were apparently more important than what both of those two events signified. Two month’s salary is a lot of money for most people — with my own salary, it’s close to a down-payment on a cheap house in the country. Considering most couples enter into marriage at relatively young ages, I just find it rather pointless to sink that much money into something that in my eyes is rather insignificant considering there are far better uses for that money. At the very least, you would think such a gesture would be reciprocal in nature given the advances in the last century for equal rights:

On the face of it, the engagement ring’s origins as a financial commitment should make modern brides-to-be wary. After all, virginity is no longer a prerequisite for marriage, nor do the majority of women consider marriageability their prime asset. Many women hope for a marriage in which housework, child-rearing, and breadwinning are equitably divided. The engagement ring doesn’t fit into this intellectual framework. Rather, its presence on a woman’s finger suggests that she needs to trap a man into “commitment” or be damaged if he leaves. (In most states today, if a groom abandons a bride, she is entitled to keep the ring, whereas if she leaves him, she must give it back.) Nor is it exactly “equitable” to demand that a partner shell out a sixth of a year’s salary, demonstrating that he can “provide” for you and a future family, before you agree to marry him.

It may seem curious that feminism has made inroads on many retrograde customs—name-changing, for example—but not on the practice of giving engagement rings. Part of the reason the ring has persisted and thrived is clearly its role in what Thorstein Vebelen called the economy of “conspicuous consumption.” Part of the reason could be that many young women, raised in a realm of relative equality, never think rigorously about the traditions handed down to them. So it’s easy to simply regard a ring as a beautiful piece of jewelry and accept it in kind (I’m guilty myself). But it’s also the case that a murkier truth lies within its brilliance: Women still measure their worth in relationship to marriage in ways that men don’t. And many are looking for men who will bear the burden of providing for them, while demanding equality in other ways. (It’s telling, for example, that in many parts of Scandinavia, where attitudes toward gender are more egalitarian, both men and women wear engagement rings.)

You see, I have yet to be in a serious relationship that wasn’t primarily one-sided, both emotionally and financially. I have often paid more rent, dished out more for vacations, written more poems, given more hugs, and in general, more compassion and understanding than my significant others. And while I don’t think relationships are always equally shared in terms of things like finances, the differences become glaringly apparent after the demise of the relationship, and the pieces of yourself that it takes with it. At the end of my last relationship, I found myself bouncing from couch to couch, realizing that I still was paying rent in a house that I was no longer welcome in, and still paying bills for things I had never seen.

In the last few weeks, two of my friends have had to deal with divorce. I myself watched my parents split years ago as well, and most of my close friends growing up also came from broken homes. The current divorce rate in Canada is above 40%, with it breaking 50% in parts of the United States.

So for those of you considering marriage or thinking long term, I would challenge you to think about what the nature of love means to you. Is it a ring, or is it something more? Is it the security of having someone sleeping beside you, or is it the absolute contentment in having that one person next to you? It is something I have struggled to understand lately, wondering sometimes if I’m one of the last people on the planet who thinks he actually gets it.

Back in November, while dripping blood in a hospital bed at St. Paul’s Hospital in pain, I remember staring blankly at my cell phone (through my only working eye) wondering why the very person I had supported over the last several years, the person I had helped through school, through financial troubles, whose tears I had caught more times than I can possibly count, the very first person I felt compelled to call from my hospital bed that night, refused to pick up her phone. It’s the same thing I wondered a few weeks ago, while sitting on my couch recovering from my last surgery, reading an email from her mom wishing me well — I wondered then why it was I hadn’t heard from her in several months, and why it was that she didn’t think I was worth caring about in any capacity any more. If she were to pick up the phone tomorrow and ask for help, I would be there for her, despite everything that has happened between us. But she can’t be bothered to ask how I’m doing after surgery, or return a simple email to show me that she once cared.

And perhaps the hard truth is that she never really did love me — maybe she only loved what a diamond ring could give her.

16 responses to “Diamonds are not forever”

  1. hesty says:

    Don’t worry dude. We should all spread the news about De Beers scam. You can google for “diamond invention” for more in depth story about the deceits surrounding diamond industry.

  2. Kasia says:

    Duaner, didn’t anyone ever tell you girls are like crows in that it’s in our nature to like shiny things – buckles on purses and patent leather shoes and yes, sparkly rocks. All this equality stuff is fine and dandy for the most part but sometimes, a girl just wants to feel like a girl. I have LOADS to say about this (surprise, surprise) and you don’t even have to ply me with drinks although I will never say no to a cosmo… in a shiny glass.

  3. Keira-Anne says:

    Ouuu now here is a subject I can sink my teeth into. I feel quite strong and quite stubborn about it all. Before I say my piece, I blogged about this subject a few months back, so feel free to check it out to hear some more of my thoughts.

    Anyways, so that I won’t deviate into a separate tangent, let me comment on what you wrote about, Duane. I think you’ve got a good head on your shoulders in this regard; by that I mean that you are not disillusioned.

    A “wedding” is very different from a “marriage” and this concept is lost on the countless couples that buy into one of the most booming industries in North America. There are wedding coordinators, wedding shoppers and countless ploys to lure brides distracted by the sparkle of the biggest diamond.

    In all honesty, I certainly dreamed of my so-called fairytale wedding as a little girl. That dream, however, included Eric Estrada as the groom, so needless to say, my ideals about that special day have changed. I’ve been to a lot of weddings, heard about a lot of divorces and been blessed enough to take the time to examine myself and what truly matters to me. What matters most is the commitment made, the covenant sworn between two people who want to be partners and lovers for their entire lives.

    About your ring…the symbolism of the ring was lost many decades ago in my opinion. Now it’s about the bigger diamond, the better diamond, the shiny gold (or platinum, if you will), the perfect setting – completely flawless. The ring is, simply, supposed to be symbolic of the commitment that has been made. Do I want to wear a wedding ring? Absolutely. I want everyone to know that I’ve committed my life to someone. Do I want a 1.5 karat solitaire in a platinum setting? Not if I had my choice.

    My dream wedding today? My awesome family, my amazing friends and the one that loves me enough to be with me for the rest of his life. Nothing fancy – just time spent together in true celebration.

    As for the rest of your post, I’m not going to comment on the roles between men and women because, truth be told, I’m a bit chauvinistic towards women.

  4. Rebecca says:

    lol @ Keira and Eric Estrada – that’s okay… I used to want to marry Boy George so um yeah.

    I don’t care what kind of ring is on my finger, I used to tell John he could have popped the question with an onion ring like Homer. So much of our engagement is a blur right now, but those little quirky unperfect things make it memorable…

  5. Clay says:

    It is not an issue of equality so much as it’s an issue of Venus and Mars. It has nothing to do with a woman paying for something for you on parity (unless it’s a lawn mower or tool shed which she will probably buy you at some point hehehe), it has to do with a symbol that has become the norm and that women both enjoy and expect. It doesn’t matter that this is a piece of culture that started only 85 years ago, it has become public domain and is entrenched. Every cultural tradition ever developed started sometime, and they didn’t all start 2000 years ago… My personal belief is that the engagement ring should be (to most women) a symbol of something, not a price tag to hang off your hat a la minnie pearl. I’m sure that there are women who are hung up on the size and the price tag, but for guys like u and me, the answer is pretty easy…don’t be with girls like that.

  6. Keira-Anne says:

    Wow, Rebecca…and I thought my childhood crushes were embarrassing! Let’s compare, shall we? (Duane, you don’t mind if we use this comment board to do so, do you? Feel free to share yours too!)

    In (somewhat of a) chronological order:

    1. Bryan Adams
    2. Eric Estrada
    3. Bruce Springsteen (this was rather short-lived around my fourth birthday)
    4. Donnie Whalberg (I had a lapse between the age of 5 and 10)
    5. Joey McIntyre
    6. Billy Corgan
    7. Bono (I was convinced we’d marry because I figured when I was 20, he’d be 42, so it’s all good)
    8. Simon LeBon (again, I figured the age difference was no biggie)

    I’m pretty sure those were the only significant players. Would you believe that my tv in my Barbie dreamhouse had a picture of CHiPs’ Ponch behind the screen? It’s true.

  7. Duane Storey says:

    Ok, I’ll chime in.. Not sure the order:

    1) Claire Forlani
    2) Jennifer Love Hewitt
    3) That girl on page 98 of the Sear’s Catalog
    4) Katie Holmes

    That’s pretty much it.. I wasn’t big into crushes..

  8. Clay says:

    Wonder Woman
    Jamie Somers
    Valerie Bertinelli
    That changling chick from Space: 1999 (was it Mia?)

    Yeah yeah i’m showing my age…

  9. Jenny says:

    I am in total agreement with you on this subject. To this day the most beautiful weddings I attended were those that were more about the couple than about big dresses and cheesy music.
    The ring is not about the relationship it’s more about a girl having something to show off to her friends ‘look how much my man loves me and how well he can provide for me’. It seems awfully archaic to me.
    If people spent as much time on what happens after the wedding then on the day itself I doubt divorce rates would be so high , I speak from personal experience as well.
    Childhood crushes

    1) Corey Hart
    2) Jordan McKnight
    3) Jon Bon Jovi
    4) Zack Morris

  10. Dori says:

    Duane, wow… Ya know, speaking as the girl in my family- when you grow up with a fantasy that everyone from your mother to your aunties and best friends talk and talk about- OH the dress, the ring, the big fancy ceremony! You know, I think most women as adults never even stop to think about these things and ask about the deeper significance. The dream is so entrenched, whatever!

    I’m not saying that’s any excuse, but there is that attachment to the dream, to the history of the dream, etc… I honestly think most women never even stop to consider that there are other ways to celebrate that amazing love you are sharing with someone- I’m speaking from experience, watching MANY friends take the debt road all the way to the church. Thanks for tackling a very touchy subject.

    And Duane- I think you are compiling a very clear picture of what kind of woman you DO want when the right one comes along- BAM. it will be very clear.

    And I may have you all topped with crushes:
    1.) David Bowie – Labyrinth, the tights, the hair, and oh those eyes!

  11. Duane Storey says:

    Dori, thanks! She’s out there.. I’m gonna find her…

  12. […] a bit sad that I think is pretty awesome, at least in terms of the things I’ve written – so check it out. 1 […]

  13. De Beers have done one thing incredibly well. They managed to change public perception of their product to increase their margins and maximize profits.

    Engagement rings have become a symbol of a male’s self worth and more over, a couples prosperity. There was a time when an engagement ring represented one thing and one thing only… a promise.

    Unfortunately, we don’t put much stock in promises anymore.

    Besides, you can’t upsell a promise…

    On the other hand, if you can imply that a man’s love is directly linked to the worth of that ring, well then you got yourself a few extra thousand dollars in pocket, and with all the financing options available, why not get a matching bracelet.

  14. Victoria says:

    “Cinderella weddings” are the biggest crock of crap I’ve ever heard of. When you think that you could use that $10,000-ish as a downpayment for a mortgage instead of blowing it on pillows for some rat-sized dog and a dress you’ll never wear again all for _one freaking day_, it really makes me sick.

  15. Sebrina says:


    I feel the need to speak on behalf of my sex. I realize I’m… 7 months late, but I’m spending my morning reading various blogs while I wait to take Denny (my dog) to the vet. Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that I completely understand what you’re saying. I’m aware that a lot of women think her wedding and her ring are the most important things in the universe. My sister and mother recently got married, and my brother is getting married in a few weeks. Despite the fact that my sister just had a baby, and was saving to make a down-payment on her first house, she got her dream wedding, and dream dress. My brother’s fiance recently got upset with me because I will be visiting my father and old friends during the week of her wedding, because they are in the same town and because of how busy I am, I never get to visit. Even though I fully intend to attend the wedding, visiting the town for more than one reason didn’t sit well with her. She actually thinks her wedding is the most important thing in the world. Both my mother and my sister want to see me get married and do the whole sha-bang, and they don’t understand why I don’t want to, and why I don’t care about having a big wedding, the perfect ring, and the perfect dress. If I ever do get married, I want a small wedding, so small that I only want like 4 or 5 people there for me. Hell, I’d even elope if I thought my mother wouldn’t kill me. Anyway, the point I’m attempting to make is that there are at least some women out there who actually care more about the marriage than the wedding. They’re just a little harder to come by.

    I also understand what it’s like to be in one-sided relationships. It feels like that’s all I’ve been in. However, it never seems to stop me from putting my heart out there in the end. Despite the fact that I’m quite young, I grew up very fast for unfortunate reasons. That ended up being difficult when it came to dating, because men my own age are completely oblivious and still want someone to “mommy” them. I have yet to see any advantages of being in my early 20’s.

    Anyway, I don’t know why I shared all that… I felt compelled. So umm… you’re not alone. I wish you well, Mr. Storey.

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