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.