Engagement rings: good or bad?

Notes on nuptials.
June 11 2007 10:07 AM

Diamonds Are a Girl's Worst Friend

The trouble with engagement rings.

Click here to read more from Slate's wedding issue.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.

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, its dubious origins, and the cynical blandishments of TV and print ads designed to suggest a ring's allure through the crassest of stereotypes. Case in point: An American couple stands in a plaza in Europe. The man shouts, "I love this woman!" The woman appears mortified. He then pulls out a diamond ring and offers it to her. She says, in heartfelt tones, "I love this man." And you've probably noticed that these days diamonds really are forever: Men are informed that their beautiful wife needs a "Twenty-Fifth Anniversary" ring (note this ad's reduction of a life to copulation and child-rearing), and single women are told not to wait around for guys but to go ahead and get themselves a "right-hand ring."* Live to be 100 and a woman of a certain class might find her entire hand crusted over with diamonds. A diamond company, you see, is unrelenting. In their parlance, "the desire is there; we just want to breathe more life into it."

But the desire wasn't always there. In fact, the "tradition" of the diamond engagement ring is newer than you might think. Betrothal rings, a custom inherited from the Romans, became an increasingly common part of the Christian tradition in the 13th century. The first known diamond engagement ring was commissioned for Mary of Burgundy by the Archduke Maximilian of Austria in 1477. The Victorians exchanged "regards" rings set with birthstones. But it wasn't until the late 19th century, after the discovery of mines in South Africa drove the price of diamonds down, that Americans regularly began to give (or receive) diamond engagement rings. (Before that, some betrothed women got thimbles instead of rings.) Even then, the real blingfest didn't get going until the 1930s, when—dim the lights, strike up the violins, and cue entrance—the De Beers diamond company decided it was time to take action against the American public.

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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.

But behind every Madison Avenue victory lurks a deeper social reality. And as it happens there was another factor in the surge of engagement ring sales—one that makes the ring's role as collateral in the premarital economy more evident. Until the 1930s, a woman jilted by her fiance could sue for financial compensation for "damage" to her reputation under what was known as the "Breach of Promise to Marry" action. As courts began to abolish such actions, diamond ring sales rose in response to a need for a symbol of financial commitment from the groom, argues the legal scholar Margaret Brinig—noting, crucially, that ring sales began to rise a few years before the De Beers campaign. To be marriageable at the time you needed to be a virgin, but, Brinig points out, a large percentage of women lost their virginity while engaged. So some structure of commitment was necessary to assure betrothed women that men weren't just trying to get them into bed. The "Breach of Promise" action had helped prevent what society feared would be rampant seduce-and-abandon scenarios; in its lieu, the pricey engagement ring would do the same. (Implicitly, it would seem, a woman's virginity was worth the price of a ring, and varied according to the status of her groom-to-be.)

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.

For those who aren't bothered by the finer points of gender equity, an engagement ring clearly makes a claim about the status of a woman's sexual currency. It's a big, shiny NO TRESPASSING sign, stating that the woman wearing it has been bought and paid for, while her beau is out there sign-free and all too easily trespassable, until the wedding. (There might be an equitable case for pregnancy rings, since bearing children is inherently unequal—but that's its own can of worms.) In fact, many ads, including a recent series by Tiffany, imply that giving a ring results in a woman's sexual debt—as these parodies brilliantly capture.

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 Veblen 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.) Women are collectively attached to the status a ring bestows on them; otherwise more would demand some equal sign of commitment from their husbands. Say, a tattoo. For two. Now there's an idea.

Correction, June 18, 2007: This article misidentified a certain type of ring as a right-finger ring; the ring in quesion is a right-hand ring. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.

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