The Lure of the Engagement Ring

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The Lure of the Engagement Ring
Why did diamonds become a girl's best friend in the first place?

According to a recent DeBeers study, four out of five brides receive diamond engagement rings. National Jeweler’s 2003 survey found that more than 40 percent of customers planned on buying a diamond one carat or larger. And the 2002 American Wedding Study (sponsored by Condé Nast) revealed that the average engagement ring costs $3,576: more than 16 percent of the average wedding budget.

No one can deny that we're in a "wedding moment" right now—and an expensive one, to boot. But the "timeless" symbol that kicks off many a frenzy of chocolate fondue fountains and sushi stations and ice sculptures is actually a fairly new development in wedding-paraphernalia history.

 

"It's hard to talk about exactly when these traditions started," says Vicki Howard, adjunct professor of economics and women's studies at Hartwick College. "Before the 1870s, diamonds were rare. People were wearing diamond engagement rings, but it wasn't yet a mass thing. In the late 1800s, archival evidence and etiquette books suggest, a wide variety of engagement and wedding band styles, including different stones, were considered proper and desirable."

Howard—whose upcoming book, The Business of Brides, details the rise of the wedding industry between the 1930s and 1950s—explains that the modern engagement ring's story really begins with the discovery of vast quantities of diamonds in South Africa in the late 1860s. Diamond jewelry of all kinds became more and more popular in subsequent decades, but the industry fell on hard times in the 1930s, due to the Depression and its accompanying plummeting marriage rate. Soon the DeBeers diamond cartel had a surplus. "So they tried to promote the diamond engagement ring," she says. DeBeers put New York’s N.W. Ayer advertising agency on the case, and in 1948 they hit pay dirt with the slogan "A Diamond Is Forever." This hypnotic mantra has seduced America ever since, calling out from magazine and television ads, billboards, and bus shelters.

The Ayer agency came up with other ways to get couples' attention. "They created short films about diamond engagement rings that they would show before feature films, at women's clubs, churches, high schools, colleges," Howard says. "It was kind of like you couldn't escape it at that point. I have a 1955 statistic from the ad agency that said that between 75 and 85 percent of brides had diamond engagement rings."

We're still hooked. The diamond jones has become part of our cultural DNA. The number we buy, the amount of money we spend (or cause to be spent), and the size of the stones we favor all have increased steadily. It appears this is one accessory that will never go out of style. Jewelry and fashion expert Michael O'Connor will tell you, however, that brides-to-be definitely are affected by trends that mirror the emotional state of our culture.

"Right now, people are really looking back to antique and vintage pieces, looking to them for comfort," O'Connor says. "These are pieces we all remember from when we were younger: 'This looks like my mom's ring, my grandmother's pin.' Celebrities and stylists want authentic vintage pieces for award shows, and a lot of designers are reflecting that trend."

The other big influence, he says, is a counter-trend toward classic, straightforward lines. "Everyone's so overloaded because of everything we have going on in the world. We're looking forward with the view that 'I want everything in my life to be as simple as possible'." (Though not, of course, so simple that we'd skip the sparkler altogether.)

As always, Hollywood helps set the trends. Unprompted, O'Connor rattles off a bevy of celebrity-ring details: "Jessica Simpson-pear-shaped with two brilliants, very classic. Anna Nicole Smith-marquise with tapered baguettes. Melania Knauss, Donald Trump's intended [now wife]-emerald shape with tapered baguettes. Jennifer Aniston had a much more romantic, frilly kind of style. Sarah Michelle Gellar, she has a princess cut." And he notes that J. Lo's big Pink ring from (then fiancé) Ben Affleck ushered in a colored-diamond trend that has outlived their relationship.

Some would argue that the pop-culture icons we worship—and the romantic roles we love to watch them play on-screen—figure more prominently in our collective lust for engagement rings than setting the standard for color or cut.

Jaclyn Geller, now an English professor at Central Connecticut State University, posed as a bride-to-be to research her 2001 book, Here Comes the Bride, "a feminist critique of the blockbuster wedding."

For her, the engagement ring is the central prop in the performance that modern weddings have become; an object with "talismanic" power. "A woman has this engagement ring jammed on her finger, and it's supposed to be this thing that represents the narrative apex of her life," Geller writes. "The man kneels before her, she's supposed to emote so violently that she loses the power of speech. Now, this is a very public, exhibitionist thing-something that takes place at a restaurant or park. Once she says ‘Yes,' everyone is supposed to cheer. There's no parallel scene in the wedding iconography where a woman offers a man a piece of jewelry and he loses consciousness."

Vicki Howard puts it a bit less theatrically. "For a woman, getting engaged is a significant time in her life," she says. "Men have not needed that symbol to have power in society. Men enjoy being married, too, but they have other things."

Which is not to say that men can't get really emotional about their rings.

Late last year, a 19-year-old Marine wounded in a firefight in Fallujah asked doctors to amputate his injured finger instead of cutting off his ring. "That would mean destroying my wedding ring," the soldier told the Associated Press. "My wife is the strongest woman I know."

Call me cold-hearted, but if I were his wife, I would have preferred a whole husband. I asked jeweler Herman Rotenberg of 1,873 Unusual Wedding Rings, a store in New York City's diamond district that has be-ringed the betrothed since 1947 (and actually carries more than 4,000 styles of wedding bands), what he thought of the soldier's reaction.

"That's a very rare story, but I could see it under those circumstances," he answered.

Rotenberg was a psychotherapist before he married into the jewelry business, holds a masters in social work, and says he has "seen everything under the sun" in his 22 years selling wedding rings. He finds that men are much more sentimental—and choosy—than one might expect. "They come in wanting the simplest ring, and they go out with the most complicated," he observes. "They're very particular, obsessive in the best way."

Today's grooms want all the bells and whistles, he says: detailed finishes, mixed metals, even rings adorned with optical illusions. Rotenberg worked with one customer, a surfer, to design ocean waves that appeared to move when the ring was turned.

This attention to detail takes on even more weight when you consider that the history of the groom's band as we know it is about as short as that of the diamond engagement ring. Until the mid-1940s, most men didn't wear wedding rings at all.

In "A 'Real Man's Ring'," her 2003 article in the Journal of Social History, Vicki Howard notes that "while wedding bands for men were not a completely new phenomenon in the United States around 1940, neither were they ‘tradition.'" She writes that "male wedding bands made brief appearances in the Western world at different times," but it took an earth-shattering event (World War II) plus a friendly commercial shove (a wartime campaign by the Jewelry Industry Publicity Board) to make them a fixture.

By 1947, Fortune magazine was reporting that the percentage of "double-ring" (as opposed to single-ring) wedding ceremonies in the U.S. had increased from 15 percent at the end of the Depression to approximately 80 percent.

It's easy to see why the practice took root when it did, flourishing parallel to the nascent engagement-ring trend. For a man heading to Germany or the Pacific, the band on his finger identified him in a way his dog tags couldn't. "Couples about to marry may have seen that tokens of love and commitment could provide some relief from the pain of separation and potential loss," Howard writes. "During wartime, a man could wear a groom's band as a symbol of what he was fighting to preserve."

Which, of course, brings us back to the Marine in Fallujah. If neither his ring nor the diamond engagement ring and wedding band his wife is probably wearing are "timeless" symbols, they surely are more than just valuable objects. A sociologist would call them "invented traditions," but they fit so neatly into our desires that we can't imagine life without them.

So now it's a three-ring circus: her diamond, her band, his band. But how many hoops to jump through, where to buy them, how much to spend—and what they really mean—is up to you.

Vicki Howard doesn't wear an engagement ring, but she does wear a wedding band, and so does her husband.

"When two people wear rings, it's more about the companionate ideal," she explains. "Husband and wife are equally committed to their marriage and their future. Whereas an engagement ring worn solely by the woman is this prize, something that she's won."

Purchasing data supports the idea of the engagement ring having a different emotional significance from the wedding band. A Professional Jeweler study found that fewer than a third of engagement rings were purchased as a set with a wedding band. Herman Rotenberg knows that all too well. "By the time they come to me, they've spent all their money," he laments. "I try to convince them that the wedding ring is the least expensive item, relatively."

Not to mention that couples get free therapy when they go to see him. "People have the need to talk," he says. "They talk about themselves, how they met. I know their whole history. Buying a wedding ring, whether they spend $5,000 or $100, it's a very emotional purchase, a subject that brings out a lot. Some people are very nervous. You can see the anxiety. Some people have arguments in front of my counter." (Perhaps the engagement ring says, "Let's take the plunge!" while the wedding ring says, "Wait a minute, what exactly are we doing?")

Rotenberg recalls couples who made him think, "This is not the right match. But who am I to say? I saw one young gentleman trying on a ring. He's standing in front of the counter, taking it on and off. He's saying, 'I can't believe I'm doing this' to himself. I felt like saying to him, 'Maybe you shouldn't.'"

This solitary shopper is an exception, though. Nine times out of ten, Rotenberg estimates, both members of the couple present themselves at his counter. In contrast, only 60 percent of women accompany their fiancé to shop for the engagement ring, as Bride's editor in chief Millie Martini Bratten noted last November in New York Metro. A 2004 Fairchild Bridal Group Study found that 47 percent of brides don't even know how much their engagement ring cost.

Is one a gift, and the other a joint purchasing decision? Does one symbolize a man's love for a woman, and the other, their love for each other? Where do money and meaning part ways?

The idea of some kind of wedding-related ring as "earnest money," or a symbol of the groom's ability to support his bride-to-be, dates way, way back; ancient Roman, Jewish, and Germanic literature all mention it. Jaclyn Geller argues that this particular meaning still thrives, calling the modern proposal with a chunk of ice "a display of financial success. The gesture announces that for [the groom] such purchases are easy, that he is capable of decorating his beloved with baubles and gems (and, by implication, supporting her in high style). The gift combines romantic finesse, sexual prowess, and economic savvy in a streamlined package."

But in 2005, the groom-as-gravy-train is only one way to get a great rock. Take, for example, a recently married woman whose engagement ring would impress anyone. It was in the family-her family. Her fiancé presented it to her on bended knee, and she wears it proudly. Now it's an outward symbol of their status as a couple.

Another knockout ring wound up dissolving the engagement of a pair whose financial histories were very different: She owned her home and other investments, and was completely self-sufficient; he still rented and was nowhere near financially stable. So when the man spent literally every penny he had on the ring, his fiancée couldn't see it as a symbol of his love. Instead, it came to represent an insurmountable incompatibility, a future full of unwise financial decisions and, quite possibly, struggle.

Engagement-ring tension played out in an entirely different fashion for a third couple. He gave her his grandmother's diamond in a new setting, a decision on which his parents consulted. "Let's call them a very traditional East Coast family," says the bride, who hails from Texas and absolutely loathed the ring. "It wasn't me. I was thrilled that he had proposed, but after the dust settled, I told him, 'I really do want to marry you, but I don't want to wear this ring for the rest of my life.'"

It says a lot about her husband that he didn't quibble. "It's hard to tell your fiancé that you don't love what he's just given you," she admits. "I think it hurt his feelings a little bit, but he was willing to do what it took to make me happy. He put me in front of his parents' desires."

Since her husband-to-be was only making $18,000 a year, and she was unemployed at the time, she had to wait almost two years for her dream ring-a Harry Winston platinum band with a pear-shaped diamond and two little baguettes-which he bought at an estate jewelry store and presented to her on the day of her final wedding-dress fitting.

Ten years later, though, the ring she drooled over doesn't fit her life. (Partly because she has a young daughter she's afraid of scratching, and partly, well, just because. "When we go out with friends, I feel obliged to wear my rings, but I truly don't think much about them otherwise," she says.) Her wrist does the talking now. She wears two Cartier "love bracelets," gifts from her husband. "They literally screw on-it comes with a gold screw-driver. They're really special, and anyone who recognizes them knows that they are only given by a significant other."

So at best, perhaps, the rings couples wear (or don't) are fluid signs of how a relationship and the people in it evolve. I know a couple in their ?fties who have used the tell-tale finger as a space to express all kinds of things: Custom-made silver-and-turquoise rings when they were footloose and fancy free in the '70s. A second-hand diamond solitaire for her about five years later, purchased out of respect for (and with the help of) a "traditionalist" mother, along with new matching bands for both of them, designed by the husband, an architect, and cast by his amateur-jeweler father-in-law. A new ring for him, in the mid-'90s, skillfully fabricated of white, rose, and yellow gold, and bought on a whim while on vacation. Two "anniversary bands" for her, added to the mix when she was diagnosed with breast cancer right around the time of their 25th wedding anniversary. At times, one or both wore nothing at all, not because they didn't want to, but because they were waiting for something that "worked" with the lives they were living at the moment.

Whatever you wear on the third finger of your left hand makes a statement. But sometimes rings don't tell the truth, and sometimes they don't tell the whole story-at least not on their shining surfaces.

Herman Rotenberg's father-in-law, Bill Schifrin, the original proprietor of 1,873 Unusual Wedding Rings and an 87-year-old archive of wedding-ring anecdotes, told me one of his favorites. A well-dressed woman came into the shop, alone, and began placing an order for a custom-made ring. As they were about to complete the transaction, she told him, "It's for my husband. If he doesn't like it, can I bring it back?"

Of course not, Schifrin said, this is custom work. "No refunds, no returns." Sorry.

OK, the woman responded, she would come back with her husband. The next day they both appeared; the husband liked the ring, signed off on it immediately, and went back to his office. His wife paid for the ring, then asked Schifrin to engrave something inside it for her.

The message? Their wedding date, and a truly timeless sentiment. "No refunds, no returns."

 
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