Recently the subject of engagement rings came up with colleagues and I found myself once more evaluating their place in a society that is striding slowly but confidently towards gender equality. It is certainly a custom worth putting under a magnifying glass. Given my many married and engaged friends, I should make it clear that I make no judgements about anyone who partakes in what is currently a social custom, nor would I presume to dictate what jewellery anyone should wear. Indeed I am generally resigned to the fact that, should I get married, I am likely to be buying a diamond ring in the future.
There are two distinct issues which are best not conflated: (a) the diamond scam; and (b) inequality.
The former has been explored in detail by others so I will only summarise. Whilst people consider diamond rings traditional, it is a custom that dates back as far as… the late 1930s. Prior to that it was restricted to the upper class and nobility (stemming perhaps from Archduke Maximilian of Austria’s use of a diamond ring in 1477). Engagement or betrothal rings were still a common custom, but they tended to be simpler, like gimmel rings or posy rings.
The diamond “requirement” stemmed from an unfathomably successful De Beers marketing campaign in the late 1930s when the price of diamonds collapsed during the Great Depression — over the course of a decade they sought to educate the public that a diamond was the only acceptable stone for an engagement ring. In 1939 10% of engagement rings in the USA had diamonds. By 1990, that had risen to 80%. And that authoritative traditional “rule” that the ring ought to cost two months’ salary? Also from a De Beers advert. Worse still, that was a rise from their originally advertised suggestion of one month to boost declining profits. The cost might not be a problem if diamonds held intrinsic value but (whilst I am certain most women love diamonds for their many industrial applications) they are a terrible investment because they are plentiful and, unlike — say — gold, they have limited resale value.
So the value proposition is terrible. Fine, but that is true of most commercialised aspects of love, albeit generally with a lower price tag. The real problem, and perhaps the reason diamonds have been so easy to foist, is one of reinforcing hugely detrimental ideas of gender inequality which are rarely questioned:
- The woman wears a ring from the moment she accepts the man’s proposal, a sign to the world that she is “off the market” whilst the man typically roams unbranded until the wedding. Territorial marking does not always smell bad.
- The high cost of the ring, by reference to and demonstrating the man’s income, reinforces the notion that he is or should be the primary earner to provide for his wife and family. Reinforcing this at the start of a marriage is particularly dangerous when it later comes to decisions about prioritising one partner’s career and/or child care.
- As the woman is the recipient of the only ring, it forces a passive role in the proposal. This seems to be one of the primary concerns amongst otherwise emancipated women regarding why they feel uncomfortable with proposing.
So what would I like to see as a solution? I do not think engagement rings are inherently bad but parity and simplicity would solve these issues. I would certainly like to see it become customary that either party felt comfortable and free to propose*. Either the proposer beforehand or the couple subsequently could purchase a pair of bands, one worn by each of them, with engraved inscriptions on the inside. The “value” would come from these personalised sentiments, invisible to others, although the bands could be patterned or set with stones to satisfy personal tastes in jewellery. Sure, the diamond industry might collapse. But then if you like diamonds, that just means you can afford to have more of them.
*Some women have suggested they want a man to propose as a gesture to demonstrate he is committed and ready to settle down, fearing that they would not get the same signal simply by him accepting a proposal. I can see a logic to this. However, having been in relationships where the woman was the one with commitment issues, this no longer seems to be a gender issue. Perhaps we would be best served by a default position that The One With Commitment Issues proposes, whoever that happened to be…