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Diamonds Haven’t Always Been Forever

Marriage is about money, as anyone who’s ever taken a college seminar on Jane Austen knows. On the wedding night, the bride’s assets slip into a lace teddy, the groom’s assets put on their silk pajamas, and the two become joined forever in a perfect union. Theoretically, this tender commingling of bank accounts could cost the couple no more than $55 for the marriage license. But these days, before the marriage transforms the couple’s finances, the wedding often threatens to destroy them.

Look, for example, at the changing customs around ring shopping. As soon as we started thinking about getting married, my boyfriend and I found ourselves presented with these old-fashioned roles to play: He’s the stoic breadwinner hunting down the diamond for his bride, and I’m the demure dependent breathlessly accepting the gift presented at my feet. These roles have almost nothing to do with our actual day-to-day lives, of course, but rebelling against them takes a lot of work. Rather than trying to subvert the dominant paradigm and plan the wedding at the same time, most people simply pay extra to make the cognitive dissonance go away. This is terrific for Tiffany’s, but kind of a scam for the rest of us, which is why I’m proud to say that I’m a diamond-free bride.

Historically, buying the ring is the groom’s job, and his ability to save two month’s salary—a standard invented in the first half of the twentieth century by the jewelry industry—signifies his prowess as a provider. Since most brides have their own incomes these days, this tradition doesn’t make much sense, but we haven’t scrapped it. Instead, more and more brides simply contribute their own salaries towards the ring. In 2007, 39% of women said they’d help pay for the ring (up 11% over the past two years.) It’s a good thing, because ring prices have skyrocketed: In 2006, the average couple spent $4,470 on an engagement ring, or 25% more than they did back in the simpler days of 2002.

Sharing the cost hasn’t helped alleviate our anxiety about the size and shape of our rings, though. One in four women admit the engagement ring they received was too small or not what they had envisioned, which sounds horribly materialistic until you remember what else the ring is supposed to demonstrate. Cartier might sum it up perfectly in their ad campaign: Under three big rocks, the caption reads “This is what extraordinary love looks like.” It’s impossible to miss their point. A big ring means big love; a little one suggests simply lukewarm affection.

My own engagement ring has no diamond, but it does have a huge replica of a rock. The designer, Alissia Melka-Teichroew, traced the silhouette of a diamond ring onto a piece of silver and then cut it out. It’s a comment on ringness, a meta-ring. It’s conceptual. It cost $99. I love it.

You’ll forgive me if I sound a little snotty, a little triumphant, a little too cool for school. The truth, of which I am exceedingly proud, is that no one in my life has given me a hard time about my lack of diamond. I’ve gotten a couple semi-skeptical comments — one “So when are you going to get the real ring?” and one “You know, you have a very different attitude about this than most women.” But nobody’s told me that my fiancé priced me out at less than a hundred dollars, and for that I’m very grateful.

Why the anti-ring? Well, there’s the crass financial reason; neither of us saw the point of spending so much money on a piece of jewelry, especially when the meta-ring was so perfectly suited to both of our tastes. There are also a host of ethical reasons, given the well-documented corruption of the diamond industry. "If you really want a typical engagement ring," said my fiancé, "I could always go to Sierra Leone and dismember some small children."

Not long after we got engaged, I found a picture of my ring on Offbeatbride, the website accompanying Ariel Meadow Stalling’s excellent eponymous how-to book about non-traditional weddings. She described it as “the ultimate ‘fuck you’ to anyone who asks about your diamond ring.” In the comments section, someone called her out, wondering why anyone would want to be so rude to people who just want to appreciate your good fortune. I saw her point, but it seemed obvious that the real source of hostility here wasn't the occasional friendly ring-gawper. Every time you open a magazine Cartier’s there to tell you that your man doesn’t love you—and “fuck you” is the wrong reaction?

As Rebecca Mead points out in One Perfect Day, her meticulously-researched book about the wedding industry, ads like Cartier’s are effective. In fact, diamond rings only became widely associated with engagement after the diamond company De Beers began advertising in the 1930s. It took them years to invent the tradition: Even as late as 1939, one-third of brides went ringless. It wasn’t until 1947, when a never-married copywriter coined the phrase “A diamond is forever,” that diamonds become a crucial part of betrothal. It’s a hard slogan to argue against. If a diamond is forever, and you’re dismissive of diamonds, doesn’t that suggest you’re saying fuck you to forever?

Jodi Kantor seems to think so. In her New York Times review of One Perfect Day, Kantor appeared to take Mead’s criticisms of the industry personally, arguing that her own wedding was tasteful and referring to the book as “dour” (which is up there with “shrill” and “hairy” on the Top Ten List of Ad Hominem Responses to Feminist Arguments.) Kantnor hastily pointed out that she didn’t disagree with the book’s general thesis; she just believes our current wedding excess can’t be too bad, because it makes people happy. “Do grandmothers cry just as hard when a bride is married, as Mead was, at a courthouse while wearing office clothes?” she asks. Read that again: The New York Times’ reviewer just accused a journalist of making her grandma sad by not spending enough money on her wedding. It’s a perfect example of the way the industry has coached us to conflate what we buy with how we feel.

The industry is only so powerful, though, as the story of the male engagement ring demonstrates. In 1926, with revenues threatened by the rise of department stores, jewelers began marketing rings for men—“mangagement rings,” as my fiancé wistfully calls them. They positioned these rings as historically macho, advertising them with pictures of be-ringed Conan the Barbarian types charging into battle and naming them things like “the Pilot,” “the Executive,” and my favorite, “the Stag.” But there was an essential problem with the male ring: it didn’t fit with traditional engagement gender roles. Men were supposed to be bestowing the rings, not wearing them, and all the ringed barbarians in the world couldn’t convince the public otherwise.

This problem played out logistically. Since it was taboo for women to propose marriage, brides couldn’t figure out when to buy their fiancé’s rings. Were they supposed to secretly return to the jewelry store after the proposal? Not only was the process clunky, but grooms tended to stand in the way. As one trade magazine pointed out, if a man discovered that his bride planned to spend $30 to $50 on a ring for him, he’d probably talk her out of it. For the mangagement ring to succeed, then, women would have to deceive their fiancés in order to buy them gifts that they didn’t really want.

Deep-seated gender roles are much harder to escape than a sixty-year-old custom. I should know: Our engagement ring might be postmodern, but my fiancé’s proposal was entirely old-fashioned. Andy bought the ring without me—without my knowledge. (If I may be sentimental for a moment, the vision of him engagement-ring-shopping at the MoMA store totally kills me; it’s like some weird pre-sexual fantasy I would have had as a pretentious eight-year-old.) And he proposed on one knee, just like Mr. Darcy.

I’m rare among my engaged and married friends; most had long, heartfelt discussions about commitment and readiness before anyone thought about buying a ring. Sixty-four percent of women help pick out the ring, which means they’ve discussed getting married before the actual engagement. But only 5% of women propose. Had we stuck with our happy living-in-sin arrangement for another few years, I like to think I would have suggested we get married—but I would have felt ridiculous getting down on one knee. Even the phrase “Will you marry me?” seems to belong to men; speaking it, I think I’d feel like I was play-acting, and I suspect my fiancé would feel the same way. We’re independent-minded enough to buck a tradition created by the jewelry industry, but neither of us can fully escape the idea that some roles are for men and some are for women.

Next: Is it ethical of us to get married when so many of our friends can’t?

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