Kay Steiger thinks engagement rings should go the way of the dowry:
[T]he amount one is supposed to spend on said diamond engagement ring — two month’s salary, supposedly— is a “tradition” that was invented by the diamond industry giant De Beers less than a century ago. (I really recommend reading The Atlantic’s expose on this — it may be from 1982, but the history of the industry hasn’t changed.) But my concerns aren’t just the legal or financial implications of a big rock. In my mind, a diamond ring is simply a terrible prerequisite for evaluating a potential lifelong partner. All it judges is one’s wealth, something that tells you nothing about his ability to be a great partner, husband or father. Spending so much money on something so frivolous should work against a potential partner, not for him.
A commenter who hates the diamond industry nonetheless confesses:
I find it very hard to stop myself from wanting a big honking ROCK on my finger. The status symbol and glamour it represents, and that notion that “he must love you if you get a big ring”. It’s ridiculous, but I’ve been so heavily conditioned that I guess I can’t help hoping for something impressive, even though I know my values are the opposite.
A few others weigh in:
Before my fiance proposed, I never put any thought into what kind of ring I wanted or even cared that much about it. But having one now, I understand why the tradition is so meaningful. … [E]very time I look at my hand now, I am reminded of him, how much we love each other, and of the future we’re going to spend together. [My fiancé has] expressed several times that he wishes men would have an engagement ring too because he wants to have that feeling too. So if rings aren’t for you, that’s great, but don’t bash it ’til you’ve tried it.
The ring, or lack thereof, is about a mutual decision between you and your fiancé. It is about commitment and respect and love. If this means not having a ring then great! If it does mean having a ring, also great! Either way it is personal.
(Photo by Philip Taylor)
Readers join the diamond debate:
A marriage is fundamentally about the two people getting married. Their choice of engagement ring will reflect their shared values – whether it’s a giant diamond, an heirloom, a tattooed ring, or no ring at all.
When I proposed to my wife, I did it with my great-grandmother’s engagement ring, a family heirloom. A couple of years later, her mom gave her a ring with a large smoked diamond, and my wife was itching for a much bigger diamond, so she began wearing that ring instead. It always caused a bit of conflict between us – I even offered to buy her a ring with a bigger diamond – but she loved the ring from her mom and wore it all the time. The only time she would switch back was when my parents were in town visiting.
Fourteen years later, we’re now divorced. Not because of the ring, but the ring perfectly illustrated our disconnect.
Back in the early 1980s, I told my then-boyfriend that I didn’t want a diamond engagement ring. I’m not a diamond kind of gal; I didn’t want the flash or to spend money we could be saving for a down payment on a house. Plus, it was the height of anti-apartheid boycotting of the diamond industry. After a few months of this, my boyfriend angrily replied that he wanted to have the pleasure of giving me a ring, of having me ooh and ahh and show it to my friends.
In the end it all worked out, because his parents gave him a family diamond ring. It took me a good part of a year – long after we were married – to get used to having what felt like an enormous Bat Signal on my left hand.
Many more stories after the jump:
As a guy, I have to say the problem for me is the utility argument.
Other than being shiny, a ring is useless. (Yes, the symbol of marriage has to be portable – if you believe a symbol to ward off now-unwanted suitors is even necessary today.) My current girlfriend says she has no interest in getting a big ring. She would rather get something cheap for her finger so we could save for a mortgage down payment or splurge on something that we’d actually get use from, like a huge TV or a vacation. The whole thing just feels very retrosexual anyway.
Another is on the same page:
My favorite engagement-ring story involves my BFF. Her now-husband is a by-the-book kind of guy; he saved up that two months salary before asking her to go ring shopping. So they shopped and they shopped and they shopped. She hated everything. It was all so stereotypical, trendy, conventional – not her.
Then one day they were at the mall and walked by a Fire & Ice store. There, in the window, was a little gold and opal thing, and boom – she fell for it. It cost $75. So here was her fiancé, with $2,000 saved up and nowhere to spend it. What did he do? He bought her an engagement MacBook Pro. Best idea ever for an aspiring writer.
A friend of mine mentioned that a diamond ring was important to him not because his fiancée wanted one – I don’t think she cared – but because of the stability and seriousness it signified to her friends and somewhat traditional family. He was in the US on a J-1 Visa, so he had a bit of an uphill battle in that regard. I’d always felt rather self-righteous in my disdain for Big Diamond and its supporters, so his story was an eye-opener for me.
The diamond engagement ring is so cultural. My husband is Swedish, and I’m American. Wedding rings in Sweden tend to be very non-ostentatious, both for men and women, but he bought me a beautiful engagement ring. It’s an old ring, from a vintage jewelry dealer – a lovely Art Deco style, not too big, perfect in style for me. Swedes just do not do fine jewelry – and I am no stranger to Swedish culture, having lived there and become fluent in the language. But that my husband bought this ring for me meant the world. He loved me enough to do it my culture’s way.
My husband purchased my engagement ring in our last year of college while he put himself through school. He worked long hours at a menial job to be able to purchase the ring. Now, 20 years later, we’re both successful in our careers and he has wanted to replace it with a larger diamond. I’ve refused, because I didn’t marry him for how large a rock he could buy for me. If it’s about the status, I have my own money, thanks.
I know it sounds sappy, but seeing the not-huge-but-beautiful ring on my finger every day reminds me of what it felt like to be so young and in love – when we didn’t have much money, but we did have each other. It’s one of the many things that makes me fall for him over and over again. It’s not about the diamond; it’s about the commitment the diamond represents.
My rockhound husband has always argued that diamonds are extremely common and, as the old Atlantic piece says, manipulated by De Beers and others to create and manage demand. He wanted to give me a benitoite wedding ring instead. Benitoite is a sapphire-like dark blue stone that fluoresces under lights. “Sell it to me,” I said. He explained that it wasn’t a blood gem, as diamonds mostly are, and that it came from just one mine in California, making it very rare. (That mine is now closed.) He also said that benitoite is a titanium-related mineral, and at the time, he was doing titanium chemistry in the lab. I was sold. I love having something truly ours, truly special.
Another unconventional item:
When I decided to propose to my now-wife, I struggled briefly with how to do it exactly. I knew that she wouldn’t want a diamond and I didn’t quite know where to begin on choosing a ring with a different kind of stone. And if I got one she didn’t like she’d be too sweet to tell me it was ugly and she’d have been forced to wear it. And even if I did get the ring right, what if I got the wrong size? The moment would have been ruined if it were too small, and she didn’t wear any other rings for me to use as a gauge. And so I decided to just throw the entire ring idea out the window and I took a chance with a necklace. It was simple: just a thin chain with a large ring on it (so I managed to incorporate it somehow.) She loved it. She wears it on special occasions and opts for her simple gold wedding band alone on her ring finger.
One more reader:
When my husband proposed to me, it wasn’t much of a surprise since we’d already been together for seven years. What did surprise me, though, was the shiny diamond ring he pulled out of his pocket. I knew he couldn’t afford anything like it. I’m not even sure what I said first: “Yes” or “Where did you get that ring?!” Turns out, it was his mother’s – she had given to him many months before and he had somehow kept it hidden. His father had died a few years earlier and she felt like she was ready to pass it on to her oldest son.
Once I got over the initial excitement of being engaged, I soon realized I didn’t really like the ring. I just wasn’t my style, not ever something I’d look at twice in a store. It is gold and I prefer silver. It’s sort of a gaudy design. It’s not even that big, but it kept getting caught on everything. And, quite simply, it felt like someone else’s. It felt unfair, like I got cheated out of my dream ring and had to settle for someone’s hand-me-down. The sentiment of it being so important to the family was somewhat lost on me at that time in my life.
We’ve been married for more than 10 years now and I’ve gotten used to the ring, settled into a relationship with it that is not unlike my marriage itself. New love is shiny and sparkly and unexpected. Then the newness wears off and you wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into – what you are stuck with for the rest of your life. You start seeing all the things that irritate you. Then that settles down and you start to get comfortable, learn to live with what you’ve been given, and see joy in it. I’m looking at the ring now as I type and I see a long, intricate history there. For better or worse, I’ve made it my own.
Readers pivot on the thread:
Here’s another aspect of the engagement conundrum: what do we gay folks give as a token of our proposals? I imagine lesbians (some, at least) will go the traditional diamond route, as our culture clearly accepts a diamond ring on a woman’s hand in a way they don’t on men’s hands. But guys (most of us, anyway) aren’t interested in a delicate band with a shiny rock perched atop. So what to do?
Here’s what I did when I proposed to my husband six years ago: I bought him a very nice watch (Omega Seamaster, if you must know), and told him (in a romantic setting) that I wanted to spend “every day, every hour and every minute” of the rest of our lives as his husband. Then I said, “and so you will remember that, I want you to wear this,” and pulled the lovely red box from where I had hidden it.
I think the gift of a watch makes a perfect modern tradition – it has utility, not just attractiveness, plus the added symbolism of marking the time of a relationship intended to last a lifetime.
You’ve probably mentioned this already, but how did you and Aaron signify your engagement?
All I gave Aaron was another round of margaritas. Another reader on the “perfect male engagement ring”:
Before I proposed to my now-husband, I had seen a handful of friends and acquaintances go through the same process. There was no consensus on how to propose to another guy, but what I often saw was that one partner would propose to the other with a gold or platinum band, and then either reach into his pocket and pull out another ring for himself to wear, or (in one case) ask the partner to buy him a matching ring. That all seemed a little odd, and frankly those were wedding rings they were really talking about, not engagement rings. After all, what were they going to exchange at the ceremony?
I gave it some thought and got my boo the watch he’d always dreamed of, and I had the watch engraved. It’s the perfect male engagement ring: it’s a piece of jewelry signifying time spent together, it stands on its own (as a diamond ring does) without requiring reciprocation, and, well, it’s a lot more masculine than a diamond. And we exchanged bands on our wedding day, and it was perfect.
I’m curious as to what other same sex couples have done – and whether the diamond ring tradition sticks with the lesbian community.
My husband and I got engaged a few years back when marriage was made legal in Washington, DC. When it came to figuring out rings we decided on two inexpensive (“cheap” feels harsh, but they were about $10 apiece) stainless steel rings we bought in a bead shop off Dupont Circle. We figured they were just engagement rings and we’d get around to buying “real” rings at some point.
Well, life got ahead of us, and after losing our first dog to cancer, the wedding got put on hold for a few years (first grief, and then just the rolling tide of life). Two years ago we finally got around to getting married. Among all the preparation for the big day, we kept putting off the buying of super expensive rings. Our brother in-law is a master jeweler and had even offered to design special rings for us. But the funny thing is, we’d gotten very attached to the simple rings on our fingers. In the end we stuck with those stainless steel rings.
Here’s what made it special for us and more than our engagement rings: our marriage rings – our simple public ritual – included exchanging our rings through all of our assembled friends and family members. We thought it would be a quick passing of rings through the crowd, but Andrew, the thing that stunned and humbled us was people took their time. I’m not sure what was going through their minds as we stood there in front of these 120 folks and as music played sensed them blessing these symbols with their thoughts, meditations and prayers. What was supposed to have taken about 10 minutes took about 20 or so. Many of our friends have told us it was their most important memory of the day for them, getting a chance to hold our rings for just a few seconds. Looking at this simple little $10 ring on my hand reminds me that every one of our friends and family, each of them that were there on that truly happy day, held me and my husband’s ring.
I treasure that more than any diamond.
(Photo: Couple with engagement ring, circa 1950s. By George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images.)
You can catch up on the entire thread on engagement rings here. Readers offer more alternatives to the traditional diamond:
A few years back, I heard a stand-up routine about how women get an expensive ring but men get nothing. The comic (I can’t remember who) suggested a sword as a perfect gift from a wife to her husband. On our wedding day, while I was slapping on my warpaint and my husband-to-be was on the other side of the venue with his retinue, I sent my maid of honor’s husband over with a package. As soon as he saw the long, narrow box he knew exactly what it was.
Let’s just say I won major wife points with the “wedding sword.” It’s currently hanging over our front door, in case of zombie attack.
Another unconventional pick:
My husband and I met in graduate school for forestry. We’re both passionate about our work and have devoted much of our lives to the conservation of forest resources and the responsible use of forest products, so when it came time to get married, I wanted this important part of our lives reflected in our union. Our engagement was relatively casual, but my husband did give me his mother’s engagement ring. I had the diamond reset in a ring that I happily wore until our wedding. However, since I’m frequently in the woods for work and often working in tropical forests in developing countries, a big diamond ring didn’t fit my everyday life. So for our wedding, I bought us wooden wedding bands. I worked with a carpenter in the US and was able to choose the species of tree for each ring, and ensure the forest of origin was managed to my standards. The rings are gorgeous, reflective of our lives and relationship, and a great conversation piece.
My boyfriend was the marrying type. I wasn’t. He went to Japan for a week. I changed my mind. I realized that because I was the one with the cold feet, I was the one who had to propose. But do you have any idea how hard it is to find a MALE engagement ring? (Oh wait, I guess you do.) I finally settled on a silver AIDS bracelet as a “promissory note” and then we could go shopping for a ring later. Well, he loved being proposed to and loved the bracelet. He wore the bracelet every single day for years until he lost it when a paragliding line snapped it off of his wrist.
Meanwhile, I have a simple gold wedding band on my finger. When I see it or play with it, it reminds me of him. I don’t need a big rock to feel sentimental.
If you really do want a physical symbol of undying affection and joint devotion, how about getting your own rock, and doing it together?
Before getting married, you should take a vacation trip together to western Montana. Near Philipsburg, in beautiful mountain scenery, there is a place called Gem Mountain Sapphire where you can pan for sapphires without much physical effort and with a very high chance of success. They dig up the stream sediments for you, run them through a sluice box to get rid of the muddy stuff, and present you with a big box of fine gravel. You pick through the gravel with a pair of tweezers and pick out the good ones, which are really obvious. It’s a very pleasant activity, and the surroundings are just gorgeous. My wife and I have several stones from our two visits, ranging from pale green to ruby red, all of them far larger than anything we could have afforded at a jewelry store.
Not to go all geological on you here, but contrary to the De Beers slogan, diamonds really aren’t forever. They’re combustible. Sapphires really are forever – they’re made of aluminum oxide, one of the most insoluble and heat-resistant materials known, and only a little bit softer than diamond. Even if the flame of passion fades, and even if real flames claim your house, these stones will survive.
Another did the same thing at “one of those tourist-trap mines that are all over the Georgia/North Carolina border.” Another reader:
Four years ago, I gave my then-partner a ring I had purchased in Provincetown in 1975. I had never removed it from my finger until then. But it was a few months later that I proposed. We sort of thought of that ring as an “engagement” ring.
We were going to get married in Connecticut – he lived in Oklahoma, I in Florida – several months later, but I got a job offer that meant a move to Las Vegas, thwarting that plan (although it did mean he could join me). Work and busyness meant postponing again – to this past August in San Francisco – but then, again, “stuff” got in the way and we had to cancel, losing our money for the license and ceremony we paid up front.
In October, I made new license and ceremony appointments and paid the fees again. We had once found rings online that we both quite liked, but finances didn’t allow their purchase. As this was turning out to be a rather low-budget affair (a good friend was giving us a hotel room for three nights and we were driving to the city from Vegas), I found discount online jeweler and selected only rings on their clearance page. We chose $12 titanium rings which you can see in the picture below, taken in front of San Francisco’s City Hall moments after we were married on December 24, just three weeks ago.
I don’t care one whit about the value of the ring. As a 55-year-old man who grew up never thinking of marriage as ever being a possibility, our $12 rings are priceless.
It will be interesting, however, to see how this evolves, whether younger gay men and women who can imagine marriage for themselves try to fit into the “established” norms of engagement and wedding rings (and other marriage traditions), or if new paths will be forged.