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We've all seen the Instagram posts. You know, the couple hugging, her left hand prominently displayed, her manicure suspiciously perfect for the surprising occasion.
"She just made me the luckiest person in the world!""I'm so lucky I get to marry my best friend!""I said yes!"
And underneath the photo, the many comments all offering congratulations are interspersed with another very specific conversation starter:
"Take a look at that ring."
As a lot of people know, the diamond engagement ring hasn’t always been the symbol of love and matrimony that it is today. In 1938, De Beers had achieved a virtual monopoly over the international diamond supply. To keep the value of their investment high, they enlisted an ad agency to create a compelling need for diamonds throughout all levels of American society.
Their plan was simple: have the ad agency work to create a societal norm such that almost every man getting married felt like it was absolutely necessary to buy a diamond engagement ring for his betrothed. Guess what? It worked.
It worked really, really well.
Between 1938 and 1941 diamond sales went up by 55%. It worked so well in fact, that today — almost 60 years later — even though many people are well-informed about the fact that the traditional concept of the diamond engagement ring as a measure of your love is nothing more than a historical brilliant marketing ploy — people still buy diamond engagement rings. In 2007, over 80% of engaged couples got engaged with a diamond engagement ring, and the average groom spent $5,855 dollars on a ring in 2014. The concept of what a proper diamond engagement ring “should” cost, mind you, also came from De Beers, who came up with the “two months salary rule” — now often cited as the three months salary rule — in the 1980s as another advertising tactic to get consumers to subconsciously equate the worth of an engagement ring with the worth of a relationship.
So the question becomes, in the age of skepticism towards tradition brought on by the internet and unparalleled access to knowledge, why are we still indirectly equating diamond rings with the worth of an engagement or relationship? Should the diamond ring finally be “over?"
Lauren, 30, has been married since 2014, and agreed that the concept of diamond engagement rings is antiquated. “Diamond rings are sort of stupid,” she told me.
“Think about all the other things you can spend your money on. [My husband] knew I felt this way going into things, so I do know he didn’t feel pressure to spend a fortune. I’ve heard some people say 10% of your salary or 3 months’ salary [but I’m] not sure what guys stick to that. Would love if there were a movement to be smart about this stuff and actually invest money wisely in stuff that matters for your life and grow in value, like a house.”
However, though Lauren believes that the cost measure of a diamond ring is silly, she’d still prefer a diamond engagement ring, she admitted, “because I’m traditional and boring.”
Isabel, 26, who is getting married in July, felt similarly to Lauren.
“Price definitely wasn't something I cared about [because] it doesn't mean he loved me more or less, [but] I like the traditional diamond,” she said, “I like that it matches everything! I sort of wish [I had moral objections to diamond engagement rings], but it turns out all of my [liberal arts college] training was for naught.”
Leigh Batnick Plessner, the Co-Creative Director of Catbird, an NYC based jewelry company that offers unique and delicate engagement rings and wedding rings as roughly 20% of their offerings, stated that she prefers to work with diamonds for engagement rings not just because of traditions, but because “they are the strongest and sparkliest stones. They illuminate a hand as one gestures happily (or not) during a conversation, and there is the Fabergé-egg wonder of the little world that is inside of it.”
Anna Sheffield, founder of Anna Sheffield Fine Jewelry, also agreed that diamonds are practically-speaking, good stones to use for jewelry that is meant to last a lifetime. “Overall I think [what’s] best for everyday wear are stones with more innate strength, like diamonds,” she stated. “We warn that stones may need to be replaced over time with the softer, semi- precious, but even emeralds are somewhat fragile.”
Despite these arguments for the diamond, many of the people I spoke with also expressed hesitation around the ethical and sustainability implications of the diamond engagement ring. Carolyn, 26, who is getting married in October, explained that she “would be uncomfortable getting a diamond that was not sourced in an ethical way,” while Sharon, 30, who has been married since 2014, stated, “we asked our diamond guy to make sure ours was not a blood diamond, thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio!”
Amy Liu, Operation Director at Diamond in the Rough, a jewelry company specializing in natural rough diamond engagement rings, confirmed that many of her customers “often ask about conflict-free diamonds. Our rough diamonds are conflict free and go through the Kimberly process.”
Sheffield echoed that she specifically works with suppliers who are - or who's sources are -complaint with the Kimberly process. “This means the diamonds should be free from the channels which would funnel money from the stones to war torn countries,” she explained. “Diamonds are far more ubiquitous than one would imagine, and the industry at large has really evolved systems of bringing these to market.
For me the other important part of the equation is sustainability- and I try to use as many reclaimed estate and antique diamonds as I can in my jewelry. This means, largely, that stones are coming from before times of the 'conflict' which lead to the Kimberly Process, but it also means they were not mined currently, so the carbon footprint and the devastation to the earth associated with mining new diamonds is not there.”
But, even the movement towards conflict-free diamonds has not dampened the hunger for diamond engagement rings. Continuing societal pressure was definitely felt by David, 26, just got engaged to Bridget. Though he worked specifically with a jewelry designer friend to create a ring that was individual to Bridget and reflected them and their relationship, he still felt pressure.
“I felt pressure to buy a diamond ring and in general felt pressure to buy a ring that would showcase how much I ‘value’ my fiancée. It felt very medieval to me, especially when all of the family members and FB friends saw the ring and made approving comments about it without seeming to care about the significance of each piece of the ring. When I designed the ring every stone, shape, and structure was made to signify something special about Bridget or our relationship but the reactions of others made it seem as though the ring was equivalent to the medieval practice of giving cows in exchange for a bride.”
For a select few however, this continuing pressure is not okay. They may see societal norms as things to purposefully be rejected, and changing attitudes toward marriage, and knowledge of the cultural history of the diamond engagement ring has led to a clear difference of opinion. Alex, 26, who is getting married in December, was very passionate about this issue.
“I continue to be surprised at how important the ring is to my peers — and, for that matter, how close many of them stay to wedding traditions, even when their lives and relationships up until marriage don't fit the traditional mold. Almost everyone I know who is married or engaged was cohabiting with their partner before marriage. The women in these relationships work and are at least as, if not more, professionally successful as their partners. To me, the engagement ring, especially an expensive diamond engagement ring, symbolizes an earlier era — where they functioned as ‘virginity insurance.’”
Batnick Plessner confirmed that changing attitudes towards relationships and marriage has manifested itself in an increased demand for nontraditional and non-diamond engagement rings. “As society has changed its ideas of what a married couple looks like, I think there’s been an expanded vision of what all the collateral of a wedding can look like,” she said. “I think it’s now very clear to many people that they can truly wear what they want, not what anyone else dictates.”
Though this trend is statistically nowhere near the norm, almost every bride I talked to who liked their diamond engagement ring indicated that they either understood that the cultural implications of the diamond ring were problematic, or that they wouldn’t have minded an alternative stone or type of ring. And for most couples, the ring buying process reflected their relationships in ways that they found much more important than the ring itself. According to Carolyn, “there is something to be said about a piece of jewelry that represents the beginning of your life together with your significant other and the hope that's there. We obviously haven't ‘made it’ yet in our careers, and my ring to me represents the beginning of our ‘journey.’”
In fact, the most important change in attitudes I noted with many of the couples I spoke to was about the notion of partnership as it relates to engagement jewelry. The De Beers advertising campaign that hooked us on diamonds specified the man as the provider who found and bought the diamond to materially show his love for his intended. Today, the couples I spoke to didn’t see their engagements that way at all. Though David felt pressure to buy a diamond, his fiancé Bridget maintained that having a diamond wasn’t important to her and that the cost of the was the least important part of their engagement. According to Bridget, “what matters is that he designed this beautiful ring (with the help of our jewelry designer friend) while using my, and his, unique style as inspiration.”
Sheffield has also this particular changing attitude towards diamond engagement rings up close.
“I think it reflects our shifting values and our ideas about love and marriage as a culture. I am really proud to be on the forefront of that because I feel what we bring is something truly unique and really cared for. And that is the best you could hope to offer in jewelry of this kind.”