My Engagement Ring May Be a Hand-Me-Down, But I Love It to Death

An heirloom ring is family tradition -- my dad proposed to my mom with his skull-and-crossbones class ring, and it was the coolest thing in the world.
Publish date:
April 26, 2014
marriage, engagement, engagement rings, diamonds, family heirlooms

I tend to hate-read the New York Times’ Sunday Styles section, particularly the wedding pages in the back. I don’t exactly run with a crowd that has their nuptials announced in this (or any) paper, and reading about honeymoon registries or the perfect camping gear for newlyweds bores me silly. But when I read the recent article “With Grandma’s Ring, I Thee Wed,” about couples who use heirloom rings for engagement rings, I felt a surge of recognition. Hey, I did that! I’m trendy! Or maybe even pre-trendy?Seven years ago, my husband proposed with an heirloom ring that had been in my mother’s family for generations; it may have originally belonged to my great-grandmother, or perhaps been around even longer. My mother gave it to me when I was a teenager, but my lifestyle wasn’t really one in which a delicate gold-and-diamond ring made sense, so as much as I adored the ring, I never wore it.

When we began dancing around the subject of marriage, I made it clear to my then-boyfriend that I didn’t want an engagement ring. My reasons ranged from the political to the practical: Why were women expected to wear a symbol of their commitment but men could hold off until marriage? Why should my boyfriend, who was saddled with thousands of dollars of undergrad and law school debt, spend money he didn’t really have? Why would I, who lost jewelry with disturbing ease, want the responsibility of keeping track of such an irreplaceable piece of metal and glitter?

There was also the personal reason: the story of my own long-married parents. My father had proposed to my mother shortly after he finished medical school; since he didn’t have any money, he gave my mom his class ring, which featured a raised skull and crossbones. As a kid I thought that was the coolest ring in the world, and as an adult, I knew that a traditional ring wasn’t the only symbol of romantic and marital commitment out there.My boyfriend agreed with all of these reasons, especially the one that kept him from having to select a potentially pricey piece of jewelry. But he also asked several times if I was sure that I didn’t want a ring at all, and by the third or fourth version of this conversation I realized that I wasn’t sure. We were on the edge of getting engaged, something that—knock on wood—we’d only do once. Which meant that there was only one time either of us would be in this particular situation, and maybe having something tangible to commemorate this part of our lives made sense. So finally I said, “Well, maybe a ring that actually had some personal history would be okay. Like the ring my mom gave me.”And that was precisely the ring he used, after my mom mailed it to him and then basically avoided my calls for a month, afraid she’d accidentally ruin the entire thing. The ring was just as gorgeous as I remembered, but it was also too big, so I wore it on my middle finger and took a rather immature pleasure in essentially flipping off people when they asked to see it. When I finally took it to a jeweler, I found out that the setting was too delicate to resize, so I spent most of the period between the proposal and wedding ring-less after all. These days I wear it on rare occasions, still on my middle finger, still terrified that I’m going to lose it.Using this ring worked for us, but of course that’s not the case for everyone. Speaking purely anecdotally, I know dozens of married couples and only one, maybe two, of them used a vintage ring in their engagement. So while the Times has already moved on to a newer, more dubious “trend” to gush over in the Styles section, I briefly enjoyed the feeling of commonality with complete strangers. Although let’s be real—none of their rings, or my own for that matter, will ever be as kick-ass as a skull-and-crossbones engagement ring.