In August of this year I will be turning 30 and shortly thereafter, “tying the knot”. Over the past couple of months, i’ve slowly started telling people my good news and I watch as their eyes dart to my left hand. The nakedness of this particular extremity exposes what I assume to be confusion and doubt of the validity of my claim. Where is the ring? Some say this out loud incredulously and others remain mum. I didn’t want one. Why?
Where do I begin? How do I tell my friend who is wearing an engagement ring on her hand that I chose not to have one because I think they’re an outdated commodity? That what they signify has dubious origins and represents a darker social reality? It might help by first examining the history of the engagement ring.
Engagement bands were first used by the Egyptians as the circle represented a never ending cycle. Betrothal rings were used during Roman times and they were used to symbolize ownership rather than love — a symbol of a man claiming his wife. The Greeks used the fourth finger on the left hand because they believed a vein ran from that finger directly to the heart (vena amoris). It wasn’t until the 13th century that betrothal rings were revived in the Western world. In Europe, they were known as posie rings, a symbol of fidelity and love.
Fast forward to colonial America and women were given thimbles as symbols of eternal companionship (but not necessarily before marriage). The women would then remove the top of the thimble to create a ring. Engagement rings was not a standard in the Western world until the late 19th century. In 1919, De Beers began experiencing a dramatic drop in diamond sales that lasted for several decades. In the 1930s, De Beers hired N.W. Ayer to put out a national campaign by convincing Hollywood to begin wearing diamond rings in public, fashion designers to tout the new and lasting trend of diamonds. In 3 short years (between 1938 and 1941), diamonds sales rose by an astounding 55%. The icing on top came in 1947 when a female copywriter, Frances Gerety, coined the phrase, “A Diamond is Forever”. The “tradition” of giving diamond rings for engagement was created in America by a wildly aggressive marketing campaign by De Beers. It was then that the marriage between love and commerce began to define the American wedding. By 1965, 80% of American women were given diamond engagement rings.
But is there a deeper and darker social reality beneath our demand for diamond engagement rings? Up until the Great Depression, a woman could sue the man for monetary damages if he retracted his proposal in what was known as Breach of Promise. Damages were significantly bumped up if the woman had engaged in sexual intercourse with her fiance. The idea was to protect the woman’s reputation and her future financial security. As these laws were repealed, the diamond ring was given in lieu as a source of financial security. This implies a woman’s virginity is worth the price of the ring and varied depending on the groom-to-be’s financial status.
Fortunately, the advances of gender equality and social norms have shifted so that virginity is no longer a prerequisite for marriage and women no longer consider their “marriageability” their prime asset. It isn’t exactly “equitable” when I demand that my man shell out a sixth of his salary to “demonstrate” that he can “provide” for me before I agree to marriage. In an age where female college graduates outnumber their male counterparts, retrograde customs such as changing your last name are dwindling, and women no longer need to rely on men for financial stability, it seems curious that the “tradition” of diamond engagement rings have persisted as it no longer fits into the intellectual framework of gender equality. Its easy to regard a ring simply as a beautiful piece of jewelry and to never think rigorously about this “tradition” that is handed down to us (I know i’m guilty of this), but do we really still measure our worth in relationship to marriage in ways that men don’t? Are we still collectively attached to the status a ring gives us? And if there really was gender equality, why don’t we demand the same from our men?