June 11, 2007

The Hot Rock

An interesting, (mostly) non-political debate has arisen between Meghan O'Rourke at Slate and Jonah Goldberg at The Corner today on a ubiquitous American cultural imperative: the diamond engagement ring. Interestingly, it is O'Rourke challenging the customary decimation of a young suitor's finances, and Goldberg submitting to the inevitability of the custom. O'Rourke starts by asking what this one-sided exchange really means:

The retail fantasy known as a "traditional" American wedding comprises many delicious absurdities, ranging from personalized wedding stamps to ring pillows designed for dogs to favors like "Love Mints." Of all these baubles, though, perhaps the most insidious is the engagement ring. Most Americans can say no to the "celebrity garter belt" on offer for a mere $18.95 from Weddings With Class. But more than 80 percent of American brides receive a diamond engagement ring (at an average cost of around $3,200) before they get married. Few stop to think about what, beyond the misty promise of endless love, the ring might actually signify. Why would you, after all? A wedding is supposed to be a celebration. Only the uncharitable would look a sparkly diamond in the eye—never mind a man on his knee—and ask what it means.

But there's a powerful case to be made that in an age of equitable marriage the engagement ring is an outmoded commodity—starting with the obvious fact that only the woman gets one. The diamond ring is the site of retrograde fantasies about gender roles. What makes it pernicious—as opposed to tackily fun—is its cost (these days you don't need just a diamond; you need a good diamond), its dubious origins, and the cynical blandishments of TV and print ads designed to suggest a ring's allure through the crassest of stereotypes.

Case in point: An American couple stands in a plaza in Europe. The man shouts, "I love this woman!" The woman appears mortified. He then pulls out a diamond ring and offers it to her. She says, in heartfelt tones, "I love this man." And you've probably noticed that these days diamonds really are forever: Men are informed that their beautiful wife needs a "Twenty-Fifth Anniversary" ring (note this ad's reduction of a life to copulation and child-rearing), and single women are told not to wait around for guys but to go ahead and get themselves a "right-finger ring." Live to be 100 and a woman of a certain class might find her entire hand crusted over with diamonds. A diamond company, you see, is unrelenting. In their parlance, "the desire is there; we just want to breathe more life into it."

Goldberg acknowledges the crass commercialization of this rite of passage, but says the ship has sailed on ending it:

It's just absurd to lock up precious resources in something you'll never sell — hence the genius of the diamond business. But, at the end of the day, no one will believe you that you didn't get the rock on principle. Her friends won't. Your friends won't. Her family won't. No one. In the spirit of misery loves company, your guy friends — who are deeply invested in defending their decision to get the rock for their wives — will give you a brutal time about how cheap you are. Her friends are similarly invested. Everyone is.

A few people will refuse to do it on principle, but their heresy will only reinforce the custom. A few men will decline because they simply can't afford it. But if they ever find themselves living more prosperous lives they'll atone at the jewelry store eventually.

The diamond is the modern updating of the mastodon hide and the shiny rock.

Perhaps, although as O'Rourke points out, this particular tradition only goes back a few decades. Until the late 19th century, such a tradition would have been impossible for all but the most wealthy of the world. Diamonds did not become a common commodity until the DeBeers company found vast deposits of diamonds in Africa. In fact, the deposits are so vast that it threatened to collapse the price of diamonds entirely, and DeBeers has acted ever since to suppress supply and increase demand.

The marketing of engagement rings is relentless. Jewelers insist that a proper young gent should spend around three month's salary for this "investment". Men know many women compare notes (and rings) to see whether they have selected a cheapskate or a spendthrift, and feel enormous pressure to abide by the advice offered. As Goldberg notes, not too many want to embarrass themselves or their brides-to-be unless specifically directed to buy something else.

I disagree with Jonah on one point. He said that the custom has no chance of being rejected, unlike the tradition of giving fur coats, which animal-rights activists have turned into a social faux pas. Something similar may indeed happen with diamonds, and the reason is more significant than the fate of chinchillas. Diamonds have fueled vicious and long-lasted conflicts all throughout Africa, as armies and militias of all stripes have sold them in black-market circles to legitimate dealers around the world. These so-called blood diamonds or conflict diamonds have funded terrorism and genocides in places like Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo, the Ivory Coast, and more.

Diamond producing countries and diamond merchants, under heavy political pressure, finally came up with a certification process for the raw material. Called the Kimberley Process, it attempts to limit the export and sale of diamonds to those mined through legitimate operations which do not fund armed bands of thugs. However, the system is not foolproof, and many suspect that a significant criminal trade in blood diamonds still exists.

If this rises to the level of national consciousness in wealthy nations such as the US, UK, and the European nations, perhaps the diamond may become the pariah of gems. It's a very expensive NO TRESPASSING sign, as O'Rourke calls it, both in finances and in human lives. However, if the Kimberley Process can close the market on the criminal gangsters in Africa who use the money to bring murder and misery to Africans, the trade could help the continent generate an economic infrastructure that might lift millions out of poverty. That, at least, would be worth a couple of month's salary.

UPDATE: Kimberley Process, not Kimberly, as Kim at Musing Minds corrects me, and also supplies the link.


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Comments (28)

Posted by Rhymes With Right | June 11, 2007 5:18 PM

I got off easy on this one.

My darling wife and i, early in our dating, had seen an amethyst ring while out shopping, and mentioned how she loved amethyst more than any other stone. The ring itself had beautiful stained-glass window cut-outs on the side that were backed with more amethyst -- and since we were both seminary students had a special meaning to us both. Lastly, the amethyst is my birthstone.

When, some months later, we began talking about marriage, there was never any doubt in my mind about what ring I would get her -- and the fact that she even mentioned the ring in another context around the same time served as confirmation that my decision was the right one. It came as something of a surprise to her when I slipped it on her finger -- and she assured me that no other ring would have moved her more. To this day, her friends still say that they envy her for having an engagement ring that MEANS something rather than simply fulfills the social expectation of a diamond solitaire.

Posted by TierFlyer | June 11, 2007 5:19 PM

I got my wife an "estate ring." It cost less than a week's salary (granted I make a lot of money), had superior workmanship, and I told her that it "represented a love that lasted 70 years" - which it did.

Plus deBeers made exactly zero on it.


Posted by Stephen Macklin | June 11, 2007 5:19 PM

Personally I not only favor the tradition, I think we should create a new tradition of reciprocity. In exchange for the valuable token that comes with a proposal, the woman accepting a proposal must give the man a valuable gift as well. In days of yore that would have likely been her virginity, but in most modern cases that probably no longer applies.

I say raise the cost of entry into matrimony so that you don't have quite so many marriages that never should have happened.

Posted by Kent | June 11, 2007 5:31 PM

I got my intended a diamond ring, for the tradition.

I got one that cost nowhere near $3000, because I'm not an idiot.

Posted by Andy | June 11, 2007 5:57 PM

My wife insisted I not get her a diamond ring, and honestly I wouldn't have anyway. It's a stupid tradition (3 months' salary??????) and DeBeers is an absolutely evil company. People spend time getting spun up on the "evil" of Microsoft and give DeBeers a pass. Unbelievable. I don't like Microsoft either, but at least they don't murder people.

Posted by TierFlyer | June 11, 2007 6:16 PM

Stephen - I like that idea. For our tenth anny I got my wife a more practical band with diamonds and sapphires - also an estate buy.

I will let her know that on our 15th I expect a German sports car in reciprocity!


Posted by GeorgeH | June 11, 2007 6:16 PM

While the rock is a waste of resources, it's still a cunning investment compared to spending 10 or 20 grand on a wedding and honeymoon. All you get for that is a photo album. Spend the 20 grand on a ring, and you can at least get something for it if worse comes to worse.

Posted by NahnCee | June 11, 2007 6:30 PM

Why blame it all on DeBeers when we're able to concoct the little gems in our own little laboratories now?

Posted by dcslb | June 11, 2007 6:44 PM

My wife did not want an engagement ring, or a traditional wedding ring. She had an Irish Claddagh ring her sister had given her years before and wore it in the manner that symbolizes "taken"; for her wedding ring she wanted another Claddagh that she helped design. Her friends, family, etc. asked, "didn't he get you a ring" and she replied, "I wouldn't let him." She did not marry me for jewelry, nor I her.

Posted by quickjustice | June 11, 2007 6:47 PM

Women do display their "rocks" to each other for admiration, envy, and a whole list of social and economic reasons that never occur to men.

DeBeers has a very successful marketing operation. "Diamonds Are Forever" and "Diamonds are a girl's best friend" are the two examples that come to mind.

Posted by Del Dolemonte | June 11, 2007 7:04 PM

(Paying for) A diamond is forever.

As for DeBeers, don't forget that they have been accused of some not so ethical practices:


GeorgeH: Some wedding receptions cost 50 grand or more these days. One of my cousins got married in 1972 and her reception alone cost 20 grand. The marriage lasted less than 5 years.

Posted by docjim505 | June 11, 2007 7:41 PM

Sigh... This kind of attitude may be why I'm not married (well, that and being overweight, boring and morose), but my feeling is that a woman who expects and demands that I spend that kind of money on her... Ain't the right woman for me or any other man. Sure, it'd be very nice to have that kind of money and (more importantly) a woman worth every penny and more, but the woman who considers a man "cheap" and therefore not worth marrying because he can't afford a huge rock is about one step below a prostitute, in my opinion: at least with a pro, it's (hopefully!) an equitable business deal and you don't have to hire a lawyer and bankrupt yourself to get out of it.

Posted by RD | June 11, 2007 8:02 PM

No one yet has mentioned cubic zirconium but I'm willing to bet that many of the diamonds adorning women's fingers are just that. It sounds cheap, crass and not very sentimental but most people looking at a diamond cannot tell whether or not it is real, especially if it is done in a real gold setting. In fact, these rings now cost more in some cases than my original top grade diamond did 50 years ago which now resides in my lockbox while I wear cheap and fun imitations.

Posted by Jack Inman | June 11, 2007 8:33 PM

We went traditional all the way... I presented my bride with a stunning 1 ca. Marquix-cut, High grade diamond, bended knee, in tux... and yes I paid maybe 3mos salary for it... it remains a lasting heirloom of our love.

She didn't demand it, but I do believe she had expectations, which I more than met... to this day she will show it and say "Jack picked it out himself...", and she loves it.

I don't view it as an investment, but I do view it as a statement. No regrets.. I'm proud to have her wear her ring.

That being said... it is not the investment.. it is the statement. Forever.

Posted by betsybounds | June 11, 2007 8:41 PM

The one thing that no one here (or anywhere else in this debate, that I've seen so far) mentions is that diamonds are, quite simply, beautiful. Cubic zirconium doesn't have the same dispersion about the axis that diamond does, so while it resembles diamond, it doesn't sparkle. The cleverest DeBeers marketing campaign would come to nothing if diamonds weren't beautiful. People are free to prefer whatever they want, but for beauty, I'll take a diamond. There's a kind of reverse snobbism in saying that you wouldn't waste your money on one--"Hey, look at me, I'm not nearly so crass and materialistic as those rubes who fall for diamonds." Well, nice for you. But they are lovely. Really.

Posted by Revenant | June 11, 2007 9:07 PM

To anyone who wants to spend a "3 month's salary on something that will last forever", I recommend The Rise and Fall of Diamonds by Edward Jay Epstein

Posted by WT | June 11, 2007 9:24 PM

My wife is a nurse, and was when we got engaged. She knew a couple of other nurses who had lost the diamond out of their engagement rings while working. She didn't want one because she couldn't wear it without risking losing the diamond. So we bought the wedding rings, and gold chains. We wore each other's wedding ring on the chains until we got married. This is, in a sense, more fair, the guy always wears a symbol of his engagement, too. Yes, twenty eight years later we're still married.

Posted by Del Dolemonte | June 11, 2007 10:12 PM

WT said

"My wife is a nurse, and was when we got engaged. She knew a couple of other nurses who had lost the diamond out of their engagement rings while working. She didn't want one because she couldn't wear it without risking losing the diamond. "

Have her watch the MASH episode "Patient 4077". That episode featured legendary character actor Keye Luke (of Charlie Chan fame), who mentioned something about cheap Korean engagement rings made with diamond chips and "cheap setting-Miracle Glue". Head 4077 MASH nurse Hot Lips was given such a ring in the show.

Posted by Pandoru | June 11, 2007 10:17 PM

We were in Eastern Europe - did not have chocolate, let alone diamonds. The state would actually have a subsidy for about 8 gr gold / ring, once in a lifetime, but that is after the wedding (needed the certificate to prove it). However, as a dentist she could not wear even that much (lots of mercury at that time in the fillings) - then we came to Canada - where she could wear the ring no problem - dentists in Canada have their own mafia, nobody outside can get in (except US trained - 'cause no dentist trained in US is stupid to work in Canada).

We tried only once to buy a diamond - for cutting glass - but nobody would sell one (hardware stores) as they were affraid that we would use it to break into houses. As if the thieves have a problem finding the dimond cutters (wanted to buid a large fish tank, then we figured plexy would be way better).

Posted by Pandoru | June 11, 2007 10:22 PM

We were in Eastern Europe - did not have chocolate, let alone diamonds. The state would actually have a subsidy for about 8 gr gold / ring, once in a lifetime, but that is after the wedding (needed the certificate to prove it). However, as a dentist she could not wear even that much (lots of mercury at that time in the fillings) - then we came to Canada - where she could wear the ring no problem - dentists in Canada have their own mafia, nobody outside can get in (except US trained - 'cause no dentist trained in US is stupid to work in Canada).

We tried only once to buy a diamond - for cutting glass - but nobody would sell one (hardware stores) as they were affraid that we would use it to break into houses. As if the thieves have a problem finding the dimond cutters (wanted to buid a large fish tank, then we figured plexy would be way better).

Posted by WestPack | June 11, 2007 11:01 PM

Married in1965; I a junior med student and she a fresh graduate of nursing school. Still married and still proud owners of our wedding rings ... her's a princely $18 and my wedding band a scant $12.

We picked them out together. It's amazing how fast you can "get it done" when it dawns on the jewler you really were serious when you said "we don't have a lot of money to spend".

Gin up something else, I used up all my pity on Paris Hilton.

Posted by Joshua | June 11, 2007 11:29 PM

I am in my thirties and "settled down single." Marriage isn't even a blip on my radar. Now, this has more to do with my determination not to go through an ugly divorce on the back end (as many of my relatives, friends and colleagues have) than with having to cough up three months' salary for the bling on the front end. Still, it's blog posts like this one that make me glad I made the decision I did.

Much has been made of how divorce laws skewed toward women have created a huge disincentive for men to commit to a marriage in the first place. Needless to say, that gets no argument from me. But this post has got me wondering how much the huge up-front expenses (the engagement ring, and in some cases even the wedding event itself) factor into the equation. These up-front expenses are obviously no guarantee that the marriage will last. In fact, I'd say a diamond engagement ring isn't so much an investment in the marriage as a wager on it. But if I were inclined to wager that kind of money in one drop, I'd just as soon fly down to Vegas and plunk down $10K to play in the World Series of Poker.

Posted by betsybounds | June 12, 2007 6:17 AM

Incidentally, while I think diamonds are beautiful, I don't have one. I've been married to the same guy--My Guy--for nearly 37 years on the strength of a plain, antique 22-kt gold band. It works real well! :)

Posted by Larry J | June 12, 2007 7:54 AM

Like WestPack, my wife and I married while still in college (we were older non-traditional students). Money was very tight, so paying 3 months salary for something as frivilous as an engagement ring was out of the question. We each got simple gold bands (and they were probably gold plated).

Our 24th anniversary is in a couple weeks. We still wear those simple gold bands. The financial discipline we learned while we were struggling newlyweds has served us well. Over the years, I've bought her other pieces of gold and diamond jewelry, but in the end, it's those simple gold bands that count.

IMO, people who spend 3 months salary on a ring are crazy. Those who spend tens of thousands of dollars on a wedding and reception are nuts. The week we got married, "US News and World Report" had a cover story titled "Big Weddings - They're Back." Twenty-four years later, I wonder how many of those big spending couples featured in the article are still married. And of those who are still married, how well are they doing financially.

Posted by km | June 12, 2007 8:11 AM

My wife's ring features my grandmother's diamond from her engagement ring. We had a modest priced ring (with a rather unique design) picked out when my mother informed us that she had grandma's diamond saved for this event.

Posted by Richard Cook | June 12, 2007 8:50 AM

I just will not go for a woman that expects a rock for an engagement ring. Women are socialized that the "big day" is all about them. How many "groom" mags do you see? How about this: building the marraige year by year through all the ups and downs; being faithful to one another; treating love as a verb instead of a noun. Its the journey that matters, not one moment.

Posted by horse | June 12, 2007 11:10 AM

When I was a 2LT deployed in Europe, we made a hasty decision to elope and marry by judge, bypassing the engagement ring; a good thing considering it would have been a pretty small gem on 2LT pay. When we came back stateside and I made CPT, we got a diamond she liked and we could now afford. We also then did the religious wedding with family and then the honeymoon.

Fortunately, the families were understanding and did not disown either of us when we returned and it all worked out. The first couple of years on your own without meddling family is a great way to start a marriage.

Posted by Old Married Lady | June 12, 2007 3:20 PM

No one ever believes me when I say this, but I have always found diamonds intolerably ugly and boring- to me they are just plain, clear, sparkly blips, no more interesting than a shard of broken glass. Total yawn.
I *forbade* my guy to ever get me one on the grounds that wearing it would be a chore. Instead I was given an enchanting ring sporting sapphire chips in a carved, golden band that looks both medieval and understated. I was very poor at the time but I gave him a sterling silver band in return- which he wore until it finally gave out.
Diamonds- bah!