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.