The Rise of the Man-gagement Ring

Back in the 1920s, the jewelry industry made a botched attempt to market pre-wedding bling for men. But with today's egalitarian marriages, the time may be right for another try.

On a clear day in Laguna Niguel, California, Anthony Franco and Shawna Stewart stood together at the altar, surrounded by 40 family members and friends. It was a traditional ceremony: The two Colorado natives smiled in a sea of purple and white, Franco’s lilac tie matching the strapless dresses of Stewart’s five bridesmaids. Sunlight bounced off of the round brilliant-cut diamond on her left hand. But one small detail set their ceremony apart from others. When the time came to exchange wedding bands with one another, Franco was already wearing a ring.

According to a recent survey by XO Group Inc.—parent company of leading wedding Web site The Knot—5 percent of engaged men are wearing mangagement rings. It’s difficult to pinpoint the origin of this little-known piece of jewelry, but it certainly predates the 21st century. Vicki Howard, author of Brides, Inc: American Weddings and the Business of Tradition and an associate professor of history at Hartwick University in New York, spent hours poring over jewelry trade magazines to trace the history of what the industry calls the “mangagement ring.”

In 1926, jewelers tried to popularize the concept, but to no avail. Companies like L. Bamburger & Co., a large department store later rebranded as Macy’s, joined together for a cooperative advertising campaign. The ads, which ran in East Coast newspapers, featured black and white photos of a man’s left hand, a cigarette resting between the first two fingers and a large rock flashing on the fourth. The rings even had ultra-macho names: the Pilot, the Stag, the Master. But these campaigns were unable to overcome the ingrained femininity of the symbol, and the movement flopped.

Even a groom’s wedding band wasn’t a given until the 1940s and 1950s. “There was an idea of ‘togetherness’ that was emerging after World War II,” says Howard. “People were experiencing a postwar prosperity, and the lavish white wedding fit into that ideal. Jewelers promoted weddings as a symbol of the American Dream.” According to Howard’s research, celebrity hunks like Humphrey Bogart—the first movie star to don a wedding band—also played a role in bringing this trend into popular culture.

Today, a different set of factors is changing the way couples marry—and accessorize. A July study from the Pew Research Center reflects these shifting ideals. In 1977, only 48 percent of the public favored a household where couples shared domestic responsibilities. By 2010, that number had jumped to 62 percent. And 78 percent of women under 30 currently favor a dual-income marriage model.

Emboldened by these trends, the jewelry industry is giving the mangagement  ring another try. In 2009, British jeweler H. Samuel designed The Tioro Ring. Less expensive than a woman’s engagement ring, but a bit fancier than a man’s wedding band, this titanium ring is about half a centimeter wide, embedded with a tiny diamond or two. The most expensive is $204, a bargain compared to the average $5,431 spent on a women’s engagement ring in the U.S. in 2012.

That same year, Dreamgirls star Jennifer Hudson responded to her boyfriend’s proposal with one of her own, and hers came with a custom-made, five-carat Neil Lane diamond ring for him. Michael Bublé also made waves when he sported his engagement ring, citing his Latin fiancée’s native customs. In Argentina, Bublé told a Candian audience, “the boy also wears the engagement ring. That's what she tells me anyway."

*  *  *

On Jeweler’s Row in Chicago, velvet fingers sparkle under glass cases, adorned with diamonds of every cut, carat, clarity, and color. Women’s engagement rings are abundant: Some are simple solitaires while others have multicolored stones or gems winding around the band. Men have limited options—gold, platinum, or titanium bands between five and seven millimeters seem standard. In some cases, the band is embedded with small diamonds or etched with simple lines, but mainstream jewelers rarely offer elaborate designs for the groom. The aesthetics are simpler, but the gesture itself is significant.

Franco sported his quarter-inch titanium band throughout his five-month engagement. During the ceremony, he moved it to his right hand to make room for the traditional groom’s band. Most men, jewelers find, move their first ring to their right hand in lieu of the stacking that is traditional for most women. Others may simply allow the mangagement ring to play both roles and have it polished up for the big day.

According to Amanda Gizzi, spokesperson for Jewelers of America, big diamond names, such as Tiffany’s or Kay Jewelers, aren’t creating man-specific engagement rings yet. When couples come in to pick out a mangagement ring, they often end up repurposing men's wedding bands. “It’s hard to get a number of how many [men's engagement rings] rings are sold,” says Gizzi, “because we don’t know what the rings are being purchased for.”

With such a small commercial market for men’s engagement rings, custom-made baubles are often the answer. Calla Gold, whose eponymous business is based in Santa Barbara, adds textural elements or engraving to make a man’s ring special. She often designs a wedding band and offers a customer “permission” to wear it as a management ring.

“The guys that are doing it are digging it.” Gold says. “It’s one more memory to add to the quiver of stories that make for a happy married life.”

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Samantha Zabell is a writer living in Chicago.

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