by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

I think you're digging too deep on your analysis of a modern place for engagement rings. It can be this simple: men and women both grow up associating the symbol with the emotions it implies. This association cements long before we develop notions of social justice, and long before we'd think to apply them to classic symbols. I see nothing wrong with that. Symbols have value even if, at a higher level of consciousness, some part of them becomes questionable.

Another reader:

My best friend decided she didn't want a diamond ring – the one she liked was $60 at Fire&Ice. Her boyfriend was befuddled by this, partly because he had two grand he'd saved up to buy a ring, and suddenly nothing to spend it on.

So he bought and proposed to her with a MacBookPro. (She's an aspiring writer)

Several readers wrote something along these lines:

I was always suspicious of the diamond engagement ring -- but like many men realized my then girlfriend, now wife, wanted and expected one and i wasn't going to disappoint her.  but i'll say this -- it's not "merely" symbolic -- I got her a ring for $5000 -- I don't know how much it should cost or what it's worth absent artificial monopolies - but I will say that the ring is absolutely beautiful, it sparkles, it shines, it catches my eye all the time, and other people's eyes -- it's no lavish ring, not by a long shot -- but i've come to realize that for all the bullshit that surrounds the industry and cultural practice, the diamond is a beautiful stone.

And several more had this reaction:

I did not receive a diamond as an engagement gift. I would have been horrified – I would have reconsidered the engagement – if my beloved had spent that much of our hard-earned money on something so spectacularly useless *which I don't want.* I rarely wear jewelry beyond my wedding ring and a necklace he gave me early in our courtship. For him to spend a huge chunk of cash on something I don't want and won't wear rather than the two of us jointly deciding the wisest use of that money (car payment, house payment, diapers) tells me that he doesn't understand the woman to whom he wants to commit himself. I am a practical person. I don't want a useless gift. And I *really* don't care what the rest of the world thinks, because the rest of the world is not volunteering to make my car payments.

A signal of commitment would be moving in together, buying a house together, proposing and accepting the proposal, getting married, adopting a pet together. A big shiny useless rock? To me that means he has more money than spine, and she has more vanity than sense. Commitment doesn't happen to your finger; it happens to your heart.

A reader in the industry:

I'm a jeweler's daughter, granddaughter, niece, cousin, and sister, so I perhaps have a slightly different perspective on the whole engagement ring issue.  I do understand and appreciate the concerns about blood diamonds.  I'm also an assistant professor, so I've done the research both about the situation today and on the diamond mines in South Africa in the late nineteenth-century, my area of expertise.  We try to be as ethical and careful as possible about who we buy diamonds from; we buy from reputable dealers, try to use GIA certified stones, or reuse stones people bring in.  Do we always succeed?  Probably not, but we try. 

I also appreciate the argument about people simply wanting an expensive ring for the status and not because of what it symbolizes.  One of my favorite sad jewelry stories is of the guy who bought a relatively inexpensive, small engagement ring for his girlfriend, despite knowing she wanted a larger, much more elaborate ring we had.  He did it to make sure she wanted to marry him.  She actually told him she hadn't spent two years of her life waiting for a little ring.  Needless to say, they didn't stay together.  The jewelry business is a racket, and much of it is about status.

But, engagement rings aren't just the stone or a status symbol.  When you buy a ring, particularly a custom made one or a vintage piece, you're buying a piece of craftsmanship.  The knowledge of how to temper metals, of how to bend and secure prongs, and of what temperatures you can't go past before you frost a stone or melt a setting is highly specialized. When you buy a ring, you're paying for someone's time, labor, and care not just a pretty bauble.  And perhaps more so than other objects, people imbue jewelry with special meanings.  Perhaps we shouldn't do so, but we do. I know we (my family's store) treat engagement rings differently than other pieces.  We want them to be special because we know that they mean more to the people exchanging them.  (It probably also has something to do with the fact that my father and grandfather so ardently believed in marriage.)

A final reader, for now:

This is in the response to the reader who "finds all wedding expenses unnecessary."

Of course it's possible "to marry and have kids and have a more or less normal life without big rings or big weddings."  It's also possible to do all that without taking a plane for a weekend in Vegas on a whim, without buying completely useless lingerie from a trashy adult store, without drinking too much champagne after a Saturday night date and having giddy drunk sex that night and a terrible hangover the next morning.  And in a lot of ways you'd be better off: jets emit greenhouse gases, most lingerie last one or two times through the wringer (if you're doing it right), and it's hard to justify hangovers on the morning after.

But what a fucking drag life would be.

The engagement ring I got my wife was quite expensive, although the main stone itself was relatively inexpensive (a blue topaz for about $150; we're both November babies, so topaz is our shared birthstone).  It's platinum with complex filigree and small diamond chips embedded around it.  My ring is engraved platinum with beautiful swirls and flourishes. Did we need to do that?  No, but it's one of the most important and personal symbolic purchases of our lives (also, I was pretty flush with cash from the dot-com boom at the time).  We still look at our rings together and talk about how beautiful they are and how much they mean to us as symbols of what we started almost 10 years ago now.

Our wedding was a big production, not because our parents had expectations that we HAD to have some big church wedding, but because that's what we wanted.  My future wife and I met at shows by her brother's band, which had subsequently broken up and scattered around S.F., down to L.A., and as far as N.Y.C.  We had friends in S.F., L.A., Seattle, Denver, New York, Boston, Florida, Paris, and many other places around the world.  Making our wedding a big deal was both symbolic of the fact that we thought our marriage itself was a big deal and a way to reward and celebrate the time and effort of our friends in coming together for that celebration.  So we flew the whole band into town and had them play the reception, had a beautiful service performed in the chapel on Treasure Island in the middle of San Francisco, and had the reception and party in the old Officer's Club on the island, with picture windows looking out at downtown San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge on a beautiful crisp summer day on the Bay.  To this day, it's one of the best parties I've ever been to and certainly the only time in my life that just about everyone special and important to me--all the way from my childhood through my adult life to that point--was all together in one place at the same time.

The drabness and routine described by your reader makes it sound as if, for him, getting married was about as important as settling on a kitchen appliance.  For our part, it was a much bigger deal. We have never for a second regretted the expense and trouble of our rings, wedding, or the accompanying festivities, EVEN THOUGH the simplest part (for us as a straight couple of course), getting our marriage license at S.F. City Hall, was also special and memorable for the quietness and routine of the moment.


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