by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

Costly signaling makes sense as a reason many people give for buying diamonds, although I'm not sure it really works as a defense given all the options of costly things.  More importantly, though, it seems to put the emphasis rather strangely on "signaling," a message which might be partially for your mate (one hopes she knows that message already) but is really targeting anyone else that might see and/or desire her. As such it's little more than designing and using the most ornate branding iron you can.

One alternative to the ring-as-signal model would be making sure your engagement is as memorable as possible. Make it into a story that you will both love to tell, forever. I'm not a fan of the Jumbo-tron marriage proposal - it always seems more egotistical than cute - but if that's your deal, have at. My idea is that you choose a unique time, place, or circumstance, meaningful to you both, of which the ring becomes a symbol and reminder of that moment, be it grand, intimate, sexy, terrifying, or all of the above. Do that and the ring could be made of baling wire; the metal and rock won't matter.

Although, let's be realistic, it'd better be most beautiful baling wire ring you can afford.  All the in-laws are watching.

Another reader, echoing many others, goes after the diamond cartels:

Even conceding that signaling is an useful and important way to spend your money, the signaling done with diamonds is based entirely on a lie. The lie is that diamonds are valuable because they are rare and unique. They are neither. The scarcity of diamond gemstones is completely manufactured by the De Beers cartel controlling the supply.

I'm well aware of this. The Atlantic published the definitive article on the worthlessness of diamonds back in 1982. Another reader:

As a gay man, when it came time to propose to my (now) husband, a diamond solitaire wasn't going to cut it.  First of all, I'm in the camp that shiny rocks pulled from the ground by abused, underpaid Africans is no way to signal one's love for another.  Besides, a diamond ring would look downright silly on his hand.  (He's a quintessential bear.)

So here's what I did instead:  I bought him a beautiful Omega watch and hid it in my luggage as we went off on a Caribbean cruise.  On our second day out, anchored off a lovely cay, I arranged for breakfast to be served on our stateroom's veranda.  I'd made a CD of songs that I felt fit a romantic occasion ("Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)" "Sweet Happy Life"  "The Best Is Yet To Come" and several others) and had it playing as we sipped our coffee and looked out over the blue, blue sea to a palm-studded isle.  I said a few romantic things about our life together so far, and then told him that I wanted to spend "every second, every minute, every hour and every day of the rest of my life" with him.  Then I pulled the watch from its hiding place and said, "And so you remember that, I'd like you to wear this" and handed him the watch.  He cried, I cried...and we were married six months later, during that brief period when it was legal for us to marry in California.  He's worn the watch every day since.

Unlike the shiny rock, the watch is not only handsome, it's functional, as well.  And buying it didn't enrich the villains at DeBeers.

Another reader opted for travel:

We eloped, so I never had an engagement ring. We always said “we’ll get a diamond ring for our 10th anniversary”. As the landmark anniversary approached, we just couldn’t justify the cost (and guilt) of a diamond ring. We both agreed to use money on travel instead. We’ve been to Europe and Asia a couple of times now, and we’re planning a visit to South America. We’ve built life long memories from these trips. We enjoy the whole process together: the planning, the trip itself, and telling stories about the trip. I don’t miss the ring, and I thank my husband every day for making the world a smaller place for me!

Another reader:

While not wrapped and tied with a gossamer bow, my now husband gifted me with the support (financial and emotional) to quit my full-time job and study for the bar exam almost 3 full years before we were married. By the time he got around to actually proposing (with a vintage family ring, natch) I was already fully convinced of his devotion and commitment to me and our relationship.  People who view expensive diamond rings as THE symbol of true devotion and commitment are the same people who care more about the wedding than the marriage.

Another reader finds all wedding expenses unnecessary;

I don't understand this idea that some kind of expensive gift is required to get engaged, or even married.  I have been married twice, the first to the woman who had my kids, the second to the woman who helped me raise them.  In both cases, I proposed after we had made love and then within days we got a marriage license, blood test, couple rings (a few hundred total), simple civil ceremony (about five minutes), simple reception ($100 apiece), and then went to sleep.  I never have been able to understand why people would spend thousands of dollars on an engagement ring, or thousands (or tens of thousands) on a wedding.  I'm not trying to say that everyone is like me, but surely it's possible to marry and have kids and have a more or less normal life without big rings or big weddings.

Another reader focuses on social signaling:

Diamond engagement rings are best understood not as a signal from one partner to the other, but from both partners to society at large.

I know two brothers who solved the problem of the overpriced diamond in different ways. One took his grandmother's stone, which was respectably large but rendered nearly worthless by a subtle flaw, and gave it to his future wife. The other gave a ring set with a brilliant and valuable sapphire. Both women were delighted - the one because of the diamond's sentimental significance, the other because of the distinctiveness of the sapphire (and the sacrifice its value represented).

And both rings get noticed. The diamond tends to draw admiring glances, whispered 'ooh's, and the occasional, "Is that real?" The sapphire attracts a different sort of attention. "How interesting," people say, "is that your engagement ring? What kind of stone is that?"

A ring is an inherently public display. It's not like placing a picture of your lover in a locket. And an engagement ring is a public announcement of attachment, and to some inevitable extent, of wealth and resources. For a spouse content with the private knowledge that the hunk of blue glass on her ring is actually a sapphire (or for one who moves exclusively within the rarefied circles familiar with valuable gemstones) such a stone can serve the same functions as a diamond. But the chief virtue of the overpriced carbon crystal is its ready legibility. There are myriad gifts that can signal sacrifice and commitment from one partner to the other, but it is the diamond ring that most efficiently broadcasts that signal to society at large.

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