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."

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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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Brendan Yukins, a 21-year-old senior at Northwestern University, is in the middle of a long engagement to 22-year-old Kenneth Camacho, who works for Asian Human Services providing education and outreach and testing for HIV and AIDS. The two dated for three months before the proposal, and wanted to publicly display their commitment. Yukins will wear his ring proudly until his wedding, which he expects to take place in a few years. After the ceremony, he may move the ring to the other hand, place it on a chain around his neck, or put it away for safekeeping.

“When my son or daughter turns 18, I want to pass this down to them,” he says, holding the band out in front of him. “I can say, ‘This is what we had when we were 20 and fabulous.’” His engagement ring is simple stainless steel, purchased from a jewelry stand at Water Tower Place in Chicago. For financial reasons (both have student loans to worry about) Yukins and Camacho didn’t want to buy something too precious, but Yukins may coat it in gold one day. Still, the sentimental value matters most.

“To lose this ring would be pretty awful, because it means a lot,” Yukins says.

The spreading legalization of same-sex marriage has created a new demand in the industry—and not just for simple bands. Gay men often seek out diamonds, and some purchases are “bling bling,” according to Jillian Rebol, the manager of Ultra Diamonds (soon to be Kay Jeweler’s) in Chicago. Rebol, who has been in the jewelry business since the 1990s, remembers one especially excited groom-to-be who came in with another man and bought a seven-diamond engagement ring. “I put two gold bands on either side and he was happy as a clam,” Rebol says.

Popular culture has also helped guide this trend down the aisle. Recall the recent season finale of Glee, when heartthrob Blaine buys a ring to propose to his longtime boyfriend, Kurt. This fall, the season premiere of the Emmy-winning comedy Modern Family featured a long-time-coming proposal for Cam and Mitch following the historic Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Proposition 8 rulings. The newfound desire to make these commitments known to the world has influenced the industry. In Chicago alone, about half a dozen jewelry stores cater specifically to same-sex couples.

In New York, niche jeweler Rony Tennenbaum designs jewelry specifically for same-sex couples. His “Tie the Knot” collection features rings in gold, silver and rose gold, some with diamonds that serve as engagement or wedding bands for men and women. He combines classic embellishments of traditional wedding jewelry with symbolic details—knots or “equal” signs—for same-sex couples to make his designs distinctive.

Down under, Gus Hashem is the managing director and founder of Diamond Emporium, an Australian online jeweler that customizes rings for gay men and women. He has seen influences from both sides: women purchasing for men, and men purchasing for men. The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) passed a bill allowing same-sex couples to marry on October 22, 2013. Following this breakthrough, Hashem expects a significant increase in that population looking for rings, and he welcomes the business. .

“Anything goes these days, which is great from a jeweler’s perspective,” Hashem says. “The more people wearing high-end jewelry, the better!”

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What will it take for mangagement rings to really enter the mainstream? Last year, Robbins Brothers, a jewelry chain specializing in engagement sparklers, surveyed 800 respondents about their attitudes toward long-standing marriage customs. The results: about 67 percent of the men polled are “open” to wearing an engagement ring. But because mangagement rings aren’t a cultural staple, women are not prompted to buy them. “It’s not pushed enough,” says Severine Ferrari, the editor-in-chief of Engagement 101 magazine. “Big changes have to come from individual people. If they don’t find the product in front of them, it’s not going to happen. People need to see things to buy them.”

Rebol has worked in four cities—Columbus, Rochester, Philadelphia and Chicago—and in all that time, she can remember “maybe two” women who have come looking to purchase an engagement ring. “They come in excited,” Rebol says. “They ask if anybody has ever done it, and we tell them it’s rare, and we help them because that’s what they’re here for.”

If the jewelry industry wants to sell more mangagment rings, it may need to run ads coaxing women to pop the question. “The groom’s band symbolizes you’re married, is a marker of your status and you both wear one,” says Howard. “But the engagement ring is attached to the act of proposing, and men are still seen as the main people who are supposed to propose. Women are the ones who ‘get engaged,’ and that will continue to hinder the acceptance of a new ritual good.”

Until that acceptance comes, men like Franco will remain part of a slowly growing minority. Franco selected his mangagement ring on a whim while picking out Stewart’s wedding band at the local Jared (yes, he went to Jared). As the two of them perused the glass cases, Franco suddenly found himself envying the ring his fiancée already had on her hand. “I said, ‘I would love an engagement ring,’” Franco says. “She insisted on buying me a ring right at that moment. I put it on, and it just felt right.”