Ringing True: Why Diamond Engagement Rings Are Extravagant Junk

This is the true story of diamond engagement rings. It is a story of fortuitous timing and brilliant marketing. It is not a tale of romance, but of finance.

Once upon a time, women were property and marriage was a business transaction.

In an era when female virginity had financial value because it ensured a legitimate heir for royal assets and political alliances, nobility gave rings with stones of value, such as sapphires and rubies. This was a way of recognizing the contract that matrimony represented. Goods and services were traded in exchange for benefits. Specifically, a woman’s feminine virtue for a man’s protection and fiscal security.

This trend didn’t really make it’s way into working class America until the late 19th century, when the discovery of an abundance of diamond mines made the little stones cheap and prolific. Suddenly, any man interested in attaining a good wife could afford the ring to secure her. As the wedding industry began to gain power and prominence, two very important things took place in our country: The repeal of “Breach of Promise” laws and the advertising campaign of De Beers.

Before the 1930s, the “Breach of Promise to Marry” law allowed women to sue men for breaking an engagement. Monetary damages, emotional distress, and the loss of future prospects could all be claimed under this law. At that time, women were expected to remain chaste until marriage, but many surveys from this generation indicate that close to half of engaged couples were having sex before their nuptials. This left the bride-to-be effectively ruined from both a social and economic perspective. The “Breach of Promise” law provided legal recourse for a woman if the man didn’t fulfill his obligation. By 1945, most states had abolished or severely limited this law, and women no longer had any guarantee when it came to betrothal.

Right around this time, the De Beers diamond company began advertising to the masses. During the Great Depression, the price of diamonds had fallen, and research indicated that engagement rings were not as popular as they had been previously. The diamond cartels needed a way to endear themselves to a younger generation. De Beers began circulating information about cut, carats, clarity, and color and somehow made the diamond engagement ring synonymous with love and devotion. They even created an arbitrary guideline for spending, the equivalent of two months salary would be sufficient to purchase a soon-to-be bride’s affection and commitment.

Now women had upfront financial assurance from their intended. Simply put, this was the collateral that said: If he walks out on you tomorrow, at least you’ll be left with something.

As I look at the evolution of modern relationships, I wonder why this practice hasn’t disappeared like the law that came before it. Women today earn their own money, have successful careers, and in some cases pick out and purchase the rings they want. On the other hand, men are still put under immense pressure to spend several thousands of dollars on a small anachronistic decoration that has literally no intrinsic value.

I have a fiancé I love very much, and when he proposed, he gave me a ring. It is the only piece of jewelry I wear every day, and when the light hits each sparkling gem, I can’t help but smile. I’m not speaking as a bitter spinster bent on destroying the institute of marriage or an angry divorcee who got screwed in a settlement. My goal is simply to broaden our understanding of a very antiquated and wasteful tradition. If you want to make a grand gesture to symbolize the everlasting love between two people, there are options outside of emptying your account for the benefit of big diamond companies. You can buy a ring that is unique without breaking the bank and put the extra funds toward something equally beautiful. Why not establish a college fund for your children, or make a down payment on a house? Use the money you feel compelled to flush down the toilet for something that really will make a contribution to your life together, or make the world a better place for someone else. Make the story of your engagement one of love, compassion, and romance, not finance.