Diamond engagement rings are a fad ingeniously cooked up by DeBeers, the diamond monopoly. Now that diamond engagement rings average $3,200, they are becoming an obstacle to engagement, the way that the absurd cost of weddings -- now averaging nearly $30,000 -- are becoming an obstacle to marriage.
Meghan O'Rourke, writing in Slate, is against engagement rings altogether, because they are one sided and therefore, in her mind, sexist. I do not have the same objection. I think men and women are complementary but not the same in their approach to courtship, a difference as much rooted in our different biology as in culture. It is important for men to give public tokens of their exclusive commitment to a woman. And, as Steven Rhoads writes in Taking Sex Differences Seriously, if you had to show a space alien an example of what a happy human being looks like, you could not do better than an engaged woman. Now, that token of betrothal does not have to be a ring, and certainly not a diamond ring. I gave Mrs. G. an opal that had been in the family. It was bigger and flashier than our "homely Protestant" aesthetic would have picked if we had been starting from scratch. Opals are fragile enough that you wouldn't want to wear it all the time. Still, I think a gemstone ring on the left ring finger would be universally understood as a engagement ring in our time and place.
O'Rourke cites legal scholar Margaret Brinig's argument that big engagement rings became popular in the middle of the 20th century in a transitional cultural moment. At the beginning of the century, if an engaged woman gave up her virginity, then was abandoned, she could sue for Breach of Promise to Marry. As the century wore on legal fashion turned against making a legal case out of it. By the end of the century, loss of virginity was not much of an obstacle to marriage anyway. In between, though, a woman deserted at the altar still had a big asset she could sell, as partial compensation for what she had lost.
We can go a little deeper into this story, though. Edward Jay Epstein tells a fascinating story in The Atlantic in 1982 with the instructive title "Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?" He tells the story of how the DeBeers cartel hired the Ayer advertising firm in the Depression to create a market for a useless kind of rock which, thanks to DeBeers' own mines, was no longer even rare. Ayer invented the slogan "A diamond is forever," and planted the notion that a man's love for a woman can be measured by the size of the diamond her gives her. Having successfully planted that thought, DeBeers today is trying to create a market for anniversary diamonds.
Let me say that I really like the mushy romantic DeBeers ads. I like the young couple holding hands looking at the old couple holding hands. The one in which the husband re-proposes to his wife in Trafalgar Square, with all their friends and relatives showing up to surprise her, makes me laugh every time. And the guy shouting to the world in St. Mark's Square "I love this woman!" is something I can plausibly threaten Mrs. G. with.
I like the mush. I just skip the diamonds.