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June 11, 2007

The Trouble With Engagement Rings

Meghan O'Rourke makes the case against the diamond engagement ring, and includes this theory as to the ring's rise:

Until the 1930s, a woman jilted by her fiance could sue for financial compensation for "damage" to her reputation under what was known as the "Breach of Promise to Marry" action. As courts began to abolish such actions, diamond ring sales rose in response to a need for a symbol of financial commitment from the groom, argues the legal scholar Margaret Brinig—noting, crucially, that ring sales began to rise a few years before the De Beers campaign. To be marriageable at the time you needed to be a virgin, but, Brinig points out, a large percentage of women lost their virginity while engaged. So some structure of commitment was necessary to assure betrothed women that men weren't just trying to get them into bed. The "Breach of Promise" action had helped prevent what society feared would be rampant seduce-and-abandon scenarios; in its lieu, the pricey engagement ring would do the same.

She also mentions one of my least favorite ads, "An American couple stands in a plaza in Europe. The man shouts, "I love this woman!" The woman appears mortified. He then pulls out a diamond ring and offers it to her. She says, in heartfelt tones, "I love this man."' That always struck me as an excellent commercial for divorce, not diamonds.

June 11, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

The betrothal was originally considered to be the contract between the couple, the marriage was delayed to allow for verification that both were free to make the contract and for distant family to gather to witness the vows. With families being in charge of these contracts, it was possible that an earlier betrothal may still be in effect and that it would need to be voided before a new one could be made. Banns would be read in public, usually at the church and posted. This would allow people to come forward and clarify the legal status of either person. The question 'does anyone here know any reason why these two should not be wed?' was serious as it was possible to be previously betrothed and not know it. Example- two men serving in the army promise to marry their children to each other and it is witnessed by the army chaplain, they die in battle and years later the two children, unaware of a legally binding obligation prepare to wed others. We would laugh it off but in the past that was a binding contract.
What we see as traditional marriage is vastly different from historical marriage.

Posted by: Hawise | Jun 11, 2007 11:32:34 AM

You can look at the piazza ad two ways. One is how you took the ad: she's blown away by the fact that he spent money on her.

The other way is that he planned it out enough to have gone to a jewelry store, picked a beautiful ring, and planned to trip to declare his love again in public. Any schmuck can scream he loves a woman and embarrass her in public, but when he showed he had the ring it demonstrated advanced thought and planning.

I also think you missed that her parents were -- surprise! -- sitting on the steps, so they were invited along and part of the re-proposal of marriage, too.

Remove the parents and the ring and, yeah, he's just a schmuck showing off. Add them back in and he's a guy who planned over the course of months to declare his love for his wife in public.

The commercial irritates me, too, but not for the materialism. I just think that kind of thing can be done just as well in private at a nice table over a good bottle of wine.

Posted by: Nathan | Jun 11, 2007 11:33:40 AM

Diamonds have been forever for about 100 years. DeBeers has made a pretty but ultimately characterless stone central to peoples' idea of love. When my fiancee and I got engaged, I gave her a garnet ring - her birth stone - with a few small diamonds, instead of the other way around. The band was engraved with wheat sheaves, a symbol of bounty far more timeless than a diamond. This ring says far more about our relationship than the size of a diamond can say about the size of one's love.

Posted by: Aaron | Jun 11, 2007 11:35:46 AM

Hawise is right. The history of betrothal, sex between engaged couples, and breach of promise is a pretty long and complex one. I didn't read the original article but I'm guessing that the right of *the woman* to sue for breach of promise is fairly recent. Up until the 17th century I'm guessing it was up to her family to sue. the issue is also tied up in the state's interest in preventing bastardy and/or preventing women and children from becoming charges on the public purse. I know that in early massaschusetts the determination of paternity was considered incredibly important because of the refusal of the community to be stuck with the bill for bastard or abandoned children.

aimai

Posted by: aimai | Jun 11, 2007 11:51:00 AM

I also think you missed that her parents were -- surprise! -- sitting on the steps, so they were invited along and part of the re-proposal of marriage, too.

That's a different ad. And I'm kind of embarrassed to admit that I watch enough television to know that.

Posted by: Seitz | Jun 11, 2007 12:10:56 PM

The new trend in leftdom is a less expensive simulation diamond with a charitable contribution to save the whales (other than Denny Hastert). It keeps money out of DeBeers hands, and you feel squishy inside.

My wife has a rock. It was worth every penny. (I had it appraised).

Posted by: trifecta | Jun 11, 2007 12:43:53 PM

I learned recently that those who make commercials for diamonds and diamond rings dig deep into the ratings information to find shows watched by couples. It turns out, having a guy watch a commercial for diamonds doesn't work, nor does having the woman watch help sell their product, but if you can get both in the room together while the ad is airing, you've got them.

Posted by: Mark | Jun 11, 2007 12:48:18 PM

I never liked these ads. you can read them in a lot of ways, and a lot of bitter people will look at that ad as proof that women don't really love men, they love the things we can buy for them. While that is certainly not an attitude that's unheard of among women, it isn't one that people should be taught to expect or to emulate. You can see romanticism in them if you want, I see a fundamental flaw of western romance: The idea that love isn't something you feel for people, but for the things they can do for you. You don't love a woman, you love how nice her rack is. You don't love a man, you love how thick his wallet is. You don't love the person, you love how they make you feel or the things they can offer you. It's disgusting, and it makes it very hard to see people as anything but wretched, usurious beings.

Posted by: soullite | Jun 11, 2007 1:19:49 PM

Nathan

Your interpration of that obnoxious commercial would work except for one thing. It is an ad for a friggin jewlry company! Clearly they are implying that the diamond is what makes her happy, she doesn't even see her parents until after she has said she loves him.

Planning the trip and timing her parents to appear right after he shouts out that he loves her makes your point just fine without the diamond.

Posted by: Eric | Jun 11, 2007 1:27:53 PM

Well, I hate to say this because it seems to put me on th eside of the diamond companies but I think there is some excuse for the imaginary woman in the add for the diamond ring having her embarrassment at the shouted "I love you" transmuted to acceptance and joy by the appearance of the ring. Settting aside the goals of the ad makers and the diamond companies the expense of the ring actually signals something very important that is quite different from the shouted "I love you."

Its not, in fact, the case that a guy who shouts "I love you" in a foreign city is more sincerely, honestly, and deeply in love with the woman he is shouting at than the guy who murmers it, or who doesn't say it, or the guy who offers her the ring. And there is some smidge of exhibitionism in the shouting that many a woman has experienced as coercive. The exhibitionism of many seemingly romantic acts can be quite coercive, actually, read any accounts of over the top proposals that are unwanted and the line between cute and stalking becomes apparent.

And the offer of the ring actually can be just as polyvalent a symbol. Ever read any MRA posts about their relations with their ex wives? Money and expense turns out to be a key element of those relations and their break ups. The idea of women as "costing too much" and often of children as "unnecessary expense" is a constant theme. to my mind the offer of an expensive ring *can* symblize a kind of purchase and sale agreement, but it can also symbolize a statement that the male partner isn't going to begrudge the female partner the cost of marriage and children. That he willingly accepts those costs. That doesn't strike me as necessarily unfeminist or unequal. There are a lot of costs for both parties getting into a marriage or starting a family.

At any rate though the imaginary woman's imaginary response ("I love you") comes after the ring it doesn't make the monetary value of the ring paramount in her imagined imaginary (despite the add campaigns intentions). What makes it make sense is the underlying assumption that talk is cheap--people say "I love you" all the time without it signifying a real committment to marriage or a permanent relationship. The ring explicitly signifies a serious next step. try substituting something else for the diamond ring in the advertisement and see how differently it reads.

Man, shouting "I love you"
offers woman a squid.
Woman: "I'm allergic to seafood."

Man, souhting "I love you"
offers nothing
Woman "yeah, you said, hey, do you want to get an ice cream cone next?"

Man, shouting "I love you."
offers woman a first edition copy of The SEcond sex
Woman "I love you"

Man, shouting "I love you"
offers woman a new car
Woman "I love you"

only in the last one is her "love" clearly purely materialist in origin.

aimai

Posted by: aimai | Jun 11, 2007 2:15:32 PM

My father proposed to my mother with an large amethyst in a plastic bag. They've been married for twenty five years, so that seems to work just as well as anything else.

Posted by: Paludicola | Jun 11, 2007 2:15:54 PM

1) Only 50% of first time brides were virgins in 1920. By the 1930s the number was lower. Remember, the latex condom replaced the sheepskin "letter" in the mid-30s. A woman didn't have to be a virgin to marry.

2) There was also the wedding deposit factor. The bride's family pays for the wedding. When my mother's first marriage (not to my father) fell apart shortly before the wedding, she kept the ring. It helped defray the cost of the lost deposits on the hall, the catering and so on.

3) My favorite story is that of Diamond Jim Brady proposing to Lilian Russell with "a million dollars in his pocket". She turned him down saying, "I never marry out of spite". Good on her.

Posted by: Kaleberg | Jun 11, 2007 2:39:01 PM

The trouble with engagements, from what I can deduce from talking to straight men, is that, well, your engaged once you give one. So you'd better be serious.

Apparently investing thousands of dollars in a tasteful, if often bland, diamond in a silvery setting, will put enough pain in a wallet to make a man decide to be serious. We talk a lot about diamonds showing off women's materialism, but I think it's the male logic that really underlines this - "I spent a lot of money... on you. That entitles me to things." I had a jeweler friend who said you could always sell tycoons on chokers for their wives because of the collar-like implications - possessiveness has everything to do with this stuff. I don't blame a woman who's been inundated with such gifts of possession (e.g. Ellen Barkin) deciding to turn them into a tidy sum that allows her to be independent.

Diamond advertising is like any advertising; if it didn't work, they'd be doing something else. Obviously someone is sold on these cheesy romantic declarations and the implications that diamond jewelry will do for almost any occasion. Myself I'm a sucker for "every kiss begins with kay" for its perfect double meaning. Though as my friend says, you want a good diamond, go somewhere else. :)

Posted by: weboy | Jun 11, 2007 2:54:06 PM

Aimai, you'd get a more sympathetic response if it didn't hit such a cultural nerve. Every man who makes less than 50k a year (and many who make more) have indeed been burned in a relationship where money was a contributing factor. Women really do judge men by some shitty standards sometimes. You're clearly a feminist, and in my experience this hasn't been a fault that carries over to women within that movement, so perhaps it's just outside of your experience. This isn't something men made up to justify being mean to women, it's a real social problem that does cause a lot of insecurity and pain. Commercials like this are designed to exploit that insecurity and sharpen that pain. That's not good for men, and it won't help the cause of women any either.

As for Men's right's activists, they do indeed seem more interested in money than love. Their arguments are rarely about parental rights, and usually about not having to pay child support. They still rant about alimony when it's virtually never awarded in modern divorces, because most women work making them ineligible. The fact that they often have to pay alimony tells me everything I need to know about how they treated their wives. If you ever meet anyone who has to pay alimony for a divorce after 1985, they are probably the scum of the earth. If men feel the need to entrap a economically poorer off female into a marriage with them is probably doing so for the increased control that financial advantage will give them. I don't have much sympathy when scumbags have to suffer the results of their own actions.

Posted by: soullite | Jun 11, 2007 3:12:33 PM

My wife has made it clear to me that if I intend on spending two months' salary on her to celebrate our anniversary, she would like it in the form of two tickets to Paris and a week in a fancy hotel, and not in the form of a rock that needs to be kept in the safety deposit box.

Posted by: monkey.dave | Jun 11, 2007 3:14:31 PM

Weboy, of course their advertising works. It's not a question of efficacy, it's a question of social harm. Some advertising exploits harmless insecurities. This insecurity is the justification for, if not truly the cause of, a great deal of misogyny and class resentment. It not only exhibits the underlying problem, it rationalizes it.

Posted by: soullite | Jun 11, 2007 3:14:54 PM

There's some real ideological ambivalence surrounding this practice.

On the one hand, it can be seen as a liberation from older modes of marital arrangements. Let's not forget that as recently as the beginning of the last century brides' families were expected to pay a dowry to offset the financial burden assumed by the groom in the act of marrying. Women, at the time, being culturally unviable as bread winners, were considered an economic burden to the man, father or groom, responsible for them.

Thankfully, most western cultures have done away with this custom. A man is now expected to prove his devotion and economic fitness to a woman and it is she who, usually, makes the final choice as to the marriage. This is certainly an improvement for women over the customs of centuries past.

On the other hand, the presentation of a ring has led to a host of other social complications, many of which have already been discussed, from issues of possession and materialism to the age old fairytale conflicts between true love and the realities of creating and supporting a family.

I, personally, would like to see consensus on one particular aspect of this ritual. Is the ring a gift from the man to the woman or is it a token of the obligation they have chosen to make to each other? I remember a court case a few years ago in which a couple were engaged for a very short time, only a few weeks if I remember so it is unlikely that any money had been spent in preparation for the wedding as mentioned above, and the engagement was broken off by the bride. The groom sued to have the ring returned and the judge ruled that the ring is a gift and that the bride did not have to return it.

I have mixed feelings on this. Certainly, if there was malfeasance on the part of the groom, he cheated, was actually a fugitive or had otherwise misled the bride, or if substantial funds had already been spent by the bride's family, I can see a case for her keeping the ring. Barring these things, I'm not sure the ring is a gift, in the traditional sense but a representative object that belongs to the couple, not just to the bride. To demonstrate, would it be considered correct for the woman to accept the ring but say no to the marriage?

I'm not sure my mind is made up on this. Cultural interplay, especially dealing with family and sexuality, can be so very complicated. I'm curious as to other thoughts on the subject.

Posted by: Thomas | Jun 11, 2007 3:33:49 PM

Perhaps it was all the flashed ring fingers I started to notice around the time I decided to accept my now-husband's proposal (the bus I rode to work also hit sorority row), but engagement rings have always seemed to be price tags more than anything else. It not only advertises that the lady has gone for a respectable price, but that she's bagged someone who can afford her.

I suppose this viewpoint is a little cynical. My husband and I do wear matching wedding rings with a claddagh design etched into the band, since we started out as incredibly good friends; I'm not entirely lacking in sentiment. But I don't see the point to the engagement ring. Of course, I also don't see the point the woman changing her name or calling herself "Mrs" rather than "Ms," since these are things men are not expected to change upon marriage.

Posted by: theresa | Jun 11, 2007 3:46:34 PM

Remove the parents and the ring and, yeah, he's just a schmuck showing off.

Actually, I think it's the parents and the ring that make him a schmuck. (Was that commercial set in Trafalgar Square? I seem to think so. And if that's the case, it's even worse, because it's not particularly romantic a location)

Anyway, knowing how DeBeers works is a good way to cool any affection for diamonds.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Jun 11, 2007 4:14:28 PM

Remove the parents and the ring and, yeah, he's just a schmuck showing off.

Actually, I think it's the parents and the ring that make him a schmuck.

Goddammit people, those are different ads! The dude who's yelling isn't the same dude that brought the family over.

Posted by: Seitz | Jun 11, 2007 4:50:11 PM

Except for the fact that, legally, the engagement ring doesn't become the property of the woman (or whatever), until after marriage.

Posted by: Casey Morris | Jun 11, 2007 5:20:45 PM

I love the Family Guy spoof, when the woman gets a diamond something, then slides down the man's front.

"Diamonds. She'll pretty much have to."

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 | Jun 11, 2007 6:09:32 PM

1) Only 50% of first time brides were virgins in 1920. By the 1930s the number was lower. Remember, the latex condom replaced the sheepskin "letter" in the mid-30s. A woman didn't have to be a virgin to marry.

2) There was also the wedding deposit factor. The bride's family pays for the wedding. When my mother's first marriage (not to my father) fell apart shortly before the wedding, she kept the ring. It helped defray the cost of the lost deposits on the hall, the catering and so on.

3) My favorite story is that of Diamond Jim Brady proposing to Lilian Russell with "a million dollars in his pocket". She turned him down saying, "I never marry out of spite". Good on her.

Posted by: Kaleberg | Jun 11, 2007 6:10:27 PM

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Ur2er-STls

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 | Jun 11, 2007 6:11:40 PM

> we had it appraised

It it's a diamond, good luck finding a jeweler who will buy it back at any price. You can try to sell it back for half the "appraised" price; you will get no takers.

This is why diamonds are forever is the most important DeBeers meme.

If you want to give your betrothed an expensive rock that's actually worth something, go for a natural emerald or ruby with good color.

Posted by: joel hanes | Jun 11, 2007 6:28:45 PM

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