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Column: Why is so much importance attached to engagement rings?

Amid all the life decisions, excitement about the future, and plans for a wedding, there’s one very small detail to which far too many people attach an incredible amount of significance: the engagement ring.

Molly Garboden

GETTING ENGAGED TO be married is incredibly exciting for a number of reasons: first of all, hooray for love! Then you announce the engagement and all your friends and family members contact you to say how great you are. Many of said friends and family members buy you champagne. Then, just as you think the excitement has died down, you get to have an epic knees-up, with all your favourite people, celebrating you and your partner – wonderful, wonderful you and your partner!

You’d think all that would be enough, wouldn’t you? But amid all the significant life decision business, excitement about the future and any plans for a wedding, there’s one very small detail to which far too much of the world devotes an incredible amount of significance: the vegetarian option? No, I’m talking about the engagement ring.

This societal obsession runs rampant throughout the media. Just one quick Google search reveals that emeralds are in and diamonds are out, Ciara and Kim Kardashian have similar rings, “engagement season” begins on American Thanksgiving (who knew? And here are some photos of rings that will get you “pumped up” for said season), and men spend an average of £1,000 more on engagement rings for their second wives than they do for their first (probably because they love them that much more).

But the madness also hits closer to home. One of the first questions from an alarming number of people, when they hear someone’s engaged, is about The Ring. Sometimes, judgement and comparisons ensue, but it’s not always about size and style: no, the topic is even more divisive than that, as just the fact of having an engagement ring – or not – can lead to cocked eyebrows – feminist, traditionalist or otherwise motivated.

On top of all this, the issue of cost can also cut both ways: “I can’t believe he only spent x ” is uttered just as often as, “Can you believe he spent x?!” And then you get into the rather murky territory of wondering, Why should the guy have to shell out for the ring?

The history of engagement rings

It’s more than a fair point, in this day and age when women are working and [often] earning as much as men. And this is where the history of engagement rings gets quite interesting.

“Betrothal rings” were originally a Roman tradition that started appearing in the Christian world in the 13th century. Later, Victorians exchanged “regards rings” set with birthstones. Diamond engagement rings didn’t really take off until the late 19th century, when the discovery of mines in South Africa caused the price of these stones to drop hugely.

The gendered economics of the tradition as we know it today originated as a form of protection for women: until the 1930s in America, a bride-to-be whose fiancé broke off their engagement could actually sue the man who jilted her for financial compensation under the Breach of Promise to Marry action. According to legal scholar Margaret F Brinig, a woman could get compensation “for damages, including the actual expenses she had incurred in reliance on the marriage. She might also recover for her embarrassment, humiliation, and loss of other marriage opportunities.”

Brinig connects the abolition of this legal action to the rise in diamond ring sales. In the absence of this law, she argues, rings came to provide financial insurance for engaged women. So much for casting your diamond into the Liffey in a fit of pique.

It seems no coincidence that an advertising campaign by diamond merchants De Beers emerged in the late 1930s, which set the standard for diamonds to be the engagement stone of choice. The tagline, “A diamond [and therefore your love] is forever” has stuck to this day and features in this gem from 1961.

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Express your love how you want

Interesting though the concept of collateral against an impoverished spinsterhood may be, this logic doesn’t really apply these days – at least, one would hope. More modern sentiments are apparently catching on, as, according to a survey on The Knot’s Facebook page, an increasing number of heterosexual couples are splitting the cost of engagement rings. And before you say this means that romance is dead, read this. I just threw up in my mouth and no, not just because of his hair.

While sharing the cost of an engagement ring makes absolute sense, it does open a whole new can worms: if the ring isn’t a kind of gift from the man, why does only the lady wear a ring? Should both partners wear engagement rings (in some countries, such as Norway, they do)? If the woman asks the man to marry her, should she give him a ring?

But before we all get in a right flap, let’s remember: it’s all a societal construct. Marriage is a societal construct. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing – I’m a big fan of many societal constructs, such as wooly tights, decorative pumpkins and brunch – but let’s not lose sight of the fact that you can do whatever the hell you want. It’s your love – express it however you want, wherever you want, whenever you want. Cuz that’s what makes it beautiful, people.

Boston-born and Brixton-based, Molly Garboden is a freelance journalist, solely for the purpose of having a press card that gets her free admission to museums in Paris. Follow her on Twitter @MollyGarboden

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