Monday, February 20, 2012

Engagement Ring Thing, Part 2

I’ve started to mind the public gaze towards my engagement ring when I wear it atop my wedding band.  But I didn’t always feel so self-conscious about it.  In the months leading up to our big day, I excitedly showed off my pretty diamond ring.  It was an outward symbol of my impending nuptials and, more importantly, my commitment.  But with our wedding day behind us and with new wedding bands to represent our commitment, my engagement ring now somehow feels a bit different.  Because it’s not a stand-in for the wedding band anymore, it feels... flashy.  Like a status symbol.

Indeed, the diamond solitaire ring is flashy by design, isn’t it?  It’s not like I have a Kardashian-style, bzillion carat rock sitting on my left hand, but my engagement ring draws attention anyway.  It sparkles and glimmers, and the gem juts out from the flesh of my knuckle like a crystal in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.  And when I push it up next to my wedding band, the diamond acts like a gemological prima donna, overwhelming the simple streamlines of the gold band, just screaming to be looked at.  

And people do look at it.  Women especially (we are very skilled left-hand gazers, aren’t we?).  Indeed, when I stopped wearing my engagement ring last summer, a few people asked me where it was.  If its absence is so noticeable, I thought, then my ring’s presence must be even more conspicuous.  And when I started wondering if it’s customary to nix the engagement ring after the wedding day, Google led to to some public forums whose participants reinforced the prominence of the public gaze towards the engagement ring:  You want to show the world the diamond engagement ring that your husband chose for you when he proposed- don't you? And don't you want to show them forever?” read one comment.  Another said, “You wear the engagement ring because what woman in her right mind is not gonna sport that diamond?”

But, permit me to be a wet blanket for a moment: perhaps there’s something more sinister going on with engagement rings than just wanting to show off our pretty diamonds.  Once you look into the history of the marketing of diamond engagement rings, they quickly lose their romantic veneer.  And I’m not even going into the conflict diamond stuff.  Here are a few quotes about the engagement ring industry from Anne Kingston in her brilliant book The Meaning of Wife:

  • “De Beers also put a value on the future wife directly linked to her husband’s earning potential.  That arrived with its edict that an engagement ring should cost two months of her future husband’s salary.  The size of the diamond, went the marketing message, represented the depth of love, as illustrated in one De Beers ad: ‘You can’t look at Jane and tell me she’s not worth two months’ salary.  Just look at her.  So I wanted to get her the biggest diamond I could afford.  One that other men could see without getting too close.’” p. 55
  • “De Beers’ marketing also influenced the engagement dynamic.  In promoting the ‘surprise’ proposal, the company perpetuated the notion that women play a passive role in the marriage decision...this strategy was calculated to benefit diamond merchants.  Its research revealed that if women are asked to pick out their engagement ring, they pick a less expensive ring than their fiance does.” - p. 56
  • “Within De Beers, however, no one deludes themselves about the gem’s financial value.  As [De Beers’ chairman] … told a British reporter in 1999: ‘ are intrinsically worthless, except for the deep psychological need they fill.’” - p. 56
This over-valuation of the engagement ring may actually reflect a sadder truth about women in our society, as suggested by Meghan O’Rourke in Slate Magazine:
So it's easy to simply regard a ring as a beautiful piece of jewelry and accept it in kind (I'm guilty myself). But it's also the case that a murkier truth lies within its brilliance: Women still measure their worth in relationship to marriage in ways that men don't. ... (It's telling, for example, that in many parts of Scandinavia, where attitudes toward gender are more egalitarian, both men and women wear engagement rings.)
Womp, womp.  It’s no fun to think of engagement rings so negatively, is it?  What these authors ignore is the loving intention behind the act of proposing with a ring, one of joy and unadulterated happiness. In spite of the great marketing ploys and the gender inequalities, we rightfully celebrate engagements and the gemstones that accompany them because we love Love.  And that’s a good thing.  

I once heard someone once describe engagement rings as the promise of marriage and the wedding band as the fulfillment of that promise.  Indeed, both rings are special symbols of love and commitment.  Yet, for me, the “promise” and the “fulfillment” are special in very different ways.  

Engagement rings are publicly special.  Designed to be seen and shown off, they’re gorgeous, flashy, protruding announcements of a proposal and a sparkly message of “Sorry, I’m taken” to the world.  Extrinsically valued, we celebrate engagement rings as we celebrate engagements. I love seeing relationship statuses changed to “engaged” on Facebook with corresponding ring pictures; I smile watching YouTube videos of surprise proposals; and I happily read gossip magazines’ articles advertising "all the details" on celebrity engagement rings.  

But I won’t remember what Drew Barrymore’s engagement ring looks like, and I’m sure I’ll forget about Jessica Biel’s ring whenever she finally decides to wear it out in public.  The ring I remember the most belonged to a professor in college.  He had one of the thinnest gold wedding bands I’d ever seen.  It communicated promises without pretension, love without wealth, and commitment without status. I thought it was beautiful.  Unpolluted by vanity, his ring was a symbol of his marriage in its purest form.

And that’s the beauty of the wedding band.  In contrast with the public gaze towards engagement rings, wedding bands are privately special. They may be exchanged in front of an audience, but their simplicity does not demand public attention.  No one notices them like they do engagement rings, and no one grabs your hand excitedly to see your new wedding band.  Rather, like the uniqueness of the love between spouses, wedding bands’ specialness can only be understood by the wearers.

So I guess that’s the real reason I sometimes prefer to wear my wedding band by itself nowadays - because its value is intrinsic.  Within its precious metal is something even more precious: the blessings of our families and friends and the private vows Ian and I pledged to each other on our wedding day, all imbuing a specialness even the largest diamond couldn’t match.  

But I suppose I can wear my engagement ring freely now that you know that, even though my diamond gets all the attention, it’s the thin band underneath that really matters.

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