Habit parading as romance, marketing as tradition…

Well, it’s (Facebook) official. Engagement season is in full swing. The trickle on the old news feed has become a full-blown deluge. Bejewelled digits thrust to unanimous acclaim and hundreds of likes: ‘She/I said YES!’

The mid-to-late twenties threshold signals the next step for lots of established couples. Now in relatively stable careers and living together – all the while prodded by parental hinting – it makes sense to ‘lock it down’, as it were.

It’s great to see friends making a commitment to each other and heart-warming to see the joy it brings. The pomp and ceremony though, from a single sociological perspective, is fascinating to watch.

Ringing in the ears

So often I’ve heard scathing judgements of ‘inadequate’ rings. Or smug mutterings over whose is bigger  – as if that is the measure of a man, or value of a woman. It’s all a little unseemly.

The rules are trotted out as if chiselled into stone tablets millenia ago:

  • Spend (at least) two months’ salary
  • Diamond or don’t bother
  • Simultaneously ostentatious yet tasteful

In an age of increasingly enlightened attitudes to gender equality, it’s a custom that jars somewhat, and one that receives relatively little scrutiny.

No doubt people will have their own interpretations of what it all means. But I wonder how many genuinely consider the proposal process as opposed to blindly following convention.

Prior engagements

A quick dip into history makes for interesting reading…

Source: Reader’s Digest, The History of Engagement Rings

Ancient history, yes. But notable, bearing in mind that it’s still predominantly women (in heterosexual relationships) who wear them.

Modern customs can evolve beyond their origins, for sure. Many people celebrate Christmas without any great deference to Jesus, let alone belief in a god. But the implications here are problematic for what we should hope a relationship to be.

It harks back to an era when women were trophies to be won. The man didn’t need to wear a symbol of his own because she was it. His possession.

The symbolism of a wedding band is far less murky – relatively understated in appearance and worn by both parties. The rings represent a (theoretically) unending union. Two people are joined and, crucially, equal.

Even if we ignore the troubling possessive undertones, engagement rings, at their core, become a bombastic display of a man’s ability to provide for his spouse, and a woman’s invitation to flaunt the fact.

Call it confirmation bias, but some studies have shown that spending on engagement rings and weddings is inversely linked to marriage duration. Evidence certainly suggests that making it rain during courtship either sets an unsustainable benchmark or else papers over relationship flaws that might soon become apparent.

Either way, it’s a reminder (as if you needed it) that materialism is an unwelcome house guest for enduring love.

What’s mined is yours

Diamonds are forever, so the saying goes. And the saying goes that way thanks to one of the most effective marketing campaigns of the 20th century.

Rewind for a moment to 1866 when Africa’s first authenticated diamond mine was discovered near the Orange River in South Africa. The ensuing diamond rush of the late 19th century was a total game changer.

Competitors frantically strived to outproduce each other. Volume increased exponentially. Diamonds dropped in value, making them more affordable, though less desirable.

De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd was founded in 1888 to control production and and consolidate investor interests. At the peak of its powers, De Beers owned or controlled all diamond mines in southern Africa, while running trading companies throughout Europe.

They could control, to a large degree, the narrative that diamonds were scarce, whilst overseeing production volumes that were anything but.

When the Depression hit in the 1930s, luxury items were the first casualties in the family budget. For years, practical purchases were favoured while diamonds were viewed as folly for the ultra-rich.

Frances Gerety: Copywriting Kween

Something needed to be done. De Beers called on the services of N.W. Ayer & Son, a Philadelphia-based ad agency. They knew to target men, positioning diamonds as a must for marriage. But they needed a way to justify the cost – to make it an investment not just of finance, but of love.

Enter [Mary] Frances Gerety, copywriter and all-round badass. Supremely talented but underappreciated at the time, she coined the line “a diamond is forever” in 1947.

It hit all the right notes, invoking romance and longevity. It imbued diamonds with a sense of magic and timelessness that made them an essential item.

Gerety died in 1999, aged 83, having never married, but not before Advertising Age named her immortal line the slogan of the century.

[You can read a more detailed account of Gerety’s creation of the campaign here btw.]

frances gerety
Frances Gerety, Source: New York Times

Celebrity endorsements followed, with Marilyn Monroe, among others, purring that “diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”


By 1960, nearly 80% of married women were sporting diamond engagement rings. A significant shift from just a few decades earlier when more modest rings or a simple wedding band were the norm.

Same-sex, different rules

The engagement etiquette for same-sex relationships is a little more fluid as I understand it.

Naturally, there’s no steadfast rule. I’ve heard stories of reciprocal gifting of watches or similar items. Maybe a joint purchase of something that stands in their home as a physical symbol of their partnership. Maybe nothing at all.

LGBT friends I’ve spoken to have largely expressed a sense of relief at not being bound by any set protocol or expectations as far as commitment gestures go.

I’ll let these guys explain in more authoritative detail.

Final thoughts

Whatever your position, the fact is that anyone who places too much emphasis on the engagement ring and/or wedding is basically missing the point. There’s nothing fundamentally romantic about a diamond ring. Only adherence to accepted custom.

Tradition definitely has its place, assuming its teamed with genuine love and affection, rather than a sense of obligation or entitlement. Diamond engagement rings have really only been a thing for about 68 years in any case, and that is only due to a very deliberate marketing push.

So what do you think? Is it all a bit of harmless decadence, worthy tradition, or archaic nonsense?

Honestly, if I were proposing tomorrow, I’d more than likely buy an engagement ring. But I wouldn’t really know why.

I’d like to do something different but would fear embarrassing her via the scorn of family/friends/society at the conspicuous vacancy on her left hand. Ideally, I suppose neither of us would care.

Let’s keep our marriage customs in the spirit of equal partnership (soon to be joined by our same-sex pals we hope!) and dispense with those which connote something antiquated or merely habitual.

By all means pop the question, but we’d all do well to ask some of ourselves first.


4 thoughts on “Someone Tell Me, Why Is The Ring Still a Thing?

  1. Interesting stuff about the ring, and I agree totally that it (and big, fancy weddings) should go. In fact, marriage as a lifetime commitment should go too if you ask me. But you end by assuming that you, the man, would do the proposing? What an odd assumption …. if a woman wants to marry you, is she not capable of letting you know without this trite thing that a proposal is?

    1. Of course. I would love for it to just be a low key discussion without this big contrived moment of a proposal. And if the woman initiates that conversation then all the better. You’ll notice I used the hypothetical ‘if’.

      I don’t actually have a problem with one person in the relationship wanting to pose the question. I agree it doesn’t have to be the man (in fact, my mum kind of proposed to my dad). I was just saying that IF I did ever propose, I would probably feel societal pressure to give some fancy ring even though it makes no sense to me.

  2. My dad gave my mum a lapis necklace (her favourite stone) when they got engaged because she/they weren’t interested in the whole diamond thing. Makes a lot more sense to me!

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