Many cultural norms, things we take for granted as "the ways things are done," are habits that didn't exist hundreds of years ago. Some of these, like regularly washing our hands, are positive developments. Others are more questionable or even negative developments.
One of these is the topic of a Business Insider article that's been making the social media rounds: Why Diamonds Are a Sham. The article essentially argues that the only reason diamond rings are expected as a symbol of engagement to be married is because the people who wanted to sell diamonds convinced everyone that they should spend their money on them. The article concludes that diamonds have no value and so we should stop buying diamond rings as a symbol of engagement.
Although everything in the article is, as far as I know, true, that doesn't mean that it's a particularly helpful or effective article.
One obvious issue is that, because diamond engagement rings are so prevalent, a large percentage of the people reading this article are going to be wearing diamond engagement rings. The writer, Rohin Dhar, doesn't provide any suggestions outside of not buying a diamond ring, basically communicating "Diamonds are bad, and everyone who buys them has been duped." Someone can't un-buy the ring they're wearing, so this immediately creates a kind of cognitive dissonance wherein the only resolution is defensiveness and trying to discredit the article's conclusions.
I want to separate the idea of "Diamonds have no intrinsic value" from "You are bad if you buy/own a diamond engagement ring." There's no point in shaming people for past purchases, and it doesn't help make changes for the future -- it may even hinder the effort.
Let's proceed on the assumption that the information in the article is true, and talk about what that actually means for us, today (whether or not you currently own a diamond ring or ever want one).
I'm in a unique position to facilitate this discussion, I think. I have a diamond engagement ring; however, the diamond is taken from an old ring, my grandmother's engagement ring. Although I wanted a single-diamond engagement ring, I was aware of the connection between the diamond industry and human rights issues (something that gets just a passing mention in Dhar's article) and didn't want to contribute to that. Also, Mike had little money, and it didn't seem like the cost of a ring should be a hindrance to our timeline for marriage. I can't say for sure what we would have done if my grandma's ring wasn't an option.
To my mind, the human rights issues are a far more pressing concern to changing the cultural expectations around diamond engagement rings than the idea that "You're only doing this because someone else convinced you to." That's true of many other things as well, most notably the oft-discussed commercialization of holidays. Yet I don't think the fact that my purchases are influenced by marketers and advertisers is inherently bad.
As I've said before, I don't think the commercialization of holidays necessarily undermines any spiritual/family/other non-purchase-related aspects of a holiday. It may be true that my family buys plastic Easter eggs because they've been convinced by the manufacturers that this purchase is necessary to the celebration of the holiday, when it's really not. But that fact in itself doesn't mean that purchasing the eggs is bad or that those who do so are bad people. I have many, many fond memories of the giant cousin Easter egg hunt that happened every year at my grandma's house. There is a social and cultural aspect to the Easter eggs that transcends whether or not the eggs themselves have "intrinsic value" or whether the tradition originated because of a marketing ploy.
So too are there social and cultural aspects to diamond engagement rings that cannot be easily ignored.
Here are just a few reasons that making a switch to not buying diamond engagement rings is not as simple as "Oh, I'm only doing this because some company wants me to? Never mind then."
- It is a social ritual among women that when someone gets engaged, every other person you talk to will ask to see your ring. There is an expectation to show interest in someone else's ring when they've just gotten engaged, and an expectation to let people examine your ring closely when you're the newly engaged one. Again, I'm not saying this ritual should exist, simply that it does and that this is one consideration people have when thinking about whether to have an engagement ring and what it should look like.
- There are all sorts of cultural expectations and etiquette surrounding all aspects of marriage. Depending on your social circle, you may face varying amounts of judgment for flouting any one of these expectations. Mike and I ignored a few traditions at our wedding, and while no one even noticed or cared the day of, some of those who found out ahead of time were horrified and tried to talk us out of it. So someone who chooses not to have an engagement ring or to have a non-diamond ring has to be comfortable facing some level of judgment, ranging from occasional passive-aggressive comments to a steady stream of outright criticism.
- An engagement ring is a symbol of a commitment, and a diamond engagement ring communicates this to others most clearly, given our cultural norms. During the year and a half we were engaged before getting married, Mike often remarked that he wished he also had a ring. He had no way of communicating to the larger world that he had selected a life partner.
I also don't think it's fair to say that simply because the money spent on a ring could be invested elsewhere and gain interest, etc., that that automatically makes it not a worthwhile purchase. What is gaining more money for, except to allow us to purchase the things that create the life we want? What Dhar says of rings is true of any number of non-essential purchases we make throughout our life, but this one is something that has strong emotional value and which you'll likely have and use (wear) for the rest of your life.
I would like to see a movement away from an expectation of diamond rings, for reasons mentioned earlier, but I don't think the answer is as simply as telling people, "Diamonds are bad, so stop buying them."
Here are some specific changes that could help make other types of rings, or no rings, more acceptable, and these are things that anyone (married or unmarried, diamond-ring owning or not) can do.
Before an engagement:
- Allowing couples to decide for themselves if they want a ring and what kind, without providing unsolicited advice about how much it should cost or what it should look like.
- If someone asks for your advice on buying a ring, encouraging them to talk with the person receiving the ring about what kind of ring they'd like, rather than pressuring them to choose a traditional diamond ring.
After an engagement:
- Not assuming that everyone who is engaged has a ring.
- Not asking to see people's engagement rings. (Not everyone will agree with this, as some people like showing off their rings, but you can gauge if someone is very excited to show it off. Personally I got tired of people grabbing my hand and examining my ring closely.)
- If someone does show off their ring, admiring it regardless of whether it is a "traditional" type of ring.
- Avoiding questions like, "Why didn't you get a ring?" and "Why isn't it a diamond?" that reinforce the diamond ring norm.
I don't think that the cultural habit of buying diamond rings to signify engagement is going to change overnight, no matter how much evidence there against it. But I think that changing the expectations and pressures on couples will allow alternatives to more easily flourish.
What are your thoughts on diamond engagement rings?