Aquamarine "Audrey" ring
courtesy Brilliant Earth
By Susie Poppick
November 6, 2015

If a marriage proposal is on your mind right now, you’re not alone; one in three engagements takes place between Thanksgiving and New Years.

It’s no coincidence that this same season is the biggest for diamond ring sales. At least among straight couples, the act of getting hitched tends to follow a very specific script: A man gets down on bended knee and offers a ring that costs (on average) more than $5,800, or nearly two months’ salary. That ring is almost always set with a diamond.

What might come as a surprise to many couples is that this familiar engagement tradition is not much of a tradition at all. Before World War II, only 10% of proposals involved diamond engagement rings; that number skyrocketed to 80% by 1990 for a couple of reasons, neither of which is particularly romantic.

One factor was the rise in demand for expensive rings as collateral against broken engagements, after states began banning so-called “breach of promise to marry” lawsuits in the 1930s. Jilted women had previously been able to sue former fiancés for damages to their reputations and future marriage prospects, since premarital sex was increasingly common among engaged couples—but women were still valued for their chastity. Once the bans eliminated that option, rings began to serve as a sort of “virginity insurance.”

The other key force behind today’s demand for diamond rings is De Beers, the cartel that has spent the last century artificially limiting supply while inventing a “tradition” through brilliantly manipulative marketing. That two months’ salary rule? Thank a 1980s De Beers ad campaign. The saying, now being revived for millennial buyers, “a diamond is forever”? That was the brainchild of a De Beers adwoman in 1947 (and one reason why diamonds have terrible resale value).

If these aren’t enough reasons to think twice about diamonds, there’s also the fact that—because of loopholes in an international agreement to ban conflict stones—the mined diamond industry today continues to fuel violence and employ child labor in developing nations. Even if you try your hardest, it’s difficult to know for certain that your “conflict free” gem hasn’t indirectly contributed to murder, rape, or enslavement.

Now, the idea of breaking with custom—however tenuous its origins—may concern you. Fear not: There are plenty of romantic, classy alternatives to the “traditional” diamond engagement ring, many of which offer greater value and far less cause for guilt. Here are seven great options to consider.


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