The Case Against Engagement Rings

9 minute read
Belinda Luscombe is an editor at large at TIME, where she has covered a wide swath of topics, but specializes in interviews, profiles, and essays. In 2010, she won the Council on Contemporary Families Media Award for her stories on the ways marriage is changing. She is also author of Marriageology: the Art and Science of Staying Together.

Jewelers sent out an alarm earlier this month that people are not buying engagement rings. Sales at Signet, the U.S. jewelry giant that owns Zales, Kay, Jared, and Diamonds Direct, were down almost 10% compared to this time last year. De Beers, the biggest diamond seller in the world, says sales of rough diamonds, the starting point for 85% of U.S. engagement rings, continue to be “soft,” and Pandora also noted “heightened consumer hesitancy” in the U.S. for its products.

Some jewelry executives put this dip down to a lower level of engagement with engagement, because people did not do as much dating during the pandemic. Others put it down the inevitable readjustment after bumper years in 2021 and 2022.

I put it down to people coming to their senses. Diamond engagement rings are corny.

The tradition of accompanying the decision to marry with a big shiny crystal, given by a guy, to a girl, with all its overtones of ownership and status and the transfer of family wealth, is, to be generous, antiquated, and also, let’s be honest, icky. We don’t “pin” our intended mates anymore. We don’t proclaim the banns. Wives have stopped calling themselves Mrs. Arnold Walker; lots of them aren’t even taking their husband’s last name at all. Nobody, in the Western democracies at least, pays a dowry.

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Marriage no longer requires a man telling a woman that he has the wherewithal to look after her, and offering her proof by giving her a completely useless thing that cost him two months’ salary. Marriage requires, ideally, that two people decide that they’re nuts enough about each other that they intend to look after each other for as long as they are able.

A couple of decades years ago, a man I liked gave me an emerald engagement earring. (I had only one ear pierced at the time.) I didn’t care for diamonds, or rings. They made me anxious about protecting my fingers, and got in the way of working with my hands. I couldn’t throw a ball or use a spade or wash up without worrying. They were limiting and pointless, like lace mittens.

At the time I figured that—along with thrifting, sharing chores, recycling, and living in inner cities—skipping engagement rings would become one of those sensible things modern people do. And yet the big twinkly sign of ownership has survived, even thrived. This is a mystery.

To be clear, this is not anti-engagement essay. I’m not unromantic or a marriage-miserablist; I wrote a guidebook about how couples could stay together. But engagement rings, as currently manufactured and marketed, are about as romantic and special as those tear-apart valentines kids give out in first grade. They’re wasteful and counterproductive to starting a lifetime union off on the right foot.

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Marriage, even since my day, has changed. About three-quarters of people getting married in the next few years will have lived together first. They will probably be in their late 20s or early 30s. They will likely both have jobs or be trying to get them, and will both contribute financially to the household. Ideally, it’s going to be an equal partnership, so why is only one person buying a ring? And why is only one person wearing one?

The old thinking goes that if a person can save up a couple of months’ worth of salary, he must be serious and marriageable. But these days, it just means that person got a credit card, which is not much of a hurdle. And after the engagement, that debt shifts practically, if not legally, to the both of them. Why kick off the whole marriage shebang by going into debt? Fights over money have been found to be the most pervasive and difficult to solve of all the issues that couples spar over. It’s madness to invite them in on the first day.

The engagement ring, in fact, could be seen as a disincentive to marry. The purchase puts additional pressure on the proposer—in heterosexual relationships, nearly always a man—about the commitment. There’s financial pressure. There’s taste pressure. Every week on reddit, some woman writes about how she hates her engagement ring and doesn’t know how to tell her future life partner. It’s like he’s deciding whether to go into a club and the bouncer is saying there’s a several thousand dollar entry fee and you may get thrown out pretty fast if the folks inside assess that you don’t meet dress code.

Having to buy a pricey trinket just to propose also reinforces an unfortunate recent trend in marriage; it’s becoming a rich-people thing. Studies have shown that marriage rates, which have long been dropping among those with less education and wealth, are now dropping among the middle class too. Since we know that marriage can bring health and wealth benefits, and married people like being married, why make the barrier to entry so high?

The point of the engagement ring, tradition holds, is twofold. One is to indicate that this woman is taken; the original engagement rings in ancient Rome came with little keys. The other is that if the guy changes his mind about wanting to marry her, she can sell the ring and it will make up for the damage to her reputation. Both ideas are preposterous and send an appalling message about the autonomy of women and the reliability of men. Plus, as it turns out, keeping a ring after a broken engagement has been shown to be often unenforceable by law.

That’s not such a blow as people might think it is, because although a woman is worth just as much pre- and post-engagement, diamonds are not. The romantic charade around these rings is expensive to maintain—there’s all that classical music to pay for—so engagement rings have a steep markup. They drop at least 25% in value after they leave the store, more if the ring has one of the increasingly popular lab-grown diamonds.

Why is it, you might ask, that the average engagement ring costs $6,000, according to a survey by The Knot, three times more than the average wedding ring, even though the engagement is supposed to be a transitional thing and a marriage is supposed to be forever? Why do we blow it all on the front-door handle and ignore the house? The answer is that there are a lot of diamonds out there, and they don’t sell themselves. The chocolate makers get Easter and Hanukah, the flower folks get Valentine’s and Mother’s Day and the diamond dealers have proposal day. (They couldn’t have wedding day, because men wear rings too.) It was marketers who came up with the idea, not even 100 years ago, to associate diamonds with the promise of a lasting love. You know, because nothing says desire like an object that has to be cut before it’s considered beautiful.

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(In the ’90s, the diamond industry tried, less successfully, to sell everyone on the idea of the 25th-anniversary diamond, which didn’t catch on, but actually would have made more sense. Getting engaged is easy; it’s staying married that requires resilience and clarity. )

Of course an engagement should be celebrated. It’s a wonderful moment, when two people decide to spend their lives trying to love each other. But, as even the promoters of the wedding industrial complex who put out Brides magazine have acknowledged, there are plenty of proposal ideas that don’t involve offering a diamond ring—including getting tattoos or a pet. There are all sorts of crazy romantic things a person can proffer on one knee. And most of them are more exciting than a diamond ring, especially given how hard it is to be 100% certain that your love token did not destroy someone else’s life.

I also, these days, get the appeal of rings—they grow on you when you spend your life at a keyboard. If you want one, knock yourself out. In fact, I have a brand-new idea for contemporary proposers—or at least a vintage idea with a modern twist. Bring back Gimmel rings. These are rings that fit together. When people got engaged during the Renaissance, each partner started to wear one, and on the day of the big event the rings were joined together in a mega-ring for the bride. In the updated version each partner could give half their ring to their love and create two blended wedding rings. I promise you, it’s going to kill on Instagram.

A lot of women still dream of that moment when some guy gets down on one knee and opens a box with a massive sparkler in it as evidence of his eternal adoration for her. I don’t want to be a fun sponge. If a diamond ring is your jam, go get it. At the very least you can scratch your spouse’s car with it if things go wrong. But can we also acknowledge that this dream has been concocted for us mostly to sell expensive things? There are better, more original, less limiting dreams out there and we should welcome them.

At some point I lost my engagement earring, which I know makes people think it was bad substitute. (I also lost my wedding ring, so the joke’s on you.) But the engagement is long gone. I loved the earring, but I didn’t need it to feel loved. It was like losing the keys to the desk of the office you no longer go to filled with supplies you no longer use. I’ve kept the spouse, though. He’s a gem.

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