Saturday, September 8, 2012

Another bridal industry conspiracy: the rings

Adding to what I said in my previous post, the bridal industry also has us hoodwinked on another matter: the rings. Retail jewelers have three schemes to make as much profit from you as possible. (Disclaimer: as before, this isn’t to say these practices are inherently bad. Just beware of their origins.)

A 15th century sapphire ring.
     1.) “A diamond is forever.” De Beers and their cohorts naturally want all families, from the wealthy to the working class, to invest in the most precious gemstone in the world just because they can. In the Middle Ages up to the 19th century, diamond rings were exceedingly rare and reserved for the most wealthy of royalty. (As a display of his wealth, King Henry VIII had 234 diamond rings in his collection.) But despite its rarity, most of the upper class preferred colored gemstones until the late 19th century. The medievals esteemed the sapphire above all, which was believed to hold magical healing properties and also guard the wearer’s chastity.
But when Cecil Rhodes secured newly discovered, lucrative diamond deposits in South Africa for his company, De Beers, in 1889, he was able to market his jewels to the middle class. Eventually De Beers came up with “A diamond is forever”, widely reckoned the most successful marketing slogan of the 20th century. Diamond rings soon became universal in the west, and Rhodes, the Rothschilds (Rothschildren?), and all their collaborators and successors laughed all the way to the bank.
     2.) Engagement sets. Retail jewelers will also convince newly engaged couples that they need to buy an engagement ring and wedding ring that match and can be worn one on top of the other. This way, they can ensure that you buy both rings from the same store and double their profits. Furthermore, wearing both rings at once will cause much more wear and tear, and thus require you to return to the store for repair or even replacement! This is, of course, a relatively new invention. Prior to the 20th century, a woman would simply wear the engagement ring on the opposite hand or pass it down the family.
While we’re here, another disturbing sign is just how much influence the jewelers have over a man’s pocketbook. Jewelers used the power of those ever-present etiquette books from the early 20th century to dictate that a man ought to save up a month’s wages to buy a proper engagement ring. Later they bumped the expectation up again to two months’ wages. People Magazine reported in 2007 that the average cost of an engagement (not even a wedding) ring in America is $2,100. If that’s not proof of a conspiracy, I don’t know what is.
       3.) Rings for men. The only instance I could find of wedding rings worn by men in the Middle Ages was in Spain, where some ritual books apparently assume a double-ring ceremony. The Spanish had a remarkable amount of customs which would be considered “egalitarian” today, such as that of women keeping their maiden names after marriage and passing them down as middle names for children. It was also customary for Spanish grooms to be presented to the priest by their family.
Men only began wearing rings for themselves in the Anglo-Saxon world (including America) during World War II. With so many men being deployed to the front for years, women concerned about their husbands’ fidelity convinced them to wear wedding bands as a reminder of their commitments at home. Where only 15% of men prior to World War II wore rings, it went up to 80% after the war. Yet another victory for the jewelers. They’re now campaigning for “mangagement” rings, thus bringing the total number of rings a man has to buy to four.

So what is there to do? I would first stress once again that none of these customs described above are “bad”. Indeed, despite the modernity of the man’s wedding ring, I couldn’t imagine not wearing one myself. Especially in our post-industrial age, when men are required to spend half or more of their day apart from their wives to scrape a living, the ring is a good reminder of the husband’s duty to his wife at home in the face of any possible temptations. And it does at least have precedent in a few medieval cultures, even though it wasn’t universal.

It’s also worth pointing out that in medieval Europe, although the Church desired all her members to adopt the ring tradition of the ancient Romans, it was never considered mandatory. A common substitute for a working class (peasant) man was to break a silver or gold coin in half at the appropriate part of the ceremony, giving his wife a share of all his worldly goods; hence the line “with all my gold I thee endow”. Many churches even had rings that could be loaned for the wedding rite, only to be given back after it was all said and done.

My only real advice here, then, is to be wary of all the tricks devised by the bridal industry to milk as much of your money as they can get. Only invest in things which actually have significance to you or your future spouse. Keep your “extra” engagement rings in the family and pass them down to your children. Don’t hesitate to buy a gemstone other than diamond, as they all have their own traditional significance. If you do get a diamond, make sure it didn’t come to you from the bloodied hand of an African child worker. And finally, if you do desire to spend more than a grand on the rings (and there is certainly nothing wrong with that), I would highly recommend just going all the way and having one specially designed from a custom jeweler. That way, you’re not just another number in some conglomerate’s latest marketing campaign. But whatever you do, don’t let the material trappings of your big day be dictated by women’s periodicals, etiquette books, the salesman on the other side of the glass case, or even, I dare say, your own parents. In the end, marriage is made solely by the consent of the husband and wife to belong one to another. Therefore, I conclude today’s post by opining that whatever outward signs you adopt for your wedding ought to be truly yours without concern for what others think, so long as they respect God, the author of all true marriages.


  1. I think men wearing rings was more common historically than you indicate here. St. Francis de Sales mentions it in An Introduction to the Devout Life, although he seems to be talking about an old custom that was no longer in use during his time. I'm also trying to remember wedding scenes from pre-WW2 novels, but can't think off the top of my head if there were two rings or one. It would certainly be interesting topic to research, though.

    I don't know what I think about the engagement ring phenomenon. It does seem like a lot of money for a young couple to shell out just for a piece of jewellery, but on the other hand, it is symbolic. I would expect a ring if I got engaged. If it was a handed down family ring that didn't cost the guy anything but had a lot of meaning, that would be awesome. But that's not exactly the kind of thing people can plan for.

  2. If you have any definite sources, I'll be glad to edit the article with citations.

    Engagement (or more specifically, betrothal) rings seem to be more ancient than wedding rings. As I said before, the betrothal was once considered nearly as important, especially in the northern countries, as the wedding. The engagement ring branded the woman as off-limits for other suitors (same general idea today), and it could be re-used at the wedding, or not at all. Much earlier marriage ceremonials seem to lack a ring exchange.

    My position is that engagement rings, even for men, are great as long as there aren't ridiculous expectations. Over a grand for an engagement ring is most definitely ridiculous.

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