The truth is I hadn’t actually been wearing my engagement ring since 2006. I’d put it in a drawer when my fingers and I were swollen with child, and then as soon as I stopped nursing and lost the baby weight, I saw Blood Diamond, and that was the end of that. Another issue, particularly for someone with my expertise with muggers: I didn’t love having to turn it inward every time I rode the subway or walked alone at night. It wasn’t large or showy, as these things go, yet any sparkle attracts attention. Sometimes it felt like more of a burden than a blessing, particularly as my marriage started to crumble, and then the metaphor of ownership became too weighty to wear.
The ring had been given to me with such promise and hope, it’s painful now, in retrospect, to remember. Not only because I was wearing those stupid pink pajamas when the question was popped — he brought me breakfast in bed and put the ring in a pumpernickel bagel, which I nearly smeared with cream cheese until he shouted, “Wait!” — but because it bonded me to a man I thought I’d follow to the grave, and now we will be buried or sprinkled or whatever our kids decide to do with us separately. (Cremation for me, kids, if you can bear it.) Did we love one another? We did. I think. I’m sure of it. But love is not a stone you can stick on a finger and call it a day. It’s a living entity, requiring daily water and care.
A few months after my ex split, leaving me alone for years to care for our children, I went to buy apples at the farmer’s market and realized, while staring into the abyss that was my bank account, that those $6 worth of apples would cost me a third of my net worth. I’d been toying with the idea of selling the ring since our separation a year earlier, but now that I was on my own, in every conceivable way, it had become a necessity.
I called my former downstairs neighbor, Michael, who buys and sells diamonds for a living. “Bring it over,” he said. When I did, he held up the stone to the light and told me he could give me around $1800 for it, give or take, if he could match me with a buyer. “What?” I was pretty sure my ex had bought the stone wholesale for around $3,000.00 back in 1992, when we got engaged, from a diamond merchant friend of the family’s who later leapt to his death.
I add in this last detail not because it has anything to do with the story, but because it’s just a weird detail that gave me one of those shivery, omeny feelings — which turned out to be prescient — when I heard it. The ring itself, minus the stone, had belonged to my ex’s adoptive mother, a Jew who made it out of Belgium just in time, so there was good luck in it, too. If you wanted to believe in such things.
But seriously, how could a diamond have depreciated by nearly half over the course of two decades? I didn’t get it. What about inflation? What about “Diamonds are forever”? Does that just mean you have to hold onto them forever because they’re worthless?
“That’s the thing about diamonds,” said Michael. “They’re like cars. Once you drive them off the lot, they lose a big chunk of their value.”
I did not know this. All these years I had thought the $3000 wholesale diamond set in the Holocaust-surviving ring was more like real estate: appreciating at the rate of, well, if not a loft in Tribeca than at least a modest two bedroom in Des Moines.
Michael told me I had to take the stone to IGI, the International Gemological Institute, to get it appraised before he would consider anything. So a few days after my 21st wedding anniversary, I put my ring in a plastic pillbox and headed down to Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan, where a discreet, kind Orthodox Jewish woman checked the stone for flaws. She must be used to fallen women like me, I thought. Like a gynecologist who isn’t fazed by yet another case of herpes. “There’s only one flaw worth mentioning,” she said, “the rest are tiny normal ones. It’s a good stone. Don’t worry.”
“Can I see the flaw?” I said. All these years my ring, like my marriage, had been harboring a secret flaw. Who knew?
“Sure.” She turned the eyepiece toward me so I could peer into it.
Wow, I thought, seeing what looked like a small slash through the stone. Why had I never looked at the diamond through a microscope? Surely, during a parent teacher conference at one of my eldest’s schools, I could have snuck into the science lab and taken a peek.
But of course we don’t want to see what we don’t want to see. So we turn a blind eye to the flaws until — boom! — there they are, unavoidable.
The appraiser said I should get $2700 for it if I sold it to a dealer, but it would cost me $7100 to replace it.
“What the fuck?” I said. I know I shouldn’t have cursed in front of the nice, orthodox lady, but the spread between those two numbers astounded me. Why do we even bother with diamonds, I thought, if that’s the case? The way they’re marketed to us in the pages of glossy magazines, you’d think we were investing in AAA bonds, when in reality we’ve all been Bernie Madoffed.
“That’s just the way it is,” she said.
I asked which store on 47th Street had the best reputation. I figured I’d just go in and sell it that day. “I’m not allowed to tell you that,” the woman said. “We have to be impartial.” Then, a few seconds later, she whispered, “Some people have better luck with those online places.” What online places?
Apparently, if you haven’t heard, in the years that have passed between my engagement in 1992 and now, a little thing called the Internet has sprouted up. And there are sites where buyers and sellers of rings meet.
Still, I was curious what I could get for the ring just walking in off the street, so with my temporary appraisal in hand, I chose the most bustling store on 47th Street and walked in. “How much would you give me for this?” I asked the kindest-looking man I could find, an older gentleman in a yarmulke, round-faced and portly.
“$1800,” he said dismissively, without looking at the appraisal.
“But it was appraised at $2700,” I said.
He shrugged. I walked out.
In the movie version of this story, I would be crying by now, but mostly I was unmoved. Yes, I was sad about the end of my marriage, but I’d been sad about it for so long, what I felt now was frustration over being suckered into believing the lie of forever: diamonds, weddings, all of it.
I went home that afternoon, did a little Googling, and found I Do Now I Don’t, an online forum where young couples hoping not to break their banks by buying a ring retail meet old farts like me with broken everything. I shot a few photos of the ring with my iPhone, posted a little story about it — the site urges you to tell a story about your ring, which the novelist in me loved — and listed it for $3900, hoping to get around $3500 (half of its retail value). Then I sat around and fielded a bunch of inquiries from random strangers until finally this note, from a man named Aidan, hit my inbox:
Hello, I am writing to see if you would accept an offer of $3500 on the engagement ring you listed on the site. We are a young couple, very much in love, starting out and trying to save for our future. The ring is very beautiful, and I am sure that my soon to be fiancé would love and appreciate it very much. Please let me know if you are interested in the offer. Thank you for your time and the opportunity to inquire about such a gorgeous ring. –Aidan
Why did this one speak to me above the others? Because it was polite, to the point, the number was good, and it moved me. I immediately wrote back:
Hi, Aidan, I’ve received many messages about the ring, but something about yours spoke to me. So I’m gonna do something kind of weird. If you’re trying to save for your future, how about this: let’s lop off another $100, which you have to promise me you’ll place in a college fund for your future kids. I wish I’d done that instead of saddling my poor children with loan debts. Meaning, you can have the ring for $3400 with the caveat that you take that extra hundred you would have spent on my ring and not touch it until your first kid goes to college, deal? If those terms are acceptable to you, you have a deal. How does this work now? I’ve never sold a ring on this site. Do I now send it in? I’ll read the instructions. Also my email is [redacted], telephone is [redacted], and you’ll have to let me know when you’re getting married so I can send you a gift. Best, Deborah Copaken
It turned out that Aidan lived near enough to me that we decided to simply meet in person to exchange the ring and its appraisal for his cash, but not before I asked him to please send me his Facebook profile, LinkedIn profile and any other proof he had that he was actually an auditor for the Port Authority, as he claimed, and not a serial killer. Then we made a date and time to meet after work.
He showed up at my door practically shaking, as if we were about to conduct a drug deal instead of an exchange of an engagement ring for cash. But then I sat him down with my kids at our dining room table, and he told us his love story: they’d met in high school, he was only 23, good lord, and there were twists and turns, as there always are, but he loved her, he really loved her, and he wanted to make it permanent. His earnestness and passion were so beautiful, both my 17-year-old daughter and I had tears in our eyes. A few weeks later, he would email me to say he’d asked her, and she’d said yes.
Wow, I thought. This is such a better way of pawning a diamond ring off into the world! Instead of sadness, I felt hope. Instead of despair, I felt elated. Love moves us when we see it up close. It’s not about the diamond. It was never about the diamond. It has always been about hope. For what is a marriage other than two people throwing their lots in together without any proof that it will work out other than a gut feeling that it might? Empires have been built on far less.
When Aidan left, I went out and bought some apples.