Is it time to ditch the diamond engagement ring?
For most men in the U.S. preparing to “pop the question,” one question that is not considered is whether or not to purchase a diamond engagement ring to accompany the proposal. Indeed, diamond engagement rings are the norm, with over 80% of brides sporting a gem. This is, of course, “tradition!” Men spend 2–4x their monthly salary on engagement rings because that’s “what you’re supposed to do,” and women similarly expect the gesture, even if most brides are unhappy with the diamond ring their future spouse gifts them.
To an outsider, this tradition may seem silly. Just as many Americans find the concepts of dowries, bride prices, and dowers unpalatable — the practice of men gifting women an exorbitantly expensive (and inherently useless) gift while asking them to spend the rest of their lives together sounds a little insane from first principles. Of course, like dowries and dowers, diamond engagement rings have a rich cultural history stretching back hundreds of years, right?
It’s not such a well kept secret that the diamond engagement ring tradition is less than a century old and was manufactured by a marketing campaign commissioned by De Beers Corporation, who conveniently held a monopoly on the diamond trade. For those who haven’t heard the story, here’s a quick recap:
- In 1888, De Beers Consolidated Mines was formed in South Africa by British businessmen with the goal of creating a diamond monopoly by controlling the supply and all facets of the diamond trade. This enabled De Beers to control the price of diamonds (which have no intrinsic value), by restricting supply and creating artificial scarcity.
- In 1938, De Beers recruited ad agency N.W. Ayer, asking the agency how “the use of propaganda in various forms” could boost diamond sales.
- At the time, consumers thought of diamonds as a luxury item for the ultra wealthy, and women preferred that their partner spend money on “a washing machine, or a new car, anything but an engagement ring.” According to Frances Gerety, the copyrighter who would coin the phrase “Diamonds are Forever” in 1947, buying a diamond ring in the 1930's “was considered just absolutely money down the drain.”
- Despite this consumer attitude, the ad agency set an ambitious goal: “to create a situation where almost every person pledging marriage feels compelled to acquire a diamond engagement ring.”
- Ayer’s strategy was to convince men (and women) that diamonds = love, and that the bigger the diamond, the more he loved her.
- A 1948 strategy paper by the ad agency stated, “We spread the word of diamonds worn by stars of screen and stage, by wives and daughters of political leaders, by any woman who can make the grocer’s wife and the mechanic’s sweetheart say ‘I wish I had what she has.’”
- The agency took the gambit a step further in the 1980’s, establishing an arbitrary spending floor for men with ads stating: “Isn’t two months’ salary a small price to pay for something that lasts forever?” Somehow that spending guidance benchmark has crept up over the years, now sitting somewhere around three months’ salary.
Clearly, the propaganda worked. By 1990, 80% of brides in the United States had a diamond engagement ring — up from only 10% in 1940.
Sure, some people will acknowledge the dubious genesis of diamond engagement rings before saying that despite this, the tradition is meaningful today. The narrative goes something like this:
- It’s the promise of marriage from a man to a woman!
- It shows the man is serious enough about the relationship to save up for the ring!
- It shows others that a woman is no longer available!
In 2019, I think it’s time that couples have a conversation about these outdated justifications fueled by consumerism, marketing, and envy.
First thing’s first: equating love with money is probably unhealthy for the longterm viability of a relationship. If your potential lifelong partner turns down your marriage proposal because the ring you purchased isn’t big or expensive enough, the odds of a successful marriage were likely slim to begin with. What if instead of marrying someone who values material things over you as a human, you found a partner who would spend their life with you regardless of material wealth and possession?
Second, society is just starting to grasp what gender equality means across contexts, yet wedding culture has largely been excluded from this conversation. Why is this a one-sided bribe? Shouldn’t women be compelled to buy something equally expensive and useless for their partner to “prove that they are serious” about the relationship? Further, the idea of signaling that a woman is no longer available, or “marking property” is insulting. Should men be marked as “taken” as well? Funny enough, De Beers launched a campaign with this very concept in the 1980’s in an attempt to double the diamond market. The campaign for a “Man’s Diamond” did not take off. It seems women weren’t falling for this charade…
The justifications around engagement rings representing a promise to marry, or a partner being “serious enough” are also insulting, essentially arguing that the man’s word is not trustworthy unless he backs it up with his bank account.
Perhaps the most concrete argument against diamond engagement rings is the needlessly wasteful spending. As of 2017, the average engagement ring costs over $6,000, with this value immediately dissolving once purchased. Taken into context — most Americans don’t have $500 saved for a financial emergency — this expenditure is irresponsible. Thankfully, younger generations seem to be less materialistic than their parents and grandparents, opting to spend their money on experiences and practical purchases over goods signaling wealth and status. In the wedding world, this has become most evident with wedding registries. What was once an opportunity to collect an abundance of consumer goods has expanded into opportunities to travel (Honeyfund) or collect savings for practical use (Newlywed Fund). What if the money used to purchase an engagement ring was instead invested in longterm, appreciating assets to be enjoyed by a happy married couple for years to come, such as a down payment on a home?
If we were to do away with the diamond engagement ring tradition, what would we replace it with? One option is simple: nothing. Another option practiced in other countries such as Brazil may present an easier transition: both men and women wear a simple band on their right hand while engaged and switch the ring to their left hand once married. Signaling commitment while embracing equality and forgoing reckless spending — what a concept!
For my part, I’m adding “diamond engagement rings” to my list of 25 Things that Won’t Exist in 25 Years.
[Note to all potential suitors: I accept that I’ll likely end up purchasing an engagement ring for my future wife. I just want to be sure we’re on the same page about the ridiculousness of it…]
If you found this helpful, please “clap,” follow me on Medium, and check out some of my other articles: Figuring Out Who You Are, The Cameras are Coming, and The Future of Car Travel: Advertising & Retail?
I’m currently an investor at Sinai Ventures in San Francisco. Previously digital TV strategy at 21st Century Fox in Los Angeles. Northwestern Alum. Chicago Native. Feel free to reach out here, on LinkedIn, or Twitter.