Apparently Diamonds Aren’t Forever

Halle Tecco has an interesting, albeit thin, piece up at HuffPo about the waning interest in diamonds as engagement/wedding rings. She sites the ethical issues, as well as questions about originality, style, and the symbol of ownership. This is quite a shift, although not as large as you might guess when you look at the actual history. Tecco writes:

Your great grandmother didn’t wear a diamond ring. Before the 1930’s, diamonds were rarely used in engagement jewelry. Instead, gems like rubies and opals served as the public display of holy matrimony.
The genesis of the ubiquitous diamond wedding ring stemmed from a brilliant advertising campaign led by the first advertising agency in the U.S., N.W. Ayer & Sons. Named the best advertising slogan of the 20th century by Advertising Age, the “A Diamond is Forever” campaign has proven quite lucrative. Diamonds are a $77.5 billion global retail market, of which De Beers holds roughly 40 percent market share.

Leave it to the feminist scholar in the piece to say the most interesting thing: “Dr. Natalie Wilson opposes the ‘ownership’ model of the practice which champions both ownership of women and showy capitalism. When asked what she proposed as an alternative she responded, ‘Why is it even necessary to ‘put a ring on it’?'”
Which gives me an excuse to watch this Beyonce video. Why must the most amazing dance video of last year correspond with lyrics that suggest women are objects to be claimed? I recognize that you might think there is a go-girl positive message for women here about articulating their desires or ditching out, but it’s not for me. (sticks fingers in ears and presses play)

Join the Conversation

  • liz

    As a person who thinks that the institution of marriage has such dubious origins that it ought to be significantly rethought as well as a married woman who loves being committed, I could not agree more with your understanding of diamond rings. Thanks for this news!
    On the matter of the video, the music plus the dancing make it appear as if this is a good dance video, but if you mute it, you’ll see that it is just chorus-line stuff, and Beyonce’s light is under the proverbial bushel. She’s a talented dancer and should be allowed to dance in her own way and not just line dance in skimpy clothes, imo.

  • paperispatient

    My partner and I plan to skip the engagement ring for me and we’ve talked about having rings with both of our birthstones in them whenever we get married. There’s still the issue of ethical mining, but we both really like the idea of personalizing them in that way.

  • Sloppy Sandwich


  • TypicalGamer

    Personally I think marriage is a bad choice for both men and women. I see no need to sign a contract with the state to say I love or care about someone.
    There is a growing trend in “man-made” diamonds as well as other substances that have the look and feel without all the war and poverty associated with them.


    I got engaged this weekend and my boyfriend (a feminist! woot!) purchased me a moissanite (lab created diamond). I’ve wanted a piece of nice jewelry, but won’t spend the money on myself. Plus, I *do* intend to remain committed to him and I like having an outward sign of that commitment.
    He was initially concerned that our friends/family would think he’s “cheap” for not buying some ridiculous $8-10k ring. I DO.NOT.CARE. We are starting our life together, and $8-10k belongs in our bank account, not on my finger.
    And, it turns out, no one even questions if it’s “real.” My friends and family know it’s lab created because I insisted on it. His friends think he’s a lucky bastard for not “having” to buy a “real” ring.
    Win-win-win situation.
    (Well, almost win-win-win… I wanted him to get me an engagement TIARA, but that’s neither here nor there.) :) Tiara.. hm… I’m, like, the worst feminist evah. :)

  • Gexx

    Yeah moissanite is cool! I have a friend who works as a cultural anthropologist. She got engaged earlier this year and showed off “the rocks” (she’s a sparkly person, so the big sparkly ring just fit). A few of us were quite surprised that she would accept a diamond, considering that her research is on human rights issues. It wasn’t until a few months later when someone said something about it (we were all to confused/polite and thought it was a sticky situation btwn her and her future-father-in-law who insists on public displays of wealth) and suddenly she shouts “YOU THOUGHT THIS WAS REAL!?” which was both an insult and a (small) compliment at the same time. And then we laughed and had drinks.
    Seriously, there’s no reason to mine diamonds with this technology. But what is the energy usage in creating these fakes? and how about gold now ( )

  • Alessa

    It makes me happy to know that the black-haired one in this video is a man.
    Irrelevant, but a fun fact.

  • Lydia

    “If you like it then you should have put a ring on it.” Um, “it?” I think that one little word says more about how this song portrays women than anything I could add.
    I often here the “it’s about women articulating their desires” argument in defense of portrayals of women demanding expensive material things from men and I’ve never bought it. It still just reduces women down to essentially simple creatures who can be bought by a man who’s willing to give them pretty, shiny things. Real women have much more complex desires when it comes to relationships. It takes both a lot more and a lot less than a ring to satisfy my desires when it comes to men. One of the most romantic things a man ever did for me was to give me his bacon when we went out for breakfast. :-P I’m serious. He knew I loved bacon but none came with my meal and he must have seen me looking longingly at his so he gave it to me. It was romantic to me because:
    a)He loved bacon too so he was going without something he loved to see the smile it would bring to my face
    b)It was something he did not because he’d been taught that “chicks dig it” but because he knew me well enough to know that _I_ dig it.
    c) I don’t love bacon because of some ad campaign or because I’ve been taught that love of bacon is a feminine quality that I should cultivate. I love it because IT’S DELICIOUS!
    Having somebody really know you and like to see you happy is so much more romantic than somebody just buying you stuff just because he’s been told that women like to have money spent on them. Not that I’m saying I want my future fiancee to give me engagement bacon or something, I’m just making a point. :-P Personally, I don’t care about engagement rings at all. My dad gave my mom one because it belonged to his grandmother, but I see that more as him giving her something from somebody he loved and cherished as he loved and cherishes her, and I think they see it that way too. I would never marry a man that felt that he HAD to give me some expensive rock to demonstrate his devotion, because a man like that would not know me or understand my values at all.

  • justadude

    After my wife proposed to me, I walked across the street to the fair trade store and bought a $3 ‘engagement’ ring. She loved it.
    Now that we are married, we have matching, stone-less rings. Higher quality to last a lifetime, but perfect for us. :) No need for inflated stones because that is what we are ‘supposed’ to do.

  • zes

    From what I’ve read these rings, in our society, have two main origins:
    1. The Romans believed that you had a nerve that went straight from your fourth finger of your left hand to your heart. So putting a ring – the symbol of eternity – around that finger was seen as putting a symbol of lasting love by your heart.
    2. The Anglo-Saxons treated women as property of their fathers. When a man put a ring onto his intended’s finger, he was elevating her from her father’s property to the status of co-guardian of all the marital wealth (her property – which she could have – and most importantly, his too). It was his way of acknowledging that he trusted her, because he would inevitably be off fighting a lot and would need a sensible wife who would look after the family property and run the farm/manor properly. Which isn’t exactly feminist, but being co-owner of the manse is a damn sight better than being your dad’s property.
    There’s also some cultures (eg Middle Eastern) where a man is required to give a bride gift to his wife, that she doesn’t have to give back if they split. A ring can a symbol of that. If he can’t afford her price he doesn’t get to marry her.
    In none of these origins is the ring about ownership. I don’t know why there is that assumption. The idea of a man owning his wife may have co-existed with giving rings, and in many cultures men have made themselves sole owner of marital assets, but these things don’t come from the same source.

  • paperispatient

    That’s all so interesting! Do you remember where you read any of this? I think the assumption that the engagement ring symbolizes ownership probably comes from the fact that generally only women wear them; I can see how that combined with the history of the function of marriage (at least in America) translates into people seeing engagement rings as signifying ownership.
    I’m against having an engagement ring for me personally because I don’t think it’s fair – why should he get me something and I’m not expected to give him anything in return? I do want a wedding ring whenever I get married, but that’s because my partner will have one too, and to me that’s the one that’s meaningful – engagement is pretty temporary; I plan to be married for the rest of my life, not engaged, and to me personally that’s the ring worth having if you’re going to do rings. But that’s just what works for me.

  • Lydia

    Good points, Zes, and I’ve heard those things before myself. But I think they pertain to wedding rings which is a separate tradition from diamond engagement rings. Whatever the origins of that tradition, I don’t think there can be any doubt about the undertones of the ad campaigns that have been used to market them for years: that buying a woman an expensive diamond ring is basically buying the woman (because the way to a woman’s heart is money, of course!) Actually, I think the thing that captured it best was, oddly enough, an old episode of Family Guy that spoofed those diamond ads (Are they for de Beer’s?) with the male and female silhouettes in which the man puts the ring on the woman’s finger and they kiss passionately, followed by a title that says “Diamonds are forever” or another slogan. Except the spoof showed the female figure dropping onto her knees with the title “She’ll pretty much have to.” I think that about sums it up.

  • robin.g

    I hate this song. Hey, you missed out because you didn’t “put a ring on it.” Gross. Is that all women want?

  • agreenballoon

    If anyone is looking for a nice alternative to traditionally-produced jewelry, don’t forget !! My partner and I spent less than $60 on simple, beautiful rings while supporting an artist who sells hand-worked jewelry. We wanted to have a symbol of our commitment, and there were a wide variety to choose from!

  • SamLL

    I do respect the video’s reaching out to the robot-handed community. I think Luke and Anakin Skywalker would appreciate it.

  • baddesignhurts

    my engagement ring is a lovely lab-created ruby, which my husband (then boyfriend) selected knowing my feelings about blood diamonds/gems. “ruby” is my daughter’s nickname, so when he and i got engaged, he got me a ring and her a pendant, both with the created ruby. it was lovely, very meaningful.
    i don’t know how anyone else feels about their ring, but i have to say that i really appreciate it, despite its roots in sexist tradition. i enjoy catching a glance of it on my finger, or when it sparkles, and thinking of my husband and my daughter at random times throughout my day. i’ve been hit on while wearing it, so i’m not sure if the “ownership” connotation is as prevalent, or if some men think that only diamonds signify engagement, or don’t care.
    apparently it’s a growing trend for men to get engagement watches. rings are the only kind of jewelry i can stand wearing for any length of time, personally.

  • zes

    Paperispatient – I am afraid I can’t cite easily. The Anglo-Saxon thing was because I learned to read it as part of my lit degree, so it could be in any one of dozens of books. The Roman thing was something an aunt with two PhDs told me, that I verified with a Classics prof friend. The Middle Eastern thing was because I was reading about Islamic culture as part of becoming a feminist, to understand if there is any scope for feminism within Islam/Arab culture (answer I reached: yes) and again it could be any of a number of books. I am sorry not to be more helpful!
    I agree that it’s not fair, in a society where men and women own and earn property, for her to get a ring if he gets nothing. So I got an engagement ring and my then-fiance got an engagement contribution-by-me-to-his-HD-editing-suite. His is more useful but mine is prettier! It’s a sapphire though, not a diamond – an old family ring with a 50-year marriage behind it. Not very valuable technically, but I think it is priceless.

  • zes

    Lydia – oh I agree, the way this stuff is sold is repulsive. “Every kiss begins with Kay” – vomit. It is all about buying sexual access or love.
    The trouble is what things meant when started, and what they mean now, can be so different. I did a lot of reading and asking about these traditions when I got engaged because I wanted to know exactly what I was accepting or rejecting. This was to help my husband and me to shape a wedding that included the egalitarian elements that are simply traditional, but excluded the patriarchal ones. I didn’t want to just reject, say, a ring or a white dress, without knowing what they mean to different people. We have simple matching wedding bands cast by our friend, a jeweller. My engagement ring is sapphire, an old family stone. The last marriage it was used in lasted 50 years, so I think it is a good omen!

  • William

    Is it bad that it took me a minute to get that the “it” she referred to was her rather than the left hand itself?

  • distractedbyshinyobjects

    No judgments on anyone who feels this way – and I do oppose diamonds that come from unethical sources. But I love diamonds. Small enough ones to still have that secret fire, large diamonds always look like glass or costume jewelry to me.
    And my husband’s great grandmother *did* have a solitaire diamond in her wedding band – it’s on my hand right now and I love it. It doesn’t make me feel owned, it’s a tangible thing I can look at every day when I’m not with him and feel loved. It gives me a connection to the family history that has made him who he is.
    Scoff if you will – it’s just one girl’s feelings.

  • klompen

    My partner and I decided to get married last year – no proposal, since it was a long discussion about what marriage means to us, and no ring because why should I be the only one wearing the tag? We’re BOTH getting married. My best friend and her husband both had engagement rings, which I think is absolutely awesome, although people only checked her hand when they announced their engagement.
    What amazes me is how many self-proclaimed feminists still go for the tradition. I understand that humanity does have a subconscious fascination with tradition and ritual – kinda of like how I still love Christmas carols in December though I’m an atheist. Is that what it is?

  • paperispatient

    I like how you and your partner went about engagement gifts/tokens – and I love the idea of a piece of jewelry being passed from person to person / couple to couple. I’ve never spent much money on jewelry, I’m more of a cheap silver rings and beaded earrings type person, so the personal and sentimental value of a piece of jewelry is the kind of value that would matter to me too.

  • paperispatient

    That’s an interesting comparison – and one to which I can relate. My mother is Jewish and I define myself as Jewish even though I mostly don’t believe what Judaism teaches; but I still love celebrating Hanukkah at home every year.
    As for self-defined feminists doing unfeminist things (and I can think of numerous friends of mine who are feminists who want diamond engagement rings and traditional weddings), I think we’re all guilty of that in one way or another. I enjoy horrible reality TV shows that perpetuate all sorts of gender dichotomies and awful stereotypes about women. I completely acknowledge that they are problematic and unfeminist, and I think that’s the important part – we don’t have to justify everything we do as feminist, but I think we need to own up to it when it’s not.

  • LivingOutLoud

    I’m right there with you. I have my fiance’s grandmother’s diamond, and I love it. I wouldn’t have wanted one otherwise, but because it comes from her and his family, and has been passed down, I love wearing it. But that’s just me. What works for me doesn’t work for others, so I think it really comes down to a matter of what you are comfortable with.

  • natalie wilson

    I think you are putting to much of a contemporary spin on the Anglo Saxon tradition. Women could not own property — they were instead the property of men. The idea of ownership is still in apparent in the traditional “who GIVES this woman to be married”…

  • Lydia

    Yeah, I think if I were going to go the gift route, I’d prefer my fiancee give me an engagement guitar! My sister and some friends and I actually had this conversation in high school–about how we thought the ring thing was silly and if we were going to be given gifts just for getting engaged, there were things that made more sense than rings. I believe my sister wanted an engagement copper cookware set. And of course, we agreed that we would happily give gifts too.
    Or the family ring idea, like what zes and my parents did, is sweet also. But obviously only if there’s one available.

  • Elizabeth

    the worst part of the video is that people keep talking about it being all about the female empowerment. Makes no sense whatsoever.

  • Tracey T

    Oh noessssssssss!!!!! It’s the end of civilization as we know it!! Hasn’t there been some study that in countries where both men and women wear rings that men are less likely to be chivalrous and women are more likely to initiate dates! I think I’ve even read that who pays for the date is more dependent on who initiated it and not automatically the man!
    I also saw a great piece on the engagement ring that basically discussed how it was at one point regarded as a down payment of sorts. During the 1920s, because of economic hardships the period of engagement was relatively long. As a result, the couple might sleep together during the engagement. If the man ran off and broke the engagement, the woman at least had a piece of valuable jewelry in return for having lost her “virtue.” The piece also went on to discuss how big a role marketing had played in popularizing diamonds as symbols of engagement. Add that to diamonds not being the rarest stone but having their supply artificially controlled and limited, and the whole thing has been nothing more than a marketing ploy for the most part.

  • Rachel

    I also chose a moissanite ring for political/ethical reasons. It looks virtually identical to a diamond and many people are surprised to find that it’s not. And bonus, it’s cheaper than diamonds, too. I ordered my ring online and had it resized at a local jewelers. They had the same exact setting but with diamonds and my ring was cheaper by several hundred dollars. That was also important to me, because I’d rather invest that money in our home and life together than in a piece of bling on my finger.
    My husband chose a wood ring made by The couple who runs the business harvest the wood in an environmentally friendly way. Even the power they use to light their home and workroom comes from solar panels.


    “Not that I’m saying I want my future fiancee to give me engagement bacon or something”
    Actually, “engagement bacon” would be pretty cool – thoughtful, and practical (unless you don’t eat pork….)

  • Rosie

    Liz, I actually thought the chorus line stuff was awesome, because it looks quite old fashioned, even with the super-modern music. A lot of the moves were based on Bob Fosse’s in the 60s (a choreographer) – have a look at this video, it shows how similar the moves are: It’s a really cool clip. Also he basically choreographed the Billie Jean dance. Sorry for being so off-topic, by the way.