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October 19, 2017
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De Beer's "Waiting" engagement ring ad. Source: adforum.com.
Copywriter Frances Gerety coins "A diamond is forever" for De Beers.  Source: details.com.
Copywriter Frances Gerety coins
"A diamond is forever" for De Beers.
 Source: details.com.

After four years together with my partner, it would seem that a proposal is on the horizon. We have discussed engagement and both agree that we want to marry. So, several months ago, we began searching for a diamond engagement ring.

My partner took me to a local jewellery shop, where I spent half an hour trying on a variety of beautiful yellow gold designs. But my catalogue of complaints ("too big", "too small", "too sparkly", "too simple") quickly tired the cooing shop assistant.

We walked out of the shop empty-handed and despondent, with nothing more than my ring size confirmed. Yet shortly after, I realised something just didn't feel right; my stomach was twisted into a bundle of knots.

This was supposed to be a joyful moment in the course of our relationship - so what was wrong? My partner immediately went on the defensive, presuming I had cold feet about the prospect of marriage. Of course, that was not the case; if he proposed tomorrow, the answer would be "yes".

After spending several days mulling it over, I realised the crux of the problem fell upon the ring. Why should only women be expected to wear one upon engagement?

For my partner, the answer is essentially "tradition". He claims he would feel uncomfortable given that men do not normally adhere to this practice. True enough, especially when the likes of David Cameron and Prince William are seen publicly opting out of the commonly-worn wedding band.

For hundreds, if not thousands, of years, it has been built into our psyche that only women need to be proposed to with a ring of some sort. As Kelly Bare reported for Reader's Digest in April 2008, "the caveman tied cords made of braided grass around his chosen mate's wrists, ankles, and waist, to bring her spirit under his control." It was a symbol of patriarchal dominance.

In 1477, the Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy "with a band set with thin, flat diamond pieces in the shape of an 'M'" - one of the first recorded uses of a diamond engagement band. It was a sign of romance, but also of his ownership.

[De Beers aim] was "to create a situation where almost every person pledging marriage feels compelled to acquire a diamond engagement ring."

More recently, the ring has symbolised the perceived purity of a woman. Although rings had been in existence for many years, at one point in time, engagements between men and women were controlled by a common law called the Breach of Promise to Marry, meaning a ring wasn't always necessary. Once a proposal (or verbal contract) was made, the groom-to-be would be open to legal action from the bride-to-be should he cancel the engagement. This gave the woman a certain level of social security.

As Matthew O'Brien commented for The Atlantic, "back then, there was a high premium on women being virgins when they married - or at least when they got engaged […] If the groom-to-be walked out after he and the bride-to-be had sex, that left her in a precarious position. From a social angle, she had been permanently 'damaged.' From an economic angle, she had lost her market value. So Breach of Promise to Marry was born."

During the 1930s, various American states began striking down the law, and by 1945, it had become an outdated relic in 16 states (almost half the nation's population). Suddenly, an alternative means to secure protection was needed. When the law changed, women suddenly wanted "an upfront financial assurance from their men. Basically, collateral. That way, if the couple never made it down the aisle, she'd at least be left with something. And that something was almost always small and shiny. The diamond ring was insurance."

For many years, this practice served its purpose. However, with changing social attitudes, diamonds from South Africa flooding the market during the second half of the 19th century, the price of diamonds collapsing in Europe during the Depression, and the promotion of other competitive luxuries, the diamond engagement ring was losing popularity.

Related: The hopes of achieving an ethical diamond industry in Canada is being called into question by the industry watchdog.

Enter a hugely successful 1938 advertising campaign from American agency N.W. Ayer on behalf of De Beers. Their aim, as J. Courtney Sullivan wrote for The New York Times, was "to create a situation where almost every person pledging marriage feels compelled to acquire a diamond engagement ring." In order to do this, Edward Jay Epstein noted for The Atlantic, De Beers needed to "strengthen the association in the public's mind of diamonds with romance" during a time when the diamond was rapidly losing value.

It was crucial to "inculcate in them the idea that diamonds were a gift of love: the larger and finer the diamond, the greater the expression of love."

Given that young men were buying over 90 per cent of all engagement rings at the time, it was crucial to "inculcate in them the idea that diamonds were a gift of love: the larger and finer the diamond, the greater the expression of love." Similarly, "young women had to be encouraged to view diamonds as an integral part of any romantic courtship," explained Epstein.

And so diamonds were rebranded as a status symbol. After 20 years of sustained advertisements, vast publicity, and an exponential 100 to 200 per cent retail mark-up for diamonds, N. W. Ayers reported that their campaign had worked. Epstein noted, "the message had been so successfully impressed on the minds of this generation that those who could not afford to buy a diamond at the time of their marriage would 'defer the purchase' rather than forgo it."

Indeed, there remains a definite pressure to pledge your devotion to your beloved with a diamond; the value of which carries particular social status. However, since the campaign first began, we have travelled through first, second and third waves of feminism, and have (allegedly) broken the glass ceiling. Cancelled engagements between couples are commonplace, and sexual freedom is rife.

Why have we not encouraged both the man and woman to wear a ring upon engagement, or simply decided to scrap the idea altogether? In the 1920s, as Bare wrote for Reader's Digest, manufacturers and retail jewellers did try to launch the concept of men's engagement rings, but it sunk "like a lead balloon".

Related: The fashion industry, focussed on sustainable and ethical clothing, has often overlooked the origins of high-quality jewellery.

Surprisingly, the idea has re-emerged. As 'The Knot Market Intelligence 2011 Engagement & Jewelry Study' reported, "man-gagement rings are the new trend", with five per cent of grooms opting to wear an engagement ring alongside the bride. In 2010, even singer Michael Buble was seen wearing an engagement ring; this was, according to his fiancé, an Argentinean tradition.

To a certain extent, this feels like progress. However, I can't help but feel as though the development is in the best interests of the lucrative, profit-fuelled engagement industry - rather than gender equality. After all, the customer base would be increasing two-fold.

Marilyn Monroe singing "Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend" in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Source: businessweek.com.
Marilyn Monroe singing "Diamonds Are a Girl's
Best Friend" in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Source: businessweek.com.

As Rupert Myers wrote for The Guardian, "we should remain suspicious of anyone claiming to be selling us an expensive shiny solution to a problem that we didn't really know existed. That's how fortunes are made, but not necessarily progress."

The repercussions of the male engagement ring, though, would be widespread. With women currently being the only ones (in general) to publicly show their "commitment" during engagement, they are also the only ones to outwardly demonstrate their relationship status in the workplace too. In flashing their left hand during business meetings and interviews, they are essentially highlighting an intention to marry, settle down, and quite often, start a family. I wonder then: how many men have succeeded over ambitious, yet "settled" women because employers have worried that the latter would eventually need maternity leave? Or that they would not be willing to work longer hours?

So, what is the answer - should my partner and I scrap the idea of an engagement ring altogether? I have faith that our relationship is based on love and trust - not jewels and diamonds, cut or carats. We could confidently go without. Yet, despite all of this, there is a lot to be said for tradition. As much as I intend to break it through keeping my maiden name and adopting the title of "Ms.", I also feel strongly about experiencing engagement in the same manner as my mother, grandmothers and great grandmothers have.

With this in mind, I think if I were to wear an engagement ring upon proposal (and not require my partner to do the same), then it would have to hold a certain amount of sentimental value - capturing a moment of personal history, rather than merely existing on my hand as one of thousands sold every day. This might sound like a cop-out on my equality agenda, but it has to be said that "tradition" (whether invented by De Beers, or not) really is a hard one to surpass.

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