Category Archives: Diamonds

Engagement Rings as Status Symbols

One of the primary functions of an engagement ring is a message to the outside world: “Sorry, spoken for.”  But rings say so much more than that.

To some folks, having a big ol’ diamond on your ring finger says something about your ethics.  But let’s face it, to other people (A LOT of other people) the particulars of the ring of your finger say something about your social status.

There’s pretty much no way around the fact that at least some portion of the people who see the ring on your finger are going to quickly calculate some guess as to how much that ring cost, and extrapolate from that a judgment about your economic status, your social class, and by extension your entire life.

This pulls both ways!  I have an acquaintance whose ring features probably the biggest diamond I have ever seen in real life that is not cursed. This diamond is so big that it can sometimes be hard to look her in the eye during conversations.  Her diamond makes me feel like a horny fourteen-year-old boy talking to a woman with large breasts.

I cannot speak to her feelings about that ring, but  I can just say that having such a gigantic diamond on my finger would probably embarrass me in certain circumstances.  Plus I figure it will eventually cause curvature of her spine.

On the other hand, many people sweat the smallness of their diamond.  I’ve certainly heard women with smaller diamonds refer to them as “starter rings.”  I think that is because, at least for young people in the US, it is acceptable to be currently poor as long as you plan on future wealth.

And for the provider of the ring (often a man, bringing in a new mess of gender issues on top of class ones), the status message can be just as, if not more, important.  My cousin Rocky, who coincidentally got engaged the night before Collin and I did, explained to me last Thanksgiving that despite his low salary (he’s a detective in Baltimore) he feels (felt? I’ve painted myself into a verb tense corner) obligated to buy an obviously pricey engagement ring because he drives a Corvette.  He wouldn’t want anyone to think his car was worth more to him than his wife.  That kind of made me want to barf, but at the same time I couldn’t deny that it made a certain kind of sense.

The diamond on my ring is around 0.7 carats.  I think this is a fantastic size, the perfect size, because it is the size I actually have and OMG I LOVE MY RING.  My guess is that is on the small end of the average range?  I don’t really have a basis for this other than the skewed sample of law school people and the nonsense that is published in advertisements in bridal magazines.  Internet research on this subject has, unsurprisingly, produced a wild variety of answers.

[I also attempted to conduct a totally unscientific poll of my friends who happen to be on GChat at this second asking what size diamond they’d want on an engagement ring. I got a lot of specific details about what they want in a ring (“Platinum band, Tiffany setting.” “No bezel setting.” “I want it to be flat enough I can wear gloves over it.” “I want a green diamond! It is RADIOACTIVE!”) but no one really knows what carat weights look like so they couldn’t comment on that.]

But I honestly don’t think people react much to the size of the diamond on my ring, not only because it is fairly middle-of-the-road, but because the most striking thing about the diamond is that it is brown.  A lot of people don’t even know that diamonds come in brown, so it’s a distracting feature.    Some people think it is awesome, or are good at acting like they do.  Other people say “tactful” things like, “what’s important is that you like it.”

So… all of this has basically been a preface to showing you my engagement ring.  In so doing I feel obligated to linking to the designer, which will give any gumshoe readers the opportunity to calculate approximately how much it cost.  This makes me uncomfortable: For some people the cost will be too great! For other people the cost will be too little!  But… that is what this whole post is about.  I wear this status indicator every day, and now I am putting that signal on my blog.  Even though it is squirmy.

But let’s ignore that.  Let’s just say, “ooooh, pretty!”

[And yes, it took me around 839 tries to get that photo even remotely in focus.  There was a cat hair in frame that kept distracting the camera.  And it’s the “ring in a ring box” picture I adamantly refused to put on Facebook when we first got engaged.  Instead I posted a picture of the ring up Collin’s nostril.  My aunts were… amused.]

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Part of the Problem

Most of the people reading this blog already know the deal with diamonds: they are price-fixed by an evil cartelfund civil wars in Africa, miners are subject to absurdly bad labor conditions, mining is bad for the environment, and the social construction of gifting diamonds as a romantic gesture has oogy patriarchal implications.  Did I forget anything?

So what can be done?

1. Use an old stone. Estate (pre-owned) rings/diamonds are a popular solution to fighting the Evil Diamond Man because they aren’t price-controlled in the same way new diamonds are.  And when it comes to human rights abuses in mining, I guess the philosophy for estate diamonds is “the damage is done.”  I honestly don’t know enough about the history of diamond mining to say if labor conditions have been better at one time or another, but note that “estate” doesn’t mean anything about how old a diamond is, it just means it is pre-owned.  “Antique” generally means from the 1920s or earlier.  One reason people go for estate diamonds instead of antique diamonds is that old “center stone” diamonds are tiny by today’s standards.

2.Use a different stone. This presents two problems: first, other gemstones are also mined under worker- and environment-unfriendly conditions.  Second: whenever you read “diamonds are intrinsically worthless” (from one of my links up there) you are reading anti-puffery.  Diamonds are pretty.  Diamonds are also very hard, and very unlikely to scratch, chip, crack, or shatter.  Other gemstones are substantially more likely to be damaged in these ways, especially when worn all day every day.  Diamonds rate a 10 on the Mohs hardness scale.  Sapphires are a 9.  But the Mohs scale is ordinal, so diamonds are almost four times harder than sapphires.  A friend of mine used a garnet in her ring (7 on the Mohs scale), and after two years it is chipped.

3. Use a lab-created stone. Lab created diamonds are sometimes hard to find because of the Evil Diamond Man, and pure white synthetic diamonds are most difficult to come by.  If you want a colored stone, a synthetic diamond can be a great option.  It’s even harder than a real diamond!  Synthetic sapphires are another great option; many people actually consider them more attractive than (very pricey) natural sapphires because they have a deeper color and are inclusion-free.  I do not know if the stone creation process is environmentally friendly or not.

4. Don’t have an engagement ring. A problem with each of the previous solutions is that they are generally still perpetuate the cultural expectations that support the diamond trade.  Additionally, metal mining has its own labor and environmental considerations, but I am not educated about these considerations.  A way to avoid all of the ethical problems with jewelry is to not wear any.  Obviously, this is emotionally unacceptable for a lot of people, who’ve either imagined wearing an engagement ring or giving an engagement ring for a long time.  And it can be difficult to deal with people thinking you are “not really” engaged if there is no jewelry.

Between decided to get married and “getting engaged,” Collin and I discussed all of these options.  We ended up… buying a new diamond.  Then we took turns clubbing baby seals.

The decision was primarily motivated by aesthetics and simplicity, which I suppose exacerbates our ethical transgression.  Collin had imagined a ring with a brown center stone (brown is my favorite color and the general color scheme of my wardrobe), and decided a cognac diamond would be the best option.  Brown diamonds are abundant in the earth, but they only recently started to be marketed as beautiful and be cut for jewelry.   Because they have a short history as jewelry stones, finding a synthetic or pre-owned brown diamond would have been difficult.  So he bought a new diamond.

And yes, I feel guilty about the diamonds on my ring sometimes.  We tried to educate ourselves, and then ended up making a knowingly unethical decision.  But the other thing I learned in trying to educate myself is that there aren’t any easy, simple, completely corrective solutions to the trouble with diamonds.  I realize choosing the least ethical of many imperfect options isn’t a defense.

But let me be very frank: I drive a car that runs on gasoline. I buy clothes from H&M and other retailers that use sweatshop labor.  I desperately prefer incandescent light bulbs to CFLs.  My diamond ring is far from the start or finish of my consumption of products that support wars, exploit workers, and destroy the earth.

Can we still be friends?