What can a shiny rock with no intrinsic value provide? Whatever you want it to.
The times I’ve talked with guys about engagement rings, many of them approach it with the same pleasure as passing a kidney stone. That makes sense, as they are both unforgiving, jagged pieces of rock. In a recent article in the Guardian, Tauriq Moosa attacks them as worthless objects created by the deBeers marketing department, with no intrinsic value whatsoever. He goes further to pillory those who use them to “prove their love,” stating that if you need a physical object to show your love, your love is in trouble.
While the engagement ring may not symbolize all it did in the past, methinks he doth protest too much. Let’s face it, most of us don’t look forward to plunking down a serious chunk of change for something that can’t break the speed limit in three seconds, tell time accurate to the nanosecond, or save us thousands on our heating bill. Men lean toward the pragmatic, especially in America. It’s root hog or die, so why waste time and effort on things that don’t get the job done? That doesn’t mean a modern man doesn’t appreciate nice things, or subtle aesthetics. It’s just that we’ve come to appreciate form that follows function. And what’s the function of a shiny rock clamped to a hammered circlet of precious metal?
The function is not in the object, but in the ritual of choosing it, obtaining it, and giving it. We forget the power of ritual in modern society, even as we mimic it and yearn for the transformations it can help provide. Tests of endurance and feats of strength are our vision quests. Road trips have become our walkabouts. Would you forgo a bachelor’s party before marriage? No? Then if your future spouse wants one, buy the ring you can afford.
It is an expression of commitment, and it should take effort to obtain. That can mean a pricey diamond, or time spent finding the perfect ring, or asking relatives to let you pass on a family heirloom. DeBeers monetizes this ritual, but that’s not what it’s about. And it doesn’t have to be a diamond. If you care about “blood diamonds” make sure you read up on the subject.(“Conflict free” is in the eye of the beholder, and is about as regulated as “free range”‘ or “dolphin safe” in the food aisle.) I won’t argue with Moosa’s skewering of the diamond industry, from the pollution of the mines, the horrid treatment of many workers, the hoarding that drives the prices up, and so on. It has the same intrinsic value as gold, the kevlar laser-cut shell of a Droid phone. You decide what it is worth to you. Does it have to be X number of paychecks? That is up to you and your future fiance. If you can’t compromise on those things, it is a good way to measure what your future arguments over money and spending will play out, so the ring serves that purpose as well.
I know a husband who knew his wife wanted a Tiffany diamond, and saved until he could afford one. I know couples who didn’t buy an engagement ring, or ones that were sold to pay bills during the lean years and replaced on an anniversary. People who went for tattoos instead, and women who bought the ring themselves, or couples who split the cost, which has become more and more common. The ring is not a symbol of love, but of work. Love is behavior, and it takes a mature man to go through the process of procuring an engagement ring, whether by saving enough to buy a jet ski or seeking out a modest gift that blows his fiance’s mind, or approaching that distaunt great-aunt who is the keeper of the heirlooms and convincing her that this woman is the one, and will be a member of the family for for keeps.
It is okay to be skeptical. Men are objectified as breadwinners in our culture just as women are objectified for their bodies. Do you want to be chosen simply because your salary or credit rating allow you to purchase a ridiculously priced rock? That is ritual as well. The songbird courts, the elks lock horns, and the human, we show we can raise a family. Is it right? No, I don’t think money is the final arbiter of whether you can provide for and properly raise children. That’s something intangible, that drives you to do it whether it’s easy or not. If you look at it from that angle, you’re sure to be bitter about it. But if you see it as a gift to someone you want to spend the rest of your life with, it becomes easier to swallow. And it is a gift. You don’t walk around saying “hey, like that expensive gift I got you last year?” to people, do you?
It doesn’t prove your love, but it can symbolize it if you want it to. When I see my wife’s ring, I think to myself, I put that there. I went through the effort of finding someone I wanted to marry, and who wanted to marry me, and working out the issues to make a long term relationship work. It wasn’t a brand of ownership I put on her hand, it was something beautiful, with no intrinsic value, that would symbolize the years we spent courting and dating and working together so a marriage would last.
We ignore the power of ritual at our peril. Are these rituals of proposal, and even matrimony truly necessary? No, but they do have a lasting effect. They can be replaced with your own personal, meaningful acts, however subtle, that only mean something to the two of you, but they will matter, and the feelings can be evoked again and again by whatever gift you exchange to commemorate them.
–Photo Tela Chhe/Flickr