I was recently shocked to learn one of my friends spent two months’ salary (“three months, post-tax”) on a diamond engagement ring for his fiancée. Not that the practice is unusual. It’s the cultural norm, especially among our immediate group of friends, all of whom threw down (at least) two months’ salary on a rock for their fiancées/wives.
But I was surprised about this friend in particular. I’ve always known him to be a defiant anti-conformist. He spent the better part of our college years railing about “The Man” and consumer culture, and openly wondering whether our perceived reality was really just a computer simulation. Not the type of guy who worries about keeping up with the Joneses.
Yet even he succumbed to convention and engaged in our culture’s most fraudulent “tradition.”
I don’t use fraudulent ironically here. I mean the engagement ring ritual is literally fabricated. It was invented in the 1940s as part of a marketing campaign by De Beers to sell diamonds to America’s emerging middle class, and it’s rooted in some of the most shameful elements of human history, including colonialism, misogyny and crass consumerism.
But the engagement ring not only persists today, it thrives. There it is, staring at us in the face every time we open Instagram or Facebook:
Even today—with fewer young people getting married, and their economic futures never more uncertain—the engagement ring and its corresponding two-months’ salary rule remain among the most cherished and steadfast of cultural practices.
“There have been customs of ring-giving in Western cultures for centuries,” says Moira Weigel, author of Labor of Love, a book about the history of dating and courtship. Shakespeare makes frequent reference to rings as a symbol for love and marriage in his plays. In As You Like It, he writes, “Springtime, the only pretty ring time,” an apparent reference to spring fever, and the romance that fills the air as the world thaws from winter.
“But the specific custom of giving a diamond ring is more recent,” Weigel continues. Specifically, it dates back to colonial Britain and first entered the public consciousness in 1840, when Queen Victoria received an emerald engagement ring in the shape of a serpent.
Queen Victoria made diamond rings fashionable, Weigel says, but the trend didn’t gain traction until the latter half of the 19th century, during Britain’s colonization of South Africa and the discovery of massive diamond mines in the region. That led to the creation of De Beers Consolidated Mines in 1888, which more or less operated as a cartel over the next few decades, controlling every aspect of the diamond trade.
When De Beers wasn’t busy controlling supply and giving the false impression its diamonds were scarce, it manipulated demand, convincing the American public that a diamond ring was a necessary part of the marriage process.
In 1938, De Beers hired N.W. Ayer & Son, a New York-based ad agency, “to persuade young men that diamonds (and only diamonds) were synonymous with romance, and that the measure of a man’s love (and even his personal and professional success) was directly proportional to the size and quality of the diamond he purchased,” Uri Friedman writes in The Atlantic.
Ayer’s plan included putting diamond engagement rings on famous actresses and socialites (and then tipping the press about it), and having lecturers visit high schools and indoctrinate American children about the significance of the engagement ring. It was also an Ayer copywriter who thought up the tagline, “Diamonds Are Forever,” which endures today….