The Atlantic ran an interesting story recently, exploring the historical significance of engagement rings. There are plenty of reasons to take issue with this particular custom. It’s inconvenient – perhaps even foolish – to spend so much money on a piece of jewelry during tough economic times. (Especially when diamonds aren’t even that rare and are only expensive because jewelers artificially inflate prices.) The diamond trade supports slavery and regional conflicts in Africa – and there’s not really any way to tell if your diamond is helping fund terrorist activity or civil war. And the practice of diamond mining is devastating to the environment.
But it turns out the original motivations behind the custom are even more cynical than most people would have imagined. Simply put: demanding an expensive ring was a woman’s way of ensuring that, even if the marriage were called off and she would be unable to find another suitor now that her “purity” was in question, she would be able to support herself. Or, as The Atlantic succinctly describes it, “virginity insurance.”
What’s really interesting is that, prior to 1930, most states in the US had “Breach of Promise to Marry” laws – allowing women to sue men for breaking off an engagement. Once these laws begin to be repealed in the 30s and 40s, the sales of diamond engagement rings shot up. The idea was to demand a sizeable investment from the man up-front – and, at the time, it was expected that the woman would keep the ring if the groom-to-be backed out.
It’s an interesting theory, and one that seems historically plausible. Even if the history of diamond rings is rooted in sexist assumptions about a woman’s worth, that doesn’t mean it can’t be a meaningful gesture today. Although, given the ethical issues surrounding diamonds, I’d just as soon go for an alternate, less expensive, conflict-free stone.
Photo credit: William Warby via Flickr