Debating the Desire for a Diamond

What does it say about you if you want one, or if you don’t? Here are two points of view

Posted Monday, Nov. 20, 2006

Why do women want a diamond in the first place?

Amidst the whole debate over the ethics of the global diamond trade that is explored in the new Leonardo DiCaprio film Blood Diamond, this basic question often gets lost. How did they become the norm for the about-to-be-married couple? What is it about those particular gemstones, which are notoriously hard in structure and (perhaps) even harder on the wallet, that makes them so desirable in the first place? And what does it say about you if you really want one? Or really don’t?

So, to address this question,’s executive producer Cathy Sharick and I have agreed to a friendly e-mail debate. We come from opposite ends of the diamond engagement ring spectrum, and it won’t take long to figure out which of us is on which side. By the way, neither Cathy nor I is married… yet.

I first had qualms about diamonds when I was about 10 or so. I remember holding my grandmother’s hand and noticing that her wedding ring did not look like what I thought a ring should be. It was a large light blue stone. She couldn’t even recall what kind and didn’t seem to care. I asked her why she didn’t have a diamond ring, and she replied that when she married my grandfather, people didn’t give each other diamonds.

She was basically right. When she got married in the early 1940s, diamonds were for aristocrats and De Beers was only just beginning its marketing push for the middle class — one that still continues today. I’m paraphrasing, but the message is: If you really love her, you’ll spend two months’ salary on a ring; it’s only true love if it’s a diamond; like your love, a diamond is forever.

When I realized that the tradition of the diamond ring stemmed from a very deft advertising campaign, I grew suspicious of their place in our society and their hold over young couples in love. After all, we were taught as kids that we should not go out and buy a Big Mac every time we saw a McDonald’s commercial. So how did adults get so duped by the diamond industry’s marketing that they thought they had to buy one or else their relationship wasn’t worth it? To me, a diamond had become a giant gleaming commercialized cliche rather than a symbol of love. —Rebecca

When I was little, I remember holding my mom’s hand and admiring her diamond engagement ring. I thought it was the prettiest stone I had ever seen and I really liked the way it sparkled in the sun. My mother loved it, and she often recounted how my father gave it to her. I guess he had bought into the marketing push because he had spent the two months’ salary on the Tiffany setting. It was hard on them financially at the time but my dad said when he got down on one knee and my mom lovingly said yes, he knew he had made the right decision.

Then one summer when I was about 8 my mom took off her engagement ring to wash some dishes. After the kitchen was cleaned up, we went out for a walk on the beach with her friend Brenda and her 6-year-old daughter, Sally. When we returned my mom realized that her ring was gone. It wasn’t in the sink, or down the drainpipe which my dad tore apart, or behind the counter tops. It wasn’t in her pocket, or in the bedrooms.

And it wasn’t until hours later that we realized what happened to the ring. Sally had found it on the sink and had brought it to the beach with us during our walk. She confessed that she was wearing it with the stone turned down — sneaking peeks when no one was looking at the sparkle I liked so much. We did not notice. And we did not notice when she dropped the 1.5 carat diamond in the sand where it was never to be found again.

My parents were devastated and there was a lot of crying the weekend the ring went missing. But there was not one moment where I thought — wow, this really has taught me not to love engagement rings. Instead I think I knew I wanted one even more because it meant so much to my parents. The loss was something that brought them even closer, and that was nice.

What I did learn that weekend was that a kitchen without a dishwasher was a no-no. And that Sally was a real pain in the ass. —Cathy

Oh, poor little Sally!

You bring up an interesting point: that your parents shared in, fretted over, and eventually lamented the loss of something so valuable. I’m not against wedding or engagement rings in theory — they are a tradition that dates back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. And although I’m not about to wrap a string of organic hemp around my finger and call it a ring, I do sometimes wonder if a couple about to be married could better spend that money elsewhere. Interestingly, as Tom Zoellner writes in his book on the diamond industry The Heartless Stone, American men are expected to spend two months’ salary, but for British men, it’s only one month. Japanese men have an even worse deal: they’re expected to spend three months of their hard-earned yen.

So, let me ask you: Has the diamond engagement ring become so popular because it’s a symbol of value? Does a man give it to a woman to show how much he’s willing to spend on her, and that somehow is a demonstration of his love? What if, through some freakish market devaluation, diamonds suddenly cost a tenth of what they do now — and everyone wore huge rocks for all occasions… would you still want one? —Rebecca

My parents lamented the loss of the ring because it was a valuable symbol of their connection to one another. I am sure they were sad about the loss of the money, but (according to what they tell me at least) it was the ring itself they missed. And my mom was so sad about it that she chose not to replace it with another diamond. She wanted a ruby instead. But I think my dad regrets not replacing the diamond. He always says that the ruby does not say “my wife is married and off the market” the way a diamond would.

If everyone was wearing diamond “engagement” rings, (not the right-hand rings that are so popular these days — which by the way are only popular because of the huge marketing campaign behind them too) they would no longer symbolize a something special, and so no, I would not want one. But I would not want one because they were really cheap. I would not want one because they would not mean anything anymore. —Cathy

But if you wanted something that had a lot of meaning, shouldn’t men have more room for creativity? What if your boyfriend gave you a sapphire ring because he said it made him think of your blue eyes? Or an emerald if you, say, loved forests and it reminded you of them? Wouldn’t that be more unique — and more of a symbol of the relationship — rather than the same diamond that everyone gets? —Rebecca

Men do have room for creativity. Remember J-Lo’s pink diamond from Ben Affleck? (Remember how that turned out?)

Seriously though, my boyfriend’s brother just got his fiancée a sapphire and I think that’s fine. If I wanted an emerald, I’m sure that would be an option. For me, though, it needs to be something that says “I’m engaged.” If the sapphire or the emerald covers it, well then OK. I just personally want a diamond because I like the way they look — and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that as long as you get one from a supplier who is in compliance with the Kimberley Process. What type of symbol are you thinking about wearing on your finger? A waxed walnut half? A split pea? —Cathy

Ha! Well, if there were a company that had a monopoly on split peas and used aggressive marketing tactics convincing men to give one to their fiancees or else the love wasn’t real, maybe we’d all be wearing one.

I’m not even sure I want an engagement ring. I find the exchange of wedding rings a poignant ritual — because there’s a sense of equality, or at least reciprocity (which is how I envision marriage). Since women don’t usually make a similar extravagant purchase for their mates, I find diamond engagement rings so one-sided. They’re like dowries for the modern man. The bigger the ring, the better off he is and the more he can provide for his wife-to-be. At least an old-fashioned dowry given by the bride’s family was generally discussed privately and the money and goods went towards the new matrimonial home. A diamond just sits ostentatiously on a woman’s hand for all to see (that is, when it’s not getting lost in the sand).

Plus, you can eat a pea. —Rebecca

I think you can have equality in your marriage and still wear nice jewelry. If it is a big concern, when your boyfriend gets down on one knee with a ring, hand him keys to a new car you’ve just bought for him. You could think of this as a dowry for the modern woman. —Cathy

I think I may do something more along the lines of what two friends of mine did. They gave each other engagement backpacks to use on their extended honeymoon. The backpacks were of some value (albeit not at a Harry Winston level, but also not something they would normally buy); but they were also unique gifts that reflected who they were and what they wanted to do together as husband and wife.

I’m not against diamonds per se, especially now that the industry is taking steps to clean up their practices. But I personally would prefer something less commonplace, more practical and definitely more personal. —Rebecca

That is really nice. A nice long trip is a probably the best present I could ever be given.

Just don’t tell my boyfriend I said that. And definitely don’t mention the car. —Cathy
The founder and president of Diamond Cutters International, Fred Cuellar is one of the top diamond experts in the world, as well as a three-time Guinness Book record holder in jewelry design.
Fred Cuellar
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