A recent article in Slate on diamond engagement rings brings up some interesting issues about whether the engagement ring tradition is “sexist” and the role of marketing.
I’ve always thought that some of the anger we see towards this industry, on the Internet and elsewhere, comes from the fact that men feel “forced” to buy engagement rings. Several thousand dollars is a lot to spend, and I can tell you, from first-hand experience, many grooms grumble when they do it.
But in reality, no one is forcing anyone to do anything. If a marriage is contingent upon receiving a fancy engagement ring, well, let’s just say, there are issues there. And the idea of a “cultural imperative” – as De Beers likes to describe engagement rings — means a lot less than it used to. Plenty of people today don’t have weddings, don’t wear wedding dresses, don’t even get married. (Marriage is, of course, the ultimate cultural imperative.) And if 80% of brides get a diamond engagement ring, that still leaves one in five that don’t.
But most women do receive engagement rings, and do so happily. Even the piece’s author, Meghan O’Rourke, admits – towards the very end of the piece, as a parenthetical aside — that she has one, but says she just “appreciates it as a piece of jewelry.” Whatever. The fact is, people love diamonds, in ways I don’t always understand, and I’ve been doing this a long time. Even a movie that insinuated (some) diamonds kill people doesn’t seem to have dented diamond sales. One of the movie’s stars still wears them (with the proper certification, of course). That says something.
The engagement ring’s popularity is partially because of marketing, but there has to something deeper to it than that. Marketing is powerful, but it isn’t perfect. De Beers and its ad agencies have had their share of flops and failed “culture imperatives” over the years; I will be nice enough not to list them, but trust me, they are there. (For example, the two months salary guideline, which this article references, was really pushing it.) As we’ve seen over the last few years in this industry, just throwing a lot of money behind marketing does not mean consumers will want a product. It only works when the product seems to strike a right chord in the consumer. And clearly, diamonds—and in particular, diamond engagement rings—do.