On a recent episode of Parks and Recreation, the characters played by Rob Lowe and Rashida Jones—whose character is pregnant—decide to get engaged. They stop by a jewelry store to get a ring. However, once they learn how much cost and effort is involved in a wedding, they start to wonder whether they really need to get married. “Why spend thousands of dollars to reaffirm what we already know—that we love each other?” asks Jones. In the end, she buys only a locket. “I don’t want a ring, I don’t want a wedding,” she says. “I just want a locket with a picture of our child in it.” And everyone’s happy—except for the harried jeweler who has spent half a day waiting on them.
This is a nice little dramatization of a serious, if long-term, dilemma the industry faces. When De Beers used to advertise diamonds generically, its ad agency referred to diamond engagement rings as a cultural imperative—something required for anyone getting engaged and married. But now, not only is there no more generic advertising, but marriage itself is less of a cultural imperative.
In 2013, the marriage rate in the United States hit a historic low. According to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research, it currently stands at 31.1 (31 marriages per 1,000 women). In 1920, it was 92.1—meaning the rate has dropped nearly 60 points in a century.
People are also getting married later: The average age of a woman getting married for the first time is now 27, an all-time high. And most demographers expect that age will continue to increase—partly because couples now wait longer to get married. (The average engagement lasts about a year.) And while in the past it was the man who decided when to pop the question, today it’s more of a joint decision. “The old cliché of a man surprising a woman with an engagement ring, while it still resonates with people, is increasingly not the way the proposals come about,” says Stephanie Coontz, research director of the Council on Contemporary Families at the University of Miami.
Reasons for all this are numerous, including more cultural acceptance of cohabitation and having a child out of wedlock; a recession that has made couples postpone their weddings (though the recession caused the divorce rate to fall too); and the growing prominence of women in the work force, which means they no longer require a husband to support them.
None of this means people today are hostile toward marriage, Coontz says, but it’s no longer the be-all and end-all. “Marriage is no longer seen as compulsory,” she explains. “Single women are buying homes on their own. Increasingly, marriage is seen as a very valued luxury good, but not something you have to do.”
“In the 1950s, the institution of marriage was so strong that people would settle for and stay in an unhealthy marriage,” she continues. Today people still think “a good marriage is a fabulous thing. But the relationship takes precedence over the institution.”
In fact, some forecasters do expect the wedding rate will head upward again—at least this year. “As the economy recovers, we are likely to see a modest uptick in marriage as couples plan weddings they may have postponed during the Great Recession,” says Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist with John Hopkins University who studies marriage and divorce. (There is also anecdotal evidence that some brides didn’t want to get married in 2013 because of superstitions over the number 13.) Still, this rebound “will be just temporary,” he says, “a righting of the ship after the storm. But the ship will resume the same course.”
Even among those who do tie the knot, marriage-related rituals are becoming more personalized. “Cookie-cutter weddings and cookie-cutter marriages no longer work for people,” says Coontz. “You see a lot of people trying for weddings that express their uniqueness both as individuals and as a couple.”
We have observed this in our industry. Today, we are seeing new spins on the engagement ring ritual, like man-gagement rings and couples splitting a ring’s cost. And yet, you wouldn’t necessarily know this from jewelry advertising, most of which still relies on the age-old formula of “man buys ring for woman.”
This is a tradition-bound industry. But the generation that is coming up is far less wedded—to use a very appropriate word—to tradition. So many assumptions the diamond business has long believed—in particular, that consumers will want to get engaged only with a traditional diamond engagement ring—have been challenged in the past few years. And they will continue to be challenged in the future.
This industry needs to think of ways to broaden its appeal, to reach out to the new generation, to make diamonds fun and exciting and a symbol of something more than just being engaged or being rich. What do consumers think of when you mention diamonds? Engagement rings, yes. But also the cartel, blood diamonds, and blinged-out rappers. Right now, the celebrity most associated with diamonds is probably Kim Kardashian. Whatever one thinks of her, she is no Elizabeth Taylor.
This industry has been built on diamonds—and in particular, diamond engagement rings. For the immediate future, that will continue. But after that, things are far less certain.