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.
For decades, a diamond ring served as an “insurance policy” for the woman should the engagement get called off, according to Weigel. Even back then, it was assumed engaged couples had sex, which meant a previously engaged woman wasn’t a virgin and was therefore less desirable on the marriage market. And because marriage was a woman’s primary means to financial security, she needed some collateral against being left alone and destitute.
It wasn’t until the 1980s, however, that De Beers started telling men two months’ salary was the socially acceptable amount to spend on an engagement ring. And it worked, primarily because Americans had already internalized the idea that the engagement ring was obligatory. Now De Beers wanted them to pay through the nose for it.
“There’s really no black-and-white answer,” Susan says when I ask how much men spend on engagement rings nowadays. “It’s all relative. People spend what they’re comfortable with.”
This isn’t what I anticipated. Susan is a diamond specialist for Tiffany & Co., meaning she walks clueless guys (in this case, me) through the complicated engagement ring purchase process. People like her are on call 12 hours a day Monday through Friday and seven hours a day on Saturday and Sunday. In-store consultations are available as well. Part of the evil genius of De Beers’ “Diamonds Are Forever” campaign—and engagement rings, in general—is guys are generally hopeless when it comes to all things jewelry, making them susceptible to predatory salespeople.
So I fully expected Susan to try to swindle me out of at least one-sixth of my annual salary, and say something passive-aggressive like, “Now, if you really love her, you’ll buy this ring here.”
But instead, she’s sweet and understanding, and refuses to tell me how much she thinks I should spend on a ring for my hypothetical engagement to my hypothetical girlfriend. She even declines to tell me whether the two-month salary rule is still the norm. Just today, she had one guy spend $5,000, and another shell out $25,000.
Rather, she suggests I find out what kind of ring my (fake) fiancée enjoys wearing, determine an amount I’m comfortable spending and go from there.
Her suggestion is in line with a new trend of heterosexual couples picking out the woman’s engagement ring together, according to Terri Orbuch, professor of sociology at Oakland University, where she studies the intersection of relationships and finance.
Women still expect men to ask them in a novel, surprising fashion, Orbuch says. But most couples now discuss marriage well before the actual proposal, and part of that discussion includes women choosing their own rings. “I speak to more and more women who say that the most important thing to them is to go with the man and pick the ring out,” Orbuch says.
She wasn’t sure, though, whether most men are still adhering to the two-months’ salary rule.
Millennials are said to have finicky diamond-buying habits and to rank diamonds low on their list of priorities. (Hard to justify buying a diamond when you’re drowning in student loan debt, after all.) But other research suggests the diamond industry, and by extension, the engagement ring industry, is thriving relative to the number of marriages that occur each year. Yes, millennials buy fewer diamonds than previous generations. But millennials actually spend more than the national average on diamonds when factoring in engagement ring sales. And total engagement ring sales are in line with the gradual decrease in the overall number of marriages.
In fact, the average amount spent on engagement rings actually increased to $6,163 in 2016, up from $5,871 the year before, according to a survey of more than 13,000 brides and grooms conducted by the wedding website The Knot. And what does that number equal? Just less than two months’ salary based on the median weekly earnings for men in the U.S.
The question is whether a diamond engagement ring is worth it.
In the strictly financial sense, no, according to Cary Carbonaro, a wealth manager and author of the book The Money Queen’s Guide: For Women Who Want to Build Wealth and Banish Fear. Diamonds usually don’t appreciate like, say, a house, which is generally regarded as one of the best long-term investments.
Yet who can put a price on such a thing? Only a few of my engaged and married friends said they factored the two-months’ salary rule into their ring purchase decision. And even the ones who didn’t consciously adhere to the rule ended up spending that much anyway, suggesting two months’ salary is a figure we arrive at naturally: When you’re ready to marry, one-sixth of your yearly income just feels like the right amount to spend on a ring.
That was certainly true for my aforementioned anti-consumerist friend. I pushed him on why he complied with the two-months’ salary rule, and he conceded it was a little out-of-character for him and acknowledged the diamond industry is a huge racket. Perhaps it’s irrational to spend so much or support such a historically sordid business, he explained, but there are plenty of irrational things we do for love, and the engagement ring is hardly the worst of them.