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(Bryan Gee / The Globe and Mail/Bryan Gee / The Globe and Mail)
(Bryan Gee / The Globe and Mail/Bryan Gee / The Globe and Mail)

Why do engagement rings still matter? Add to ...

The centre of the ring is the size of a giant Chiclet, but less chewable because it is an emerald-cut diamond. More diamonds, long and thin, circle the finger, forming a tiny fence. The engagement ring that Brad Pitt co-designed for Angelina Jolie is earthily handsome, and may have cost anywhere from $250,000 to $1-million, according to reports.

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The couple have been together for seven years and have six children but, judging by the media frenzy, commitment ain’t commitment until someone puts a ring on it. Still, there doesn’t seem to be any rush to the altar. A spokesperson said, “It is a promise for the future and their kids are very happy.”

I like the vagueness, because I like the idea of a long engagement. The new film The Five-Year Engagement, starring Emily Blunt and Jason Segel, makes comedy out of a much-postponed wedding, but five years seems about right. A long engagement allows for a slow, brick-by-brick foundation that’s possible only with distance from the heady excitement of the proposal. In wired times, the simple act of waiting is an antidote to immediate, superficial connection and instant gratification. There should be no rushing of the practice run. If, after five years, you can still stand the way your better half brushes his teeth, you’ll know you’re on to something.

One of the earliest engagement stories was Jacob’s betrothal to Rachel in Genesis, which lasted seven years. That’s enough time for some serious information gathering, although at the end of the seven years, Jacob did accidentally marry her sister Leah (she had a really good veil). They worked it out with a little thing called “bigamy.”

Back then, “engagement” did not automatically mean “ring,” except – really – maybe a nose ring, and this seems sensible. It’s not the excess of the Pitt-Jolie bauble that irks. Who cares if those who are so rich that they basically burp money (and have directed many such burps toward the less fortunate, as those two do-gooders certainly have) want to spend some of it on shiny tokens?

But the symbolism isn’t as pretty as the ring itself. The diamond engagement ring was popularized by jewellers in the early 20th century, emerging from no religious or spiritual tradition. It symbolizes profit for the jewellery industry. In 1947, De Beer’s came up with the slogan “Diamonds are forever,” and marketed – brilliantly – the idea that a ring should cost a man one month’s salary (now it’s three – debt-addled society and economic crisis be damned). But if the engagement ring is an act of conspicuous consumption, what exactly has been consumed?

Maybe the woman’s chastity. In the 19th century, Canada’s “breach of promise” laws often protected women from broken engagements at a time when marriage was likely a woman’s best hope for social and financial stability. The book Courted and Abandoned: Seduction in Canadian Law, by Patrick Brode, documents many such cases, including the 1912 case of Viola Schram from Essex, Ont., who sued a Dr. Ashton for $50,000. They had an eight-year engagement during which he became educated and settled, and once he achieved his station, he promptly dumped her. Schram sued for “lost time and humiliation,” invoking a world of hurt in her statement: “I wanted to be vindicated and I wanted the world to know that I was good enough and accomplished enough for him … it wasn’t so much the money I wanted as sweet revenge.” She got $6,000.

But those laws were used less, and disappeared in some provinces, as the ring became more popular. If the engagement failed, the woman simply got the ring.

The unspoken assumption was that during the limbo period between unmarried and married, the woman gave up her chastity, and the price was one month’s salary.

There was no such public trade-off for men, though not for lack of trying. A 2003 paper in the Journal of Social History, by Vicki Howard, examines failed campaigns by jewellers in the 1920s to popularize a male engagement ring. Ads showed the hand of a manly man smoking and wearing a ring. Others alluded to phony Gallic and Roman traditions, as if the ring were another piece of armour. But no one went for it; not the women, most of whom couldn’t afford the purchase, and not the men, who probably saw the ring as linked to femininity – and ownership.

Maybe that’s why the ring seems like a throwback: It suggests that a woman’s relationship to marriage will be different from the man’s. It somehow sullies the idea of an equitable relationship before it has even begun.

But of course, that’s a pragmatic response to a romantic gesture, and jewellery marketers have cleverly elided pragmatism from the ring question. Economic recklessness may not be the best start to a marriage, but you can’t put a price tag on love, right? Ask Jennifer Aniston. The ring Pitt designed for her cost $500,000.

Follow Katrina Onstad on Twitter: @katrinaonstad

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