Why Jewelry Matters

It's not the reason you think

Turtle Love Co (2)

I‘ve said here before that I’m not particularly interested in jewelry for its own sake. What really interests me about jewelry is the roles that these symbolic objects play in our lives.

What I’m going to say here is that conversations about engagement and wedding rings are important, not entirely frivolous. They’re a combination of “meat-and-potatoes” and “icing on the cake”—maybe more “meat-and-potatoes.” In spite of my substantive point, I’ve included images of vintage engagement rings on cupcakes instead of on a steak dinner (or a steak dinner with frosting on top). That’s because you’d probably find diamond rings in mashed potatoes or on a steak disgusting, even if you’re not a vegetarian. But whatever. Pretty pictures, big ideas. Let’s get on with it.

Turtle Love Co (1)

Consider this:

We see our engagement and wedding rings MORE THAN WE SEE OUR OWN FACES.


That’s kind of a lot. And it means that, consciously or subconsciously, your ring(s) can have a huge impact on the way you think about yourself.

You’re looking at that ring every time you wash your hands. And every time you look down at your hands on your computer’s keyboard (or touch screen). And when you pick up produce at the grocery store, or flip through the racks looking for a new pair of jeans.

You’re probably not inspecting the ring each time it enters your field of vision, but it’s still there.

Turtle Love Co (5)

To put this in another context, consider this: When I was pregnant with my daughter, I was very very sick. I threw up ALL THE TIME. For nine whole months. It was really hard. During that time, my husband started painting my toenails (I’m not normally a painted-toenails type of gal). When I’d swing my legs out of bed to rush to the bathroom to vomit yet again, I’d catch a fleeting glimpse of my toes and think with a little smile, “Well, at least I have movie star toenails.”

If painted toenails can inject a small smile into a pregnant woman’s miserable dash to puke, consider the power that engagement and wedding rings have to affect small changes in attitude during the course of a day—and a lifetime.

I can share this joy.

I can share this sorrow.

At least there’s something pretty in this miserable day.

Ooh, that’s sparkly.

Other people look at our rings a lot. And we’re aware of that.

We use wedding and engagement rings as social signifiers—clues that allow us to draw quick conclusions about people we see but haven’t had the opportunity to engage in detailed conversation.

Turtle Love Co (3)

So this ring has value in a bunch of different ways: for an individual, it’s a pretty gift to wear; to a couple, it’s a reminder to about the sentiments and commitment that you’ve made; and to the outside world, it’s a signal that you are a member of a partnership.

(A caveat: Wedding and engagement rings are NOT NECESSARY. You could forgo an engagement ring (I did!) and still be engaged. You DO NOT need a wedding band to be married. The RING IS NOT THE IMPORTANT THING about getting married or engaged. What I’m saying is that if you choose to wear a wedding or engagement ring, the rings can be useful anchors for thinking about abstract questions.)

How do we want to represent ourselves as a couple?

A friend of my sister is a salesperson at an upscale, mainstream jewelry store. To hear her tell it, most of the women who come into the store to look at jewelry are concerned with the messages that their jewelry sends to others. Yes, it’s pretty, but it’s also a social tool. Their counterparts (often men) usually have a different level of concern (and a different perspective) about the information jewelry conveys to people outside of their relationship.

Turtle Love Co (4)

So my sister’s friend the jewelry store clerk talks about being in super-awkward positions where the members of a couple aren’t able to communicate clearly (in the store or in the privacy of their home) about why and how and to what degree these Things are important. One ends up looking like a shallow fool while the other plays the cynical tightwad. Getting stuck in stereotyped positions like this doesn’t help us reach authenticity in our relationships.

There isn’t a right answer—and the question isn’t always obvious.

How we represent ourselves as a family is important. Maybe you and your partner share the exact same perspective on the rings, and maybe you don’t. Maybe you agree to disagree. Whatever the result (or the process), it’s a useful point of discussion. The same questions—How do we want to represent ourselves as a couple? Is this Thing important to our self-image or our public image?—apply to our homes, our cars, our clothing, our baby accoutrements, whatever.

I’m not saying that both members of a couple should be excited about the same sorts of Things (or that people have to be excited about Things at all).

Engagement rings and wedding bands can be a fun kind of “icing,” and they’re also a really useful vehicle for evaluating what you want your new family to look and feel like—from the inside and from the outside.

A meat-and-potatoes kind of thing.

P.S. The survey that TONS of APW readers completed last month was super helpful. I can’t be adequately effuse, so I’ll leave it at THANK YOU. And I’ll be sharing a graph on our Facebook page later showing the responses to the question: “What is your favorite vegetable.” It’s pretty awesome. The brassicas definitely get some serious love!

P.P.S. In a last-minute change to the April survey, I made a mistake in wording and conflated sex and gender. I was particularly upset about this because I know it’s a mistake, and I was actually trying to make that question more inclusive than it had previously been. I won’t even go into how stupid it is for me in particular to have made that mistake. I’m sorry.

** Brought to you in partnership with Turtle Love Co. where you can get awesome and affordable wedding and engagement rings that reflect your values. If you choose to have one, of course. **

Adrianne Zahner

Staff Picks

[Read comment policy before commenting]

  • 39bride

    Oh wow, I wish I’d read this before we went pre-engagement ring-shopping–what a fantastic post!

    I think I grasped part of what you’ve written here instinctively, but the part about seeing the ring more than your own face was a revelation. I have very conflicting feelings about my ring because I come from a little/no jewelry religious tradition, I didn’t like the idea of him spending a lot on “just” a ring, and I fear I let other factors determine what I thought I wanted in an e-ring. I think I didn’t listen enough to the part of myself that likes beautiful things and instead focused mostly on the functional/message-to-the-community aspects of it. I kinda ignored/denied my deepest feelings about all of this.

    Hmm… that’s a recurring theme in my wedding planning. Maybe I’ve been trying so hard NOT to be a bridezilla that I haven’t let myself be a bride at all…

    Thank you so much for such a thought-provoking post!

  • H

    I’d like to muse something here too – that it’s not just something you look at. It’s also something your partner looks at and is proud of. I’m only engaged (and relatively newly so), but I’d imagine it’s the same as wedding rings… my fiance will often pick up my hand even when it’s the two of us and look at the pretty ring, and say, “Wow… I’m so happy I did that”, which means ‘I can’t believe I convinced her to marry me’ and ‘It is so surreal that I have now signalled to the world that I’m marrying her’ and ‘I can’t believe that I’m adult enough to save up for a ring and buy it and signal to the world that I’m ready to have a responsibility as a husband’. Vice versa, I look at it and think, ‘Holy cow, there’s a guy out there that cares about me this much!!!’ and because we picked it out together, ‘Look at what we accomplished.’

    I think to some degree, it’s made me a better communicator, and maybe a little more courageous in our relationship, because it’s a constant (if subtle) reminder that we’re committed to one another, and so if I have to bring up a hard conversation, it encourages me to go ahead, bring it up, he’s not going anywhere, and we’ll figure this out.

    • Kathryn

      Love this! I often look at my husband’s ring and marvel at it. For all of the reasons that you state. I also love stealing his ring when he plays with it/spins it and wearing it for a little while. I don’t know why but it reminds me even more of our connection when I can feel the ring he wears every day.

  • In the winter, I wrote a somewhat garbled email to Meg on the subject of engagement rings as social signifiers, and what engagement rings meant to my fiance and me as individuals.

    I feel like a lot the main points of this post are ones I had just recently stumbled upon at the time. Reading this felt like you put all my tangled thoughts together into something articulate and lovely!

  • Ambi

    I really like the idea of supporting a company like this. In the wedding world, it seems easy to lose track of the fact that supporting businesses that share your values is worth the extra effort that sometimes takes. But APW does a great job of reminding us that it is possible.

  • Rings on cupcakes? Um, hello, this photoshoot is genius.

  • Kathryn

    “I can share this joy. I can share this sorrow. At least there’s something pretty in this miserable day. Ooh, that’s sparkly.”

    This! I love that you point out that we see our rings much more often than our faces. I constantly look at my rings (and play with them – such a good de-stressor) and they always remind me of my husband, our wedding, and that we are in it together. When I look at my rings I realize I am not ever alone.

  • bellezyx

    I proposed to my partner on Christmas eve last year with a ring I had made. I absolutely love seeing him wear it. I like thinking of my sneaky best friend and I devising a scheme whereby we would both try on an expandable ring and then wrangle him into doing it, marvelling at his thick climbers fingers and then surreptitiously taking the expandable ring to the jeweler and saying – that size please (and it fit perfectly too!). I love seeing the tiny little emerald (my birthstone) set in the ring, recycled from a pendant that he bought me in Columbia, that broke. Mostly though I love that everyday he carries around a little symbol that says “woot! I am so totally getting married to the woman I love! yes!”. Rings – not necessary – but definitely fun. Mine was bought instead of a muffin, but that is a different story.

  • “How we represent ourselves as a family is important. Maybe you and your partner share the exact same perspective on the rings, and maybe you don’t. Maybe you agree to disagree. Whatever the result (or the process), it’s a useful point of discussion. The same questions—How do we want to represent ourselves as a couple? Is this Thing important to our self-image or our public image?—apply to our homes, our cars, our clothing, our baby accoutrements, whatever.”

    THIS. This is why the big Things people often acquire when their relationship grows serious (the ring, the place to live, hell…even the wedding itself) can be such loaded topics. You summed up so many things I’ve been feeling and experiencing lately so perfectly.

  • Denzi

    I have asked my husband to get me a tiny plain gold ring, because while I LOOOOOOOOVE my rings (they fit my style, they say sneaky stuff about our values, they remind me of my husband and my commitment, and they’re PRETTY), when I wear them, I can’t help competing in the Diamond Olympics. I have a very large synthetic moissanite (about 1.2 carat), and while a: it’s a moissanite because we both dislike diamonds and the politics around them and b: the ring was extremely cheap because we wanted a synthetic stone and are happy using the money towards his PhD grad trip and buying new furniture, what other people see is “huge expensive rock.”

    Most of the time I don’t care, because the people who matter know what choices we made and why, but there are times when I am very conscious of the perceived message, especially when I’m volunteering at a local job training program for homeless people. I’m also a performer, and I don’t want the sparkly thing in the stage lights to distract people from the improv I’m doing.

    So, pretty shiny ring 95% of the time, and tiny gold ring for when a blingy social statement would be insensitive or distracting.

    • I wear a large diamond family engagement ring. Well, wore, technically, because once the baby came, it became a huge scratch risk. So it’s relegated to my jewellery box 99% of the time, and I wear a small simple white gold and diamond wedding band.

      It’s nice having two very different options and statements. Engagement ring has it’s own insurance policy, and the wedding band came cheap from the mall. Being able to opt in AND out of the diamond Olympics can be socially handy at times…

  • Elaine

    I really struggle with the idea of a ring representing my relationship/ baby family in such a transparent way. For this reason, frankly, I rarely wear my wedding band, and I actually sold my engagement ring shortly after we got married (with the husband’s permission, of course). I switch it up and sometimes wear another inexpensive ring my husband and I bought on vacation on my “ring” finger, sometimes wear my great-grandmother’s pretty costume rings, and sometimes wear no ring at all.

    I was engaged once before meeting my current husband, and had a huge rock that was a family heirloom for my ex. I was teaching migrant education at the time, and it made me insanely uncomfortable to have such “bling” when working with people who were far below the poverty line. It also led people to make false assumptions about who I was and how my fiance at the time and I chose to spend our money.

    After my husband and I got engaged, because he insisted repeatedly that he wanted me to have a ring, we went out and bought a very inexpensive engagement ring together. While I loved the sentiment, it never felt like me, and just as I grew weary of people thinking we were loaded during my previous engagement, I grew tired of the comments from people who couldn’t believe we couldn’t afford a “real” engagement ring. When my husband realized I rarely wore it, he suggested we sell it and spend the money on something useful instead (bless my practical man!)

    I agree that something pretty can make you happy, but just as I saw so many of my friends stress out because “OMG, every detail of my wedding has to represent ME!”, I find myself rejecting the idea that a single piece of jewelry has to represent our marriage. I’d like to think my commitment to my husband doesn’t need a single outward symbol.

  • Lesley

    I was one of those people who could read any number of blogs on how stupid and materialistic especially diamond engagement rings are, and AGREE WITH EVERY COMMENT. And now I have a diamond engagement ring and I love it. It’s weird how I missed that engagement rings can be a symbol of your relationship because I was so focused on how they are a symbol of your wealth. I picked my ring and I’m sure that helps too, it is exactly what I wanted, hell I even had a dream about the thing! I know that I feel better about it because it’s an antique and the stone isn’t huge, but even with all that (I want to participate and win in the eco-olympics) I have a hard time enjoying the ring sometimes, it seems frivolous. My mom never had an engagement ring either of the times she married and it bothered me growing up. I like that my dude wanted me to have a ring that I picked out, it makes me feel like I’m going down a different marriage path than my mother. So anyways, yeah, a lot of complex thoughts on rings, but who could not love rings on cupcakes?

  • MC

    It’s so funny, I’m going through this right now. We have a very specific (and tight) budget for an engagement ring, and my fiance asked that I pick it out because he “doesn’t know much about diamonds” – and it’s true, he couldn’t hang on to all that 4C’s stuff and I don’t really blame him for it.

    I picked out five for him to choose from, because there was something in me that still wanted him to surprise me, even though I knew which five he was choosing from. And even though I can’t say that I’m head over heels for any of the rings – though they are all very pretty and shiny – I am in love with the person who is going to give it to me, and the fact that he has the final say over the first statement he wants us to make as a couple.

    So thanks for this post. It speaks to me.

  • Kelly D.

    Reading this was awesome. Thank you.

    We picked out my engagement ring (and matching wedding band!) together because A. I wanted rubies! and B. my fiancé admitted very early on in our relationship that he knows nothing about jewelry. Going shopping together to pick out the piece that would symbolize our marriage for the rest of our lives actually meant more to me than I thought it would. Every single detail of our wedding we’ve decided together. Both of us have compromised to plan the celebration that fits US, but to ultimately create the start of our something bigger. I love knowing that this is the foundation for how we’ll approach all the things life brings our way – and I love that my ring symbolizes that for us. Each morning, he rolls over in bed and says, “Show me your pretty ring”, which stirs up all the excitement we have about getting married as when we first got engaged. Maybe even more each day as our wedding draws closer.

    Here’s the kicker: Whenever I show someone the ring who is just learning we’re engaged or hasn’t seen us since the official engagement, I find I quickly have to defend my fiancé – and the rubies – by saying, “I wanted rubies.” as I’m holding up my hand before the viewer has made any outward comments on it. I hate the thought that a person will make assumptions on him/our financial picture (as if I could control that anyway) but I hate even more that I even CARE what others may think!

    Still, though, I love my ring.

    Not nearly as much as I love my fiancé.

  • Kris

    Just wanted to say that my engagement ring (a moonstone set in recycled silver) came from Turtle Love Co., and I adore it. It’s a substantial size, very unique, and didn’t cost a fortune. The perfect fit for two broke, geeky students.
    I’m glad to have supported this company.