Authenticity and Engagement and Wedding Rings

I only wear a wedding ring. It’s a choice I never thought I’d make, given how much I struggled with finding an engagement ring that felt right for me. But, the day after my wedding, I took off my engagement ring and never looked back. Being engaged was tough for me, and I really grappled with the feeling of being public property, the fact that when people noticed my diamond solitaire, they felt empowered to boss me around. So I didn’t want to wear it anymore. I didn’t want to signal to the world in neon lights, with the classic diamond solitaire and wedding band combination, that I was a wife. I wasn’t sure I wanted to fit the mold of wife, I wasn’t sure I wanted to deal with people’s immediate assumptions when they saw my hand. I liked the gender neutrality and subtlety that my small wedding band(s) offered. I never in a million years would have expected this for myself, but here I am. A simple wedding band wearer (I don’t have any great pictures of my wedding band, but you can see it on my hand at the seashore in Italy, if you look closely).

So when Adrianne of Turtle Love Co. (an APW sponsor, but this is in no way a sponsored post) emailed me to ask if she could write about just wearing a wedding band, and what she’d learned over the last ten years of doing that, I lept at the opportunity. Before we get started, I want to mention something Adrianne refers to, what I’ll call the Diamond Olympics. Adrianne worked for a long time in Big Corporate Life, something I’ve done through all of my engagement and marriage. In the world of big firms, there exists a culture of diamond comparison. Who has what ring? How big is it? How much was spent on her? It’s insidious and painful (one more instance of women judging each other and tearing each other down), but it’s true. So, I want you to know that when Adrianne refers to that, neither she nor I is judging those of us with diamond engagement rings, big or small. She’s talking about how tough it is to come to terms with said Diamond Olympics, and what coming to terms with that can teach you. And with that, I give you Adrianne:

My wedding band came from Sears, Roebuck. It’s as plain as you can get, and my husband’s is almost identical. It cost $50 (back in 1999, when gold wasn’t $1200 an ounce). I still have the white faux-leather box that it came in.

I didn’t have an engagement ring—that wasn’t our style. And I’d been engaged before, and worn a small-ish diamond solitaire that scratched people left and right. I don’t remember explicitly discussing the engagement ring thing, simply because an engagement ring was so obviously strange in the context of our relationship, but I wouldn’t have wanted to go back to engagement ring land anyway—I was moving ahead. So we got married, I went to law school, and then plunged into the big-city, large-firm legal environment that’s fodder for best-selling books and television series. I was surrounded by (apparently) Fancy People. And their Fancy Stuff.

All the women wore significant diamonds with their usual variations in size and shape and setting. Some people might have felt self-conscious without the requisite engagement ring, but I loved my simple wedding band. It was one thing I didn’t have to worry about in the stress of trying to find my way in this new group and new work environment. I was wearing the same band as all the men, and not competing or comparing with any of the women. And it made me feel confident. It reminded me: I’m still regular old me, proletarian at heart, even though I’m working on insanely large deals and eating fancy foods and bustling about in a lawyer costume.

Several years later, at a different firm, I had a conversation with a colleague who wasn’t wearing her (very, very large) diamond engagement ring. She told me that the center diamond had broken (yup, that’s right!) when she hit it on her bathroom counter while brushing her hair, and while the (insured) diamond was being replaced, she was actually enjoying not wearing it. She liked the simplicity and ease of the plain wedding band. I was mind boggled. This friend of mine, who had by far the largest diamond of anyone I’d ever seen, didn’t seem to value her achievement in the Unspoken Engagement Ring Competition.

I started looking into this—I knew plenty of people who didn’t have engagement rings, or who didn’t have diamond engagement rings, but there didn’t seem to be much public discourse about it. Before I knew it, I was sucked into this topic and had started an online retailer focused on artisan bridal jewelry. (Don’t get me wrong, I’d actually spent lots of time thinking about this over the course of my life—Anne of Green Gables and her disappointment that diamonds weren’t purple was an early influence, and there were many more, plus the fact that I majored in Women’s Studies.)

At different points over the course of the last thirteen years or so, you could ask me about this topic and hear me rail about DeBeers and diamond marketing, or about blood diamonds, or engagement rings as bride prices. All of those things are still major issues. But when it turned out that most of our customers wanted to purchase engagement rings that featured white or clear stones, or colored stones in simple solitaire settings, it finally dawned on me that an engagement ring is a social signifier. It tells people, without having to speak, about your social status. You’re taken. This is how you roll. This is what you wear. And the things that we wear have a lot of functionality in our society—they help us sort out the types of people that we’re looking for. Each of us, even when we think we’re not, picks clothing that says something about ourselves and our group membership to others. It also means something to us.

So if your engagement ring is so unusual that it’s not recognizable as an engagement ring (like if it’s invisible, or if it’s actually an engagement necklace, or if it kind of looks like a mood ring), you’ll have to explain this with some frequency (at least until you get a wedding band, if you do). Not so with a diamond solitaire, or something similar enough to a diamond solitaire. Everybody gets it. They can tell what’s going on.

So I get it now, too. People wear engagement rings as social signifiers—they mean something to the person who wears the ring, to the person who presented the ring, and to the people who see the ring. We crave that sort of efficiency and order.

Now my goal is to help people make meaningful and authentic choices about their engagement and wedding rings. Those rings are telling us and others who we are and who we want to be. And if we can make authentic choices about these signifiers at the beginning of a marriage, we’ve got a leg up on taking authentic roles and promoting gender equity in that relationship over the long haul.

That’s really exciting.

So if you really want a big diamond, go for it. Obviously, there are ethical and environmental considerations (and probably financial ones), but there’s lots of guidance out there about those topics.

And if you want something else, do that. Just make the choice authentic—about you and your relationship. Don’t do it because that’s what the guy at Zales told you are the guidelines; do it because that’s what you really want. And, shockingly enough, you can change your mind. You can decide in five years (or five months) that the ring that once made sense for you and your relationship doesn’t quite say what you want it to anymore. Maybe you go bigger, maybe you go smaller, maybe you take it off altogether because it’s not important anymore.

And don’t be too harsh on other people. You might wish that more people had the same tastes and values as you do. But somebody who wants something that you don’t is helping you (directly or indirectly) to define and challenge your tastes and opinions, and helping you find the community that will best support you.

As for me, I’m still wearing my Sears ring. Sometimes, I’m tempted by some of the (amazing) pieces that we sell. Sometimes people tell me that I really should wear a more interesting ring to promote my company. Sometimes, I do. But I always go back to the Sears ring. There’s something about it that’s just right for me.

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