Untitled-1 Today’s “Why We Do?” post is all about engagement rings. Why do we give them? Why diamonds and not other gemstones? And who decided an engagement ring should cost two months salary? As is usually the case when discussing men, women and marriage, the answer is more complicated than you might guess.

While engagement rings have been recorded as part of the marriage proposal as far back as the Roman era, exchanging engagement rings was not a common practice. Early rings were simple in design and made of iron or gold. Diamonds and other gemstones were scarce and reserved for nobility. In 1866 however, a large diamond vein was discovered in South Africa and by 1872 diamonds were no longer in short supply, in fact, the market was flooded with an output of more than one million carats per year.

Despite the ready availability, diamond engagement rings were still not a popular part of Western culture. By 1930, the diamond was steadily declining in value and less than 10% of all engagement rings even contained diamonds. This decline continued throughout the Great Depression, eventually prompting the DeBeers Diamond cartel to embark on one of the most storied and successful advertising campaigns in history. In 1939, DeBeers contracted New York ad agency N.W. Ayer to help turn Americans into diamond guzzling fanatics. In a move that proves there is truly nothing new under the sun, they did this by draping Hollywood celebrities in diamonds and encouraging the important fashion houses of the time to use diamonds in their collections. It worked like a charm (yep, little wink).  In just three years sales shot up over 50 percent.

Around this time, Ayer is also reported to have suggested that the truly ardent suitor should spend at least one month’s salary on his sweetheart’s bling. Google that same standard today and you’ll find the current accepted norm is a ring equal to three month’s salary. This is the part where we all bow down to the combined genius of DeBeers and Ayer. We not only accepted the standard, we subjected it to inflation. The final and most successful facet of the campaign (yep, that’s two if you’re counting) was the coining of the phrase “A Diamond is Forever” in 1947. The slogan was so successful; it endures to this very day.

I know, I promised complicated, and I’m getting to that. So to recap, the accepted lore says DeBeers told Americans to buy more diamonds and we all said, “Okay” and wiped a little drool off our collective chin. But what if it wasn’t DeBeers and their super clever “do what Hollywood does!” campaign? What if the giving and receiving of engagement rings is more about sexual economics?

For much of history, a man was obliged to marry a woman if he slept with her. Before the social reform of the Progressive Era, the government could actually step in and force a man to marry a woman he had Biblical knowledge of. After these laws were repealed however, a woman who chose to enter into a premarital sexual relationship did so at her own peril.  Modern ideas about women and their sexuality make that statement seem a bit ridiculous, but we’re talking about a period in time where a women might be referred to as “ruined” if it was discovered she’d had any sexual partner other than her husband.

Some sociologists theorize this is why engagement rings started gaining popularity again. People like sex. Even 1930’s people liked sex. About 50% of the population was getting busy, despite the social mores of the time. So, maybe DeBeers launched the most successful ad campaign ever. Or, maybe pledging your troth with a diamond that cost one month’s salary allowed people to go on liking (and having) sex with a little more peace of mind.

I think De Beers chairman Nicky Oppenheimer said it best: “Diamonds are intrinsically worthless, except for the deep psychological need they fill.”

 

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Untitled-1 For the next eight weeks, we’re going to spend some time learning about Western wedding traditions and why we as a culture continue to value and practice certain rituals.  Often, I encounter couples struggling against new ideas (ahem, the first look) that suit their modern sensibilities because they feel so pressured to uphold “the old ways”. What most of us don’t realize however is that many of these old practices have (um, downright cray-cray) deeply misogynistic origins.  Thankfully most of the more disturbing practices fell out of vogue as human beings spent more time showering and less time dreaming up ways to objectify women at weddings.  Thanks guys, fist bump.

This week, we examine the history of wedding cake!  The perfect, sugary topic to balance out all that medieval man-hating I just did!  This tradition actually started back in Ancient Rome, when the groom would break a loaf of unsweetened barley bread over the bride’s head.  This symbolized the “breaking” of her virginal state and her husband’s total dominance over her.  Mmmm, tasty and romantic.  Things got a little sweeter in Medieval England where cakes were stacked up on top of each other and the bride and groom would try to kiss over the top of them.  If they could manage the kiss without toppling the stack their union would be lucky!  The story goes that a pastry chef observed this practice and decided to ice the outside of the cakes which held them in place…and completely ruined the fun.

Cake was also apparently magical, as women would place pieces of it under their pillows to help call forth their future husbands.  Note to self, start sleeping with wads of cash under pillow…  The wedding cake of the day was not the fluffy confection we enjoy now.  It was actually rather dense and full of fruit.  The tradition of the bride and groom cutting the cake together grew out of the need for both of them to muscle up and saw through that brick o’ good luck.  Once cut, the bride and groom would serve small pieces to all of their guests…with the bride actually passing the pieces she handed out through her ring for???  You guessed it, luck!  Oh to live in a time when cake was a revered and magical luck machine and not something you had to hide in the closet to eat!

Eventually, sugar became more readily available and cakes got sweeter and less like fruity cement.  Today the bride and groom cut it together as an expression of their new partnership, which I would say is a pretty decent evolution from the whole “total domination via cake” thing we started out with :)  Brides don’t even have to stick to basic white icing as an expression of their virtue anymore…for that we have Facebook!

Come back next week and we’ll explore how diamond companies made us believe that all engagement rings must contain diamonds and that they must be “crushing debt” size to prove your love!

 

 

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