Put A Ring On It: The Tradition of Engagement Rings #AskWhy

I’ve thought (read: fantasized) a lot about my engagement, from the location to the surprise to the magazine-worthy pictures that will be posted on Facebook the next day. And in this fantasy, the proposal always includes an engagement ring (vintage, with a unique stone in the middle surrounded by diamonds. I haven’t thought about it too much though…). I’ve always considered an engagement ring to be a promise of a future life-long commitment, as well as a really pretty piece of jewelry. But where did this tradition even come from? And is a ring a commitment statement or something a little more misogynistic?

The Engagement

Flickr.com, CC

The tradition of diamond engagement rings actually began as a marketing scheme launched by the De Beers diamond company in the 1930s. Because De Beers diamond sales had been dropping throughout the 1920s, the company hired the advertising firm N.W. Ayer to create a promotional campaign to increase sales. What resulted was a decades-long strategy of normalizing diamond rings into our culture. Ayer hired Hollywood celebrities to wear diamond rings in public and convinced fashion designers to proclaim a new “trend” of diamond rings. Additionally, De Beers coined the phrase, “A Diamond Is Forever,” cementing the image of diamond rings as a promise of a permanent commitment. By the mid-1960s, engagement rings had become a necessary part of engagements as well as a chance to show off one’s wealth. The idea of engagement rings does not stem from a lifetime of romance but from a corporate manipulation of emotion.

Despite the unsavory origins of the engagement ring, it has become a common symbol of commitment within our culture. While I don’t have a problem with a symbol of commitment before marriage, I DO have a problem with women being the only gender that has to wear one. Where is the male equivalent of the engagement ring? If it is truly meant to be a sign of devotion, should men have something as well? The truth is, women wearing engagement rings stem from the idea of women as property: men used to use them as a visible symbol of ownership. The idea that women need to be claimed is even more unsavory than the marketing origins of the traditional diamond engagement ring. Even though it has lost the meaning of ownership, the tradition of engagement rings (and in particular women wearing engagement rings) still has residual problematic implications. If marriage is an equal partnership, then equality should start with the engagement.

As for me, I’m still unsure how I feel about engagement rings. I love the idea of something that symbolizes my love for my future fiancé, but I hate that it’s steeped in the tradition of quantifying women as property. Additionally, the fact that the engagement ring that we are familiar with was actually created as a marketing strategy takes a bit of the magic away. But I do acknowledge that it is a huge part of our culture, and that choosing to stray away from that would be very difficult. But knowing the origins and the implications will help me make an informed decision when the time comes. So, as Queen Beyoncé SHOULD say: “If you like then you shoulda put a ring on it but also understand the historical implications of your actions and work to emphasize your equal partnership.” Sounds like a Grammy-winner to me.

In the new series ‪#‎AskWhy, some ShoutOut! bloggers (and anyone else who’s interested) will explore traditions and customs in our culture and ask why things are the way they are. If you’re interested and want to read more pieces that question our cultural norms, customs, and traditions, check out mustbeamermaid’s previous post about changing your last name after marriage!

10 thoughts on “Put A Ring On It: The Tradition of Engagement Rings #AskWhy

  1. This gave me a thought — I believe in some states, an engagement ring is considered a contract, so whomever breaks the contract (if it comes to that) sacrifices the ring. For instance, if a man gives a woman an engagement ring and calls off the wedding, she is entitled to it, and therefore the monetary value of it. Conversely if she calls it off, she is obligated to return it. I could be wrong but I believe there are court cases that set precedence.

    In any case, my question is this: How does this contract idea change the misogyny of the engagement ring concept, if at all?


    1. I never thought about the contract aspect of engagement rings, I’m so glad you brought that up. I found this site that provides a few examples of precedent in the courts: http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/returning-engagement-ring-30198.html

      The short answer is that there is no one answer when it comes to the contractual power of engagement rings. My response to whether or not it changes the misogyny is that if there is no official agreement that is clearly stated at the time of the proposal, then it can’t necessarily be considered a contract. Therefore, the historical misogynistic implications still stand. If both partners agree that the ring serves as a contract, then I think it is much less misogynistic because it’s a symbol of a mutual contract.


  2. Also, why not take this back a step. Why does a proposal have to come from the man? Why is it still taboo for a woman to ask a man to marry her?


  3. Totally agree with this as well, it SHOULDN’T be taboo! I think that can be traced back to the history of the engagement ring, where men were the owners and women were property. But this should absolutely change, and it’s so worth it to challenge the tradition.


  4. In Brazil, partners traditionally exchange wedding bands at the time of engagement (rather than a diamond ring), as a symbol of their never-ending love and commitment. Both wear the band on their right ring finger for the duration of their engagement, and switch it to the left ring finger upon marriage.


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