You Will You Will Rock Me

Well, if you can buy a 3/4 solitaire blue diamond engagement ring for 405.00, and you go give plasma twice a week making 60 or more a week on that, you can do the math on how long it would take to save up for that ring. Not long. And most people above the age of 18 can give plasma. Where there is a will, there is a way. And it shows some serious commitment to do something like that, plus imbues the ring with a WHOLE lot more meaning.
— A commenter at Slate

In a recent Dear Prudence, the advice column published at Slate, the question at issue concerns diamond rings:

I am very much in love with my girlfriend of four years and want to spend my life with her. There is one thing preventing me from popping the question: the diamond ring. My girlfriend is not overly superficial but has made it clear that she needs a “moderately good-sized ring.” I am young, in graduate school, and have no money. I would have to take out a loan to buy her what she desires. In the long term, money won’t be the issue, so my objections to buying an engagement ring are mostly philosophical: 1) Buying a diamond ring seems like buying a woman. 2) If we are equal partners, what is she buying me? 3) Diamonds fuel conflict around the world. 4) They are expensive yet inherently worthless. I have told her how I feel, and she sees my point but has indicated a ring is necessary. I can’t imagine proposing to her without one. Should I wait to propose and in the meantime try to change her mind, just buy her a stupid ring already, or take this impasse as an indicator of future conflict and move on with my life? (I don’t know if I could do the last one.)

Lots of married couples, including my grandparents, my parents, and many of the least superficial, most admirable people in my life, needlessly squandered hard earned money on diamond engagement rings. So I am not saying that there is anything wrong with folks who buy diamonds, except that they’re mistaken in that one instance.

Admittedly, diamonds are every bit as sparkly as one could wish. “Ooh, pretty,” people occasionally say upon looking at them.

On the other hand, most diamond buyers engage in minor financial irresponsibility when they make their purchase; help enrich some of the most exploitative, emotionally manipulative corporations in the world; are at least mildly complicit in the ongoing female status game that is “oh, let’s see/let me show you the rock;” and make themselves party to a violent, destabilizing, completely unnecessary commodities market.

Somehow that calculus makes diamonds a subject that reasonable people disagree about. Not that diamond engagement ring sycophants offer persuasive counterarguments — they tend to “see your point,” and insist that a diamond ring is necessary.

To be fair, there is the small matter of tradition. For tens of years, it has been a time honored practice to imagine that diamond rings are as old as marriage itself, fall for the same De Beers propaganda as your grandparents, and glory in “diamonds are forever” faux traditionalism (even as you arrange far more significant aspects of your marriage in ways that folks 50 years ago would find totally foreign).

Were I re-writing Dante, I’d put the terrible men responsible for De Beers in a circle of hell several levels below the big tobacco executives of yore for bringing this culture about.

But I am a pragmatist and an empiricist who recognizes the radical, counter-intuitive, decidedly minority nature of my position. Lots of intelligent, wonderful people whose moral instincts I generally admire buy diamonds. I am therefore forced to agree with Prudence when she tells the advice seeker that so long as it isn’t a conflict diamond, there isn’t an insurmountable moral case against bling. Put another way, guys sympathetic to my position shouldn’t lose the love of their life standing on principle.

In fact, so long as the guy in the question is cool marrying someone with moderate status anxiety — that’s probably the best case scenario for a woman who demands a certain size diamond — I’d say that Prudie is probably being excessively anti-diamond:

I hope your graduate studies are in something more remunerative than philosophy, not only so you can eventually buy your girl a ring, but because philosophy doesn’t seem to be your strength. Let me take your objections one by one: 1) Oh, come on. 2) Oh, come on. 3) There are “conflict-free” diamonds. 4) Many valuable things are inherently worthless. But despite my objections to your objections, in general I agree with you. (As I would, since I don’t have, and didn’t want, an engagement ring.) I find it ludicrous to consider going into debt to buy a piece of jewelry. If you can’t painlessly write a check for a ring, you can’t afford it. And I find it distasteful to think that a woman who wants to marry her boyfriend wouldn’t consider herself engaged unless he shows up with a substantial rock. If you’ve been together for four years, and are ready to be married, then you both should be ecstatic to take that step, even if it means she has to have a naked ring finger for a while. Propose to her and tell her that you’re hoping the two of you will build a happy, even prosperous, life together and that when you’re more financially secure, you will happily get her a ring she will enjoy. I agree with you that it seems nutty to break up over your “philosophic” objections to a ring. And I hope she’s not so “overly superficial” that she would refuse your proposal because it lacks sufficient carats.

Perhaps rejecting a ringless proposal would signify superficiality, but maybe not, since superficial women tend to choose guys who are already rich, rather than talking poor grad students into lavish purchases. It could be that this woman foolishly chose the kind of friends who’ll mock and denigrate her if she’s ringless; perhaps her co-workers will unintentionally make her feel very uncomfortable if they find out she is engaged and doesn’t have a ring; there are sundry explanations other than superficiality, many of them grounded in the awful culture of diamonds in America.

Disagree about diamonds? Read this, and tell me if you still do. How I hope that one day matters are reversed, a la fur coats, and it is folks who do wear diamonds who are looked down upon by their girlfriends. This despite the fact that some of my best friends are diamond owners! Hey, if I win you’ll still have a way to cut glass.

UPDATE: Okay, I assume and hope that this isn’t a common sentiment, but I can’t resist posting one more Slate commenter’s take:

I hope you can read this message on time. It seems to me you really do not get the REAL issue with the ring, and why just a band wouldn’t do. It is true, as some other have mentioned before me, any women would think sweet things of you for the next 60 years if you give them a nice ring. The reason for this sweet thoughs are not thoughs of pure white romantic love, nor hot passionate fire fuled love. It is not that your bought her as a woman, as some women indeed like the feeling of being possesed a sign of their feminity (gosh, protect me from that thoughts), nor the fact that you prooved your love by doing a great sacrifice you can almost not afford, or even if you prooved you are worthy of getting married to due to your wealth, or at least promise of future wealth.
The real reason, and I mean the REAL reason why we all want largest available ROCK is to because we want it as a weapon. A social weapon. We want to able to scratch with ethernal jelousy and envy the heart of our current future female friends and enemies, so, even when we will turn into a fat, ordinary, ugly and old woman in the next 60 years, we could always, always make an subtle movement with the hand, reach something, wave good bye, just anything, so the light catches an edge, deflects on one or two faces of the stone, just make a sparkle or bling, just for a instant. But that instant, brief as a blink, is enough for us to remember our capacity to be at the same level of most females of our class. May be even dismiss all smaller stone ringers. That subtle moment will last a tenth of a second. But in our hearts the power will remain constant as well as our sweet thoughts of you giving, for giving us that power or illusion of power. Diamonds are forever. As for a suggestion, if you decide not to buy the ring, you run a high risk of getting a no for an answer, specially if your girlfriend is very close to female friends with potentially large stones. If she even says yes, then she might stay with you forever, but you would need to buy the ring eventually, and THEN forget about buying a new car before the ring. Alternatively, it would be easier to not buy the ring if you move to another city, where the acknowledgement of the stone by her friends would be diminished.