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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

An anthropologist's guide to choosing an engagement ring

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Shopping for an engagement ring can be a decidedly strange experience, especially for an anthropologist of material culture. Traipsing in and out of jewellery stores searching for my own ring back in 2011, I felt like I was wading through a symbolic supermarket. You might be surprised to realise how much your engagement ring actually conveys: it's far more than a signal of love and a promise to get married sometime down the track. Here's a small list of things that an engagement ring does:

  1. It symbolizes your relationship
  2. It represents a social and legal contract
  3. It communicates your individuality
  4. It indicates your social status and beliefs
  5. It stores economic value

So, if you want your ring to have a really specific meaning, you might want to have a good think about what choices you are making and why. Otherwise your search for the "one ring to rule them all" could come to resemble a quest as large as the reclamation of Middle Earth.

Symbolise your relationship

Now, in the most romantic sense of the engagement, the ring is supposed to be, above all, a symbol of love and a promise of life companionship. Because the marriage should ideally last for the rest of our lives, then the ring also needs to last at least that long. It therefore needs to be durable. Over the last few decades, the jewellery industry has encouraged us to think that the monetary cost of the ring should reflect the emotional value that we place on our relationship. As a result, the average woman in the Western world wears about $2000 of love on her finger. One way of getting around this is to choose an heirloom ring. Wearing your grandmother's ring not only saves you a fair chunk of change, but also affirms a second relationship besides that embodied in you as a couple. Of course, then it's not only about you — but can it ever really be?

A social and legal contract

Think that engagement and marriage are between two individuals? Think again. Unless you're going common law, they are always both a social contract and a legal contract. When you become betrothed to your love, you're also making a promise to your society and your state: "I, Erin Taylor, will take thee, Australia, as my lawfully wedded nation." Throughout most of human history, betrothal has been the business of the entire village. It is only relatively recently that we get to choose our own partners – and even then, it is impossible to get married or divorced without friends to witness the contract and the state to enforce it. Even if you break off your engagement before the big day, you can still be sued for breach of promise. Your ring signals to everyone that you are part of society and accept its rules.

Communicate your individuality

Despite the fact that getting married actually has very little to do with you as an individual, you will probably want to choose the right ring for you, given that you are expected to wear it every day for the rest of your life. The problem is that, while everyone wants the perfect ring that expresses their own personal uniqueness, most rings look pretty similar. There is a very good reason for this: if they were all different, then nobody would be able to tell if you were wearing an engagement ring or not. The task, then, is to strike a balance between finding something that says "this ring is reflective of my personality" and "this ring is reflective of my social identity as a married person." Wedding ring designers and blue jean designers have something in common: its almost impossible to come up with an original design without varying too far from the accepted standard.

Indicate your social status and beliefs

The other thing that tends to get out of hand when searching for a ring is the status it conveys, reflected in its price. It is not uncommon for a person to begin with the notion that they want something simple, but end up gravitating towards the higher-priced end of the spectrum. Why? Are we naturally selfish beings who can't resist the opportunity to show off to our peers? Are we gullibly drawn into the marketing of jewellers and diamond companies? Or are expensive rings actually just nicer?

Material culture scholars suggest a slightly different answer. Two anthropologists, Douglas and Isherwood, tell us that "More effective rituals use material things, and the more costly the ritual trappings, the stronger we can assume the intention to fix the meanings to be." (1979, p.65) In other words, all around the world, the most important social events are always those that have longevity in our lives, and they are celebrated using the most expensive items.

Store economic value

In many cultures, such as in India, gold jewellery is a form of insurance. Gold generally holds its value, so in times of crisis it can be sold. The higher sentimental value that the ring has, the better it is as a form of insurance, because the more important it is to you, the less likely you will be to sell it unless there truly is a crisis. Psychologically, it can be far less tempting to blow your cash when it is kept in the form of sentimental items than in a bank account that you can raid at will.

One ring to rule them all?

Given that the engagement ring has all of these features, then, I think we can safely say that one can feel justified in spending a large sum of money on it. In fact, spending up signals our seriousness, our willingness to conform to society's wishes, and as a form of insurance and savings it can even be seen as a prudent choice.

One ring to rule them all? By 1791Rings (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0]
One ring to rule them all? By 1791Rings (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Unfortunately for my own engagement ring shopping, by the time I had written this article, I was hyper-aware of the hidden meanings of the engagement ring, and was no longer able to make a choice based on my personal preference. I gave up on getting one, and just got a plain wedding band instead. So, perhaps the best thing you can do when searching for your "one ring" is to not read this article. You may the stand a chance of finding one that "simply feels right!"

Spending up signals our seriousness, our willingness to conform to society's wishes, and as a form of insurance and savings it can even be seen as a prudent choice.

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Catching The One Ring by x-emerlilly-x [CC BY-NC-ND 3.0]
Catching The One Ring by x-emerlilly-x [CC BY-NC-ND 3.0]