(photo: our rings and a great bottle of wine on the night we celebrated signing our venue contract)
Engagement rings are a weird thing. So weird, my sweet fiancee has yet to fully grasp the concept of them. I’ve defined “engagement ring” and “wedding band” for her many times, but even so, she pulled my band out of her pocket when she proposed.
For some reason, I’ve been against my girlfriend spending thousands of dollars on a ring since the subject first came up. A caveat: my opinions apply only to us. I don’t want to judge decisions made by others, just as I don’t want others to judge us. The Golden Rule of wedding planning.
I know for some people, picking out an expensive ring is part of the fun. It’s likely the first piece of investment jewelry a woman owns, so why not go for it, if that’s something you want (and can afford).
There is an engagement ring trap, though, and it’s the idea that the grandiosity of your ring is commensurate to the value of your relationship. That’s obviously not true, but it’s an easy rabbit hole to fall down.
My dad was raised in Oregon, and my grandpa still lives there, but my grandmother died of lung cancer several years ago. When we were up for her funeral, Grandpa handed my mother a small fabric bag of my grandmother’s jewelry, and eventually my mother gave it to me. My grandmother wasn’t ostentatious (understatement) and neither were her jewels. But I know they were special to her and they are special to us. There’s some silver she bought on a trip to Mexico, and a lovely set of opal earrings with glinting stones set atop a delicate golden leaf. And then there was a tiny art deco ring, unlike anything I’d ever seen. The delicate raised filigree was embossed with flowers, and the round diamond sparkled in a hexagonal setting. None of us could remember my grandmother wearing it, and the style suggested it was from an earlier age, anyway… probably the 1920’s.
My great grandmother, Mary Amelia, had her first baby in 1923. She had my grandmother five years later. That same year, her husband committed suicide. It seems pretty likely that this ring was Mary Amelia’s–the token of a marriage lasting under 10 years and ending tragically, leaving her a young widow with two tiny children.
I lived a giant state away from my grandmother for most of my own life. I have memories of her, but not many. I know a little bit about her life, but not much. And nearly everything I know about Mary Amelia fits in the 56 words above. But when I say “I do”, her ring will be on my finger–this little piece of metal and stone that outlasted her marriage, her life and my grandmother’s life. It will outlast me too, but for now it’s connecting me, and the life I’m about to build, to a family history that is hazy to me but real. A wedding ring, and maybe this one especially, is a symbol of the bravery inherent in taking on marriage in the face of unknown risk. It’s a pretty reminder of the commitment made to a partner, when neither of you know what the future will hold.
These days, that is how I think about my ring. But it’s a significance that has built itself up around me since the day I got engaged.
In the beginning, I just didn’t want to spend any real money on a ring. This one was already in my possession and I liked it ok. But once I started wearing it, I began to feel insecure. It’s strange to know an accessory is broadcasting personal information to the world. And I think strangers will assume I’m marrying/married to a man, which bothers me because it isn’t true. But I’m also not up for regularly outing myself to entire subway cars.
The jeweler who sized my ring confirmed it was white gold and a real diamond, but he didn’t bother telling me the size of the stone and I didn’t ask. It’s very small. I think the setting is designed to make it appear larger, but it’s not an altogether successful illusion.
I don’t even like diamonds, but I got self-conscious about mine, because of the engagement ring trap. If people noticed I didn’t have a big hunk of stone, would they assume my relationship wasn’t worth much either? I grew a little afraid of what people would say about my ring.
But a funny thing happened when people did start saying something about it. My friends told me it was beautiful. A few said, “it’s so you”, which caused me to realize, yeah, it really is “so me.” My parents had no idea the ring even existed, but they both think it’s cool that we pulled it from near-oblivion and gave it a second life.
I bought my partner her own engagement ring. It’s yellow gold and has no stone, but it’s from the 1920’s just like mine. And, just like mine, it had a life before and is getting a new one now. She’d never worn jewelry, so wearing a ring every day felt foreign to her. We’d both look down during the day and… BAH! What’s that on my finger?!
A few months ago, we took a trip and decided not to bring our rings. We didn’t want to risk losing them as we traveled around. After a few days, we admitted to each other that the paradigm had flipped. Now, not wearing our rings felt weird. We’d both mindlessly touch our left thumbs to the base of our ring fingers and be surprised by the absence of cool metal.
We got back home and slid our rings on. It was a relief to be wearing them again. Those insecurities about mine floated into the ether. I stopped seeing it as anything like “less than” and saw it more as “so me.”
In the 1600’s, the idea of the vena amoris took off. That is that the vein in the finger next to your left pinkie ran straight to your heart. I like the idea that my ring finger is a direct line to amor, because I know the ring on it is a physical manifestation of the depth of feeling and history within me. I know that now.