Saturday, January 21, 2006

Why do we give engagement rings?

She introduced me to a friend of hers at a coffee-house. I didn't like him. Hate at first sight, just one of those things! After he went away, she turned around and said to me, "Do you know he proposed to his girlfriend in the middle of the PVR Saket (a huge cine complex in Delhi with quite a few restaurants)?" She added, "He bent down on his knee, gave flowers, and gifted a diamond ring for proposing engagement, so cute, naa!"

My respect for him immediately trebled. You need lots of G mein D for it! But I still couldn't come to terms with the diamond ring! What has a diamond ring got to do with engagement and love?

Apparently there is.

We in India, may have borrowed the practice of exchanging of expensive, often diamond, engagement rings from the West. But how did the phenomenon originate in the West? All along, I had thought engagement rings to be a signal of being "Not Available" and communicating "your value for the lady." Is there something more to the story?

It runs like this. This was in the first half of the 20th century. Virginity before engagement was highly valued. Often, there would be promises from men to marry and intercourse in due course. Now there was a regulation that made men liable to pay damages if they did not pursue their promise of marriage. The point was to compensate women for their loss of "market value" for marriage in the future. The regulation gets abolished because it is perceived as "legally sanctioned blackmail, a threat to marriage and the family" after noting its usage among the people. This substantially increased the requirement of a bond that can act as an extralegal "guarantee" for the promise of marriage, a committment provided that serves as an investment as well for the lady. At the same time, the diamond industry had expanded and diamonds were relatively cheaper. Slick advertising (A diamond is forever!) and the war conditions of that period were other factors that affected this demand positively.

If your interest is sufficiently piqued, read Margaret Brinig's very interesting Rings and Promises.

Hat tip-off from David Friedman's Ideas.

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