If you like it, had you better put a ring on it?

The diamond engagement ring isn’t “trad” by any means–while rings are ancient, the custom of giving one’s beloved a diamond was invented by the DeBeers corporation a mere 80 years ago.

Indeed, the entire modern wedding is mostly a marketing gimmick–I guarantee your dirt poor farming ancestors in the 1800s didn’t spring for a bachelor party (and shotgun marriages were more common than Camelot weddings)–but an insightful Twitter commentator whose name I have regretfully forgotten brings up an intriguing possibility: have diamond rings become so popular because they are an effective, hard to fake signal of future marital fidelity, thus taking the place of a traditional piece of legislation, the “breach of promise to marry“:

A breach of promise to marry, or simply, “breach of a promise,” occurs when a person promises to marry another, and then backs out of their agreement. In about half of all U.S. states, a promise to marry is considered to be legally enforceable, so long as the promise or agreement fulfills all the basic requirements of a valid contract.

According to this theory, as legal enforcement of punishments for breaking marriage contracts fell by the wayside, people found new ways to insure their relationships: by spending a huge hunk of cash on a non-refundable diamond.

This is a really nice theory. It just has one problem: the amount of money spent on a diamond is a really poor predictor of marital quality. In fact, researchers have found the opposite:

In this paper, we estimate the relationship between wedding spending (including spending on engagement rings and wedding ceremonies) and the duration of marriages. To do so, we carried out an online survey of over 3,000 ever married persons residing in the United States. Overall, we find little evidence that expensive weddings and the duration of marriages are positively related. On the contrary, in multivariate analysis, we find evidence that relatively high spending on the engagement ring is inversely associated with marriage duration among male respondents. Relatively high spending on the wedding is inversely associated with marriage duration among female respondents, and relatively low spending on the wedding is positively associated with duration among male and female respondents.

People who spend more on diamonds (and weddings) get divorced faster, but it appears there is a sweet spot for rings between $500 and $2000. Not having a ring at all might spell trouble, for going below $500 also increases your chance of divorce–but not nearly as much as spending over $2000.

The sweet spot for the overall wedding is… below $1000. This is a little concerning when you consider that, according to PBS, the average couple spends about $30,000 on their wedding.

These finding may have an immediate cause: debt is bad for marriage, and blowing $30,000 on a wedding is not a good way to kick off your life together. There may also be a more fundamental cause: people who are impulsive and bad at financial planning may also be bad at managing other parts of their lives and generally make bad spouses.

There is one bright spot in this study:

Additionally, we find that having high wedding attendance and having a
honeymoon (regardless of how much it cost) are generally positively associated with marriage duration.

This is probably because these are activities you do with people you actually like, and the sorts of people who have lots of relationships and like doing things with their friends are good at relationships.

So skip the wedding and just invite all of your friends to a big party in Tahiti.

(If you’re wondering, we spent about $1500 on our wedding and I hand made the rings, and we are now the most successfully and longest-married couple in my entire extended family.)

How did we all get bamboozled? The process by which diamond rings became the engagement staple is really something:

The concept of an engagement ring had existed since medieval times, but it had never been widely adopted. And before World War II, only 10% of engagement rings contained diamonds. …

Creating the Narrative:

The agency wanted to make it look like diamonds were everywhere, and they started by using celebrities in the media. “The big ones sell the little ones,” said Dorothy Dignam, a publicist for De Beers at N.W. Ayer. N.W. Ayer’s publicists wrote newspaper columns and magazine stories about celebrity proposals with diamond rings and the type, size, and worth of their diamonds. Fashion designers talked about the new diamond trend on radio shows.

N.W. Ayer used traditional marketing tools like newspapers and radio in the first half of the twentieth century in a way that kind of reminds me of inbound marketing today: In addition to overt advertisements, they created entertaining and educational content — ideas, stories, fashion, and trends that supported their brand and product, but wasn’t explicitly about it. According to The AtlanticN.W. Ayer wrote: “There was no direct sale to be made. There was no brand name to be impressed on the public mind. There was simply an idea — the eternal emotional value surrounding the diamond.” Their story was about the people who gave diamonds or were given diamonds, and how happy and loved those diamonds made them feel.

People didn’t realize this was marketing. It just felt like “culture,” and to those who grew up with media saturated with “diamonds=love,” it already felt “traditional” by the time they were ready to marry.

Remember this–there’s a lot more “marketing” going on than just the explicit ads on TV.


12 thoughts on “If you like it, had you better put a ring on it?

  1. Obviously the ring only signals the man’s commitment, while most divorces are initiated by wives. In the last 80 years we see women being less committed to marriages because changes in family law and the social welfare system and women’s careers and salaries reduced the economic need to stick to a marriage they don’t like. It has been noticed basically by everybody now that for a man being a not very attractive type but a good breadwinner does not work as well as 80 years ago, people only disagree whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. The old, “trad” way was a balanced trade, women needed economic resources provided by men and that meant having to accept a compromise in their romantic and sexual desires not entirely being fulfilled, marrying a less than super attractive man. Since it is no longer the case, now buying a diamond ring signals that a man is a gullible loser and expecting it signals a woman has a questionable character, since the promise to stay with and stay faithful to the man even if she does not find him attractive anymore is simply not signaled and not committed anymore. Nor is the idea that wives owe husbands sex even if they don’t want to. This makes the modern trade quite unbalanced. This is why I proposed to my wife with a silver band, if she would not like that it would have seriously reconsidered marrying her. And our gold wedding bands were made of our older, unworn golden bling-bling melted down. And that about 80% of our moderate wedding expenses were spent on providing food, drink and music to relatives and friends.

    Another aspect is that I had not even considered taking out a life insurance and my wife had the good tact to not even mention it. The logical reply to womens increasing economic and thus sexual options is for men to refuse to act like ATM’s. The death of a husband is no longer an economic disaster and does not result in starving kids.

    And this is not good at all. Because not only romantic love, but even things like friendship or good neighbourly relations don’t really work the way modern people expect them to work: on an entirely emotional level, without having any serious underlying economic or physical need or dependency. Neighborhoods were more of a community when people did have an economic need to borrow tools or money from each other. Friendships are stronger when you need to help each other move houses because you cannot afford movers. Modernity is driving towards the direction of making people not dependent on each other for their needs because such dependence implies personal power, and modern people hate personal power above all, they think if power should exist at all, it should be in the hands of an impersonal bureaucratic machine. The lack of such dependence makes human relationships unsolid that can be blown away by any small emotional problem, and drives things towards loneliness.


    • The statistic that women initiate more divorces than men seems incomplete, imo, because it doesn’t indicate why. Men are more likely to beat their spouses, for example, and spousal abuse is one of the reasons women initiate divorce. Without good data on why women initiate divorce (and I’ve yet to find it), I don’t think we can conclude that women are less devoted to marriage. It could equally be that men are more content to have affairs on the side while women seek to formalize the situation.

      That said, I think many people are vapid and shallow.


      • Look. I can understand that you as a woman don’t accept of the many harsh things the Manosphere, Heartiste and others are saying. But you could and should at least accept the problems they are wrestling with. In short, hypergamy. Divorces tending to be hypergamous – women trading up. Women have a need to find a man they can hero-worship, I find that Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged demonstrated the basic dynamic fairly well. Today, womens and mens income and economic opportunies are far closer to each other than in the past, therefore, a guy just being a good breadwinner is not going to be seen as heroic and not going to be hero-worshipped anymore. So women now want something bigger, something more romantic, something far more heroic, and actually pre-marriage some men are sort of able to roleplay that, pretending to be dangerous, adventurous, mysterious and a bit crazy, but later on with kids they are still going to fade into the boring gray breadwinner mode. And that is when the trading up happens.


      • No insult intended to Heartiste, but I’ve been married for a lot longer than he has. I’m also old enough to be privy to most of the family secrets, like which uncle had an illegal drug problem and who beat his fetus-baby to death.

        Every woman I’ve known who initiated a divorce was either beaten, cheated on, or her husband was rapidly turning the family savings into drugs and alcohol. This is why I want more data on the matter of divorce before simply declaring that it’s one side’s fault or the other.

        Quiet family men with nice incomes are not the class most likely to get divorced. In this case, the data is very clear.

        The more normal course of action, IMO, is that women fall in love with daring, exciting men, rush into marriage, get pregnant, and then discover that daring, exciting men are also wife beaters with drug problems, get divorced, and then attempt to settle down with a nice, calm, peaceful bread winner. These are not “high quality” men–high quality men marry attractive young women and raise their own children, not some other man’s.


      • @ dividualist

        It’s not always a “trade up” thing – sometimes it just is an unhappy wife who didn’t get what she wanted – thus fights, ugliness and ultimately divorce without trading up – yes I believe hypergamy is likely a real thing -it makes evolutionary sense – modern society probably makes it worse.

        I agree with the host that we don’t have enough data to prove or disprove any of this stuff. Still, there is a large disparity in who initiates divorce. The stereotypical male wife-beater is relatively rare (especially among those that actually bother to get married any more) and the disparity between male-on-female/female-on-male abuse & adultery is considerably less than the disparity between who initiates divorce. So I think you are probably right Dividualist.

        Funny thing is someone could study this stuff and make a stronger data-based case for or against manosphere hypotheses, but like race-differences it’s a horribly taboo topic so we probably won’t get any better data or information.


  2. I remember the commercials recommending two months income for the ring price. This makes me wonder what they would have found comparing marriage success with percentage of buyers’ income instead of absolute price? The optimal price results they’ve already found suggest the correlation might be weak, but that could also be an artifact of the income distribution, itself.


  3. David D. Friedman discusses this in his book “Law’s Order”, which one can find webbed. He attributes the invention of the idea of the diamond as a bond to Margaret Brinig.

    Premarital sex is not, popular opinion to the contrary, a new discovery. In most societies we know of, however, men prefer to marry women who have never slept with anyone else. This creates a problem. Unmarried women are reluctant to have sex for fear that it will lower their ability to find a suitable husband, and as a result unmarried men have difficulty finding women to sleep with.

    One traditional solution to this problem is for unmarried couples to sleep together on the understanding that if the woman gets pregnant the man will marry her. This practice was sufficiently common in a number of societies for which we have data that between a quarter and half of all brides went to the altar pregnant.

    One problem with this practice is that it creates an opportunity for opportunistic breach by the man, the strategy of seduce and abandon familiar in folk songs, romantic literature, and real life. That problem can be reduced by converting the understanding into an enforceable contract. Under traditional common law, a jilted bride could sue for breach of promise to marry. The damages she could collect reflected the reduction in her future marital prospects. They were in fact, although not in form, damages for loss of virginity.

    Starting in the 1930’s, U.S. courts became increasingly reluctant to recognize the action for breach of promise to marry, with the result that between 1935 and 1945 it was abolished in states containing about half the population. This created a problem for women who wanted to engage in premarital sex but did not want to end up as single mothers in a society where that status was both economically difficult and heavily stigmatized.

    The solution they found was described in “Rings and Promises,” an ingenious article by Margaret Brinig. The practice of a man giving his intended a valuable diamond engagement ring is not, De Beers’ ads to the contrary, an ancient custom. Data for diamond imports in the early part of the century are not very good, but Brinig’s conclusion from such information as she was able to find was that the practice only became common in the 1930’s, peaked in the 1950’s and has since declined.

    Her explanation was that the engagement ring served as a performance bond for the promise to marry. Instead of suing, the jilted bride could simply keep the ring, confiscating the posted bond. The practice eventually declined not because of further legal changes—at present no states recognize the action for breach of promise to marry—but as a result of social changes. As pre-marital sex became more common and virginity of less importance on the marriage market, the risk of opportunistic breach, and thus the need for a bonding mechanism, declined.

    Note the last para: Friedman explains the finding that expensive rings are no longer functioning as bonds. Namely, that premarital sex, divorce, and single motherhood are now common or even normal.


    • Interesting. Also, a pump-and-dump Cad wouldn’t be likely to spend two months salary or whatever for the experience so presumably it wasn’t just compensation for the bride – it was a preventative measure aimed at cads.
      And shotgun marriage was common – I assume this ended in the early 20th century which would have further incentivized the diamond as a posted bond.


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