Close your eyes and imagine.
In a high-class restaurant, ambiguous warm light gently flashes down, the sound of silver utensils impacting on porcelain plates are mumbling around your ears. Your lover sits next to you. The conversation goes on well and you drink the wine till you see a ring lying on the bottom.
Beside a river, you are laying down with your lover on soft grass, soothing summer breeze touches your cheek. Blue velvets smell refreshing, several hot air balloon are rising from the distance like some small color dots. Your thought flies to the future, a wooden white house, adorable kids and cats, you can not hide your passion any longer. You open a ring box and feel bravest ever and then, you ask, would you marry me?
You are dancing in a friend party with your boy/girl. Dazzling light comes from everywhere, the music lifts you high. Suddenly you heard someone shout your name, people are screaming and clapping. You saw roses, cake, and champagne. And your boy/girl are kneeling and holding a ring. Gosh, that is a proposal party for you.
Whatever which proposal scenery is the ideal one for you, they all have one identical element in common: an engagement ring, in particular, probably is a diamond ring. Technically, engagement rings are supposed to vary from person to person, due to our different aesthetic standards and different proposal occasion. However, walk into a jewelry store randomly, no matter it is a designer shop or a chain store, no matter what the price is, I bet the majority of them are the diamond ring. And that is what the majority people would pick for their proposal and wedding. Why? Why our preference converged and identified?What are the social significances behind it?
Through a semiotic analysis of the ring as a cultural symbol, this paper will discuss the materiality of the ring and specific engagement ring culture( definition from the book “Materiality”. I will focus on diamond, as a popular choice of ring, how it implies and forms our notions of rings and marriage. By comparing ancient rings and modern rings, and specific research on diamond history, we can see that through the commercialization and time changing, the meanings and material preferences of them have been totally altered.
The ring, a decent symbolic item of marriage, is an overt sign to indicate an individual’s relationship status. No matter in the West or Non-west, the origin of the ring has nothing to do with love, but symbolizes power, glory, and honor, and has evolved to become a necessity for marriage. Why did the ancient people in the Chinese and Western cultures attach so much importance to the ring to keep the humble object along with their long human history?
Almost every civilization has endowed the “circle” with rich moral. The circle represents the endless and repetitive characteristic of the sun. Without boundaries, without antagonism and division, it is the symbol of integrity and eternity. The circle is a spiritual symbol of the western, “the sun”, “cross”, on behalf of the perfect equilateral triangle in a circle, a symbol of the “eternal, spirit, and the infinite possible”.German semiotics Manfred Lurker has explained the reason why our ancestors were so obsessed with circular and ring: among all objects that are made in the world, the shape of a circle or sphere is the ultimate. The sun, the earth, and the moon, all the celestial bodies are globes, and even crown, orb, and pearl, the things on the earth are in this shape. And it is not only the natural life that repeats itself in the seasons of spring and summer and autumn and winter, it is the daily life of one week, one day and one hour, and also adopts a broad rotation movement, which is, also a circle.
Since ancient times, people have discovered the sacred authority of circle and the principle behind it. Hence, they placed those shapes into real objects to convey the message behind them. The most close-fitting round decoration is probably the ring. Especially in the ancient China and India, rings have had a profound religious purpose over its decorative intention. They applied delicate religion-related patterns on the surface of the jewelry to convey a certain belief. Different from the popular materials of rings, gold, diamond, ancient Chinese had an intensive obsession with Jade. People valued high-purity jade over any other crystal or metal materials.
However, in the West, diamond is the material that is favored the most. Dating back to Middle Age, the history of professional diamond cutting has already emerged. Depending on different sizes and shapes, craftsmen applied delicate, precise cutting angles to polish the raw diamond. Through careful mathematical analysis, diamond’s brilliance can be greatly enhanced. A ring implies and stands for a heavy commitment to marriage and relationship. According to good bread, the diamond ring is pretty identical in many ways to good bread, the ideal characteristics that we pursuit reflects on the properties of goods. According to the popular social expectations, marriage or relationship is supposed to be pure, eternal and solid. Therefore, we are consciously and unconsciously choosing the objects and materials which reflect on those properties.
Diamond ring, undoubtedly, is the most mainstream and epidemic type among all. ‘A diamond last forever.’ from De Beers, as one of the most successful 20th campaigns and marketing, perfectly implies this wish for love. Diamonds, consisting of crystal-structure carbon, is renewed for its rareness in nature as well as its gorgeous transparency. Particularly, diamond has the highest hardness over other bulk materials. Looking back into these characteristics that people wish for in marriage, purity refers to the transparency, solid and eternal refer to the hardness, specialness refers to the rareness. With a good commercial strategy, diamond rings have been fully popularized and commercialized.
Through the process of industrializing diamond as highly profitable goods, the company De Beers has made a crucial contribution to the marketing success. Different from more current mainstream marketing strategies like what Ikea does, Technically, natural diamonds, as stone, is less of an industrial use. If De Beers had not been established, we probably would not regard diamonds as a pricy crystal and a symbol of love.
Diamonds are divided into industrial diamonds and jewelry drills, which are natural or artificial. The diamonds we usually talk about are all natural jewelry drills. At first, the discovery of diamond was aimed at industrial use, due to its hardness. Diamond products are applied in the glass cutter, wire drawing die, and some other fields. But in 1955 GE obtained the technology of manufacturing diamonds through high temperature, and the last bit of industrial value of natural diamond was lost. Natural diamond was not particularly useful at that time unless it is required for some high-precision, high-precision processes.
But De Beers showed up, an international enterprise that specializes in diamond exploration, mining, retail, trading, and manufacturing since the 1920s. They told women those brilliant love stories of diamonds: diamonds are rare, bright, they have the unlimited value and a diamond last forever. From then, the diamond, a broken stone, has become the witness of marriage.
The practitioner will tell you that the diamond will hold its value through all time. But in reality, diamonds are now set at this price because of the absolute at the control of the industry, such as De Beers. Natural diamond is a very special industry, which belongs to the supply – industry-oriented business. De Beers has created a lot of marketing concepts from the beginning, telling you that diamonds are valuable and how do they control them? More than half of the world’s diamond mines belong to them. In the early years, they even shared more than 90% of the entire trading market. It was an absolute control of diamond supply and delivery, and they monopolized the diamond retail price via regulating the amount of diamond supply. Overall, the producer controls the whole market, regardless of the world’s diamond reserves, consumers will never be able to get a low price.
Rings are tightly attached to relationship social norms. Each finger has different meanings with different types of ring. More importantly, although rings are constantly considered as merely the exterior decorations of human bodies. Nevertheless, they are able to indicate identities of their wearers via the material properties. The notion from the book And it is a typical semiotic showcase. According to the reading from week three?, a functional semiotic system generally consists of two main parts: index and signs. For example, when we are picking up jewelry, rings are effectively collections of symbols. Sizes indicate different finger shapes, styles suggest various aesthetic standards and requirements, price shows purchasing power and economic status. Comparatively, we are the indexes. People find their ideal rings based on their own genders, intentions, careers, preferences, and aesthetics. These features are fairly identical with the vocabulary inputs of an index, as determined by agents, us.
Addition to the semiotic system, when we are trying to figure out the meaning behind those signs, the contexts must be involved. We cannot imagine a physical thing merely based on an adjective, it is like giving you an abstract sign without any clue. For example, close-fitting, vintage, simple, formal and delicate may be the characteristics of a ring, but if we see these words separately, we will never figure out what is the object that we talk about, we just perceive certain feelings. However, when we say a vintage dress, a vintage ring or vintage shoes, we know and even can visualize what they are, just by adding a specific subject. And only by this, those qualities can have actual meanings and contexts beyond a barely conceptual category.
More interestingly, it seems like a series of ‘engagement ring buying rules’ has formed in society. People generally suggest one-month-salary engagement ring is acceptable and proper, the two-or-three-month-salary ring is much more infrequent and precious. It either shows the man is wealthy and do not care about the price or shows the man loves his fiancé so deeply. And there is even the age rule. It has been said that the quality of the ring should be equivalent to the age of the woman. If you marry a 25 years old woman, then you should buy her a 2.5-carat diamond. This rule may apply to those guys who have no clue about choosing a proper diamond, it might seem romantic and it is indeed a safety choice.
Third rule, the beauty, rareness, size of the jewelry directly reflect the look of the girl from the man’s perspective. For instance, if a man thinks and conveys his fiancé is the prettiest and hottest woman ever, then he is expected to buy the most luxurious, the most special rock as the engagement ring. Women would unconsciously compare themselves with their engagement ring to guess how much value they have in the men’s hearts. Therefore, those standards, ‘engagement ring buying rules’ have been made up. Nevertheless, more or less, defining fiancé’s beauty, value by the price or other qualities of a ring objectifies women. And requiring, expecting men to buy a pricey diamond ring is an unequal treatment and it brings subtle inequality in the relationship and in finances.
Nevertheless, although the wishes are good and flawless, the truth goes conversely. Surprisingly, a research from economics professors at Emory University suggested that in the US, the pricier engagement rings that people buy, the higher divorce rates they might have. Psychologically, a more precious ring means a more serious, solemn commitment to love, and in terms, it leads to pressure and over expectation. Maxing out one’s credit card for a ring indeed is a fraudulent action to convey love exaggeratedly in order to create an instantaneously intensive touch.
This exaggerated expression deceives lovers at first, the sweetest illusion of love and a perfect future home. But they only exist in our imaginations. In the real life, the passion shrinks back quickly, but the ‘illusion’ is still alive. Every error and disharmony become louder and sharper than before. People think: you promised me a happy future, not this mundane life. Finally, they end up divorced. Meanwhile, for most people, they need to borrow money to buy a luxury diamond ring, which may increase their psychological tensions even more. Also, if the proposal ring is pricy, then people tend to hold everything else to the same standard, the wedding dress, furniture, decorations… No one would like to wear a luxury diamond ring with a cheesy rental wedding dress, right?
After a happy and short wedding ceremony, people often don’t wear rings as a personal daily routine. Looking at those people who are already married, how many of them would wear their wedding rings for a continuous long period? Definitely not all of them. Similar to the podcast of “The Secret Emotional Life of Clothes”, garments and wearable accessories are able to imply people’s identities and thoughts. Maybe some of them are unwilling to be labeled and bounded by conventional marital state, but a lot of them are intended to hide their state of being married. There is no doubt that as a single person, the success rate of the accosting is far higher than that of the ring finger.
In recent decades, the social values of marriage have been gradually opened and free. It has been believed that any person should have the right to pursue and enjoy love at any stage. Now, the younger generations have already got used to the life of half an hour on tinder before bed, whether the behavior is good or bad, it reflects our pursuit of short-term novelty and the impermanence of the love object. Not necessarily to facilitate the affair, but some people believe, marriage should not be connected with the strong sense of restraint and demand of the ring. Marriage is supposed to be a light-hearted and pleasant, and people are more or less resistant to responsibilities and obligations, such as not wearing wedding rings.
In conclusion, this iconic item of love indeed proves how fragile and insecure that the relationship is. People try to express passions and willings of love through it, but merely pursuing ring’s materially reflects human’s magniloquence and vanity.
Overall, how we perceive diamond’s meaning still depends on individual’s outlook. Social norms do not stand for everyone. And the existence of diamonds, more or less, proves the absurdity of the world. Businessmen and commercial have altered and controlled social norm of engagement rings. If we love each other so deep, we do not even need a diamond or other object to symbolize it.
Daniel Miller, Materiality, Durham?Duke University Press, (2005)
Financial Samurai, The New Rule For Engagement Ring Buying, https://www.financialsamurai.com/the-new-rule-for-engagement-ring-buying/
Kurt Kohlstedt, The IKEA Effect: How Effort Imbues Everyday Objects with Personal Value, https://99percentinvisible.org/article/ikea-effect-effort-imbues-everyday-objects-personal-value/ , June16, 2017
Kristen Uroda , The Secret Emotional Life of Clothes, https://www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/485605882/the-secret-emotional-life-of-clothes , JULY 22, 2016
Manfred Lurker, The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Egypt: An Illustrated Dictionary , New York: Thames & Hudson, (1984)
Sam Greenspan, Good Bread, http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/good-bread/, October 22, 2014
Taryn Hillin, What The Cost Of Your Engagement Ring May Say About Your Marriage, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/03/expensive-weddings-study_n_5929056.html, Dec 21, 2014