Traditions around engagement protocol - aka sexism and clever marketing - are out of date and unnecessary says Jane Bradley
When I bumped into an old friend on the street last week, she had exciting news.
Of course, as soon as she stuck out her left hand and waved it at me, I knew what she was about to say - she had just got engaged.
When I finally did spy the ring on her finger, I was almost blinded by the diamond. And a beautiful one it was. I wish her a lifetime of happiness with her new husband.
But it got me thinking about what engagement rings actually are and what they mean.
The fact that just waving a left hand can signify that my friend is to pledge to spend the rest of her life with her partner shows that we still abide by the idea of giving a woman’s hand in marriage, a difficult concept for most women to stomach these days.
For full disclosure, I have to admit that I do wear an engagement ring myself, alongside my wedding band. My husband wears a wedding ring too, something, which a generation ago, would have been seen as a slight on his masculinity. My dad didn’t wear one. I bet yours didn’t either.
An engagement ring is a symbol of betrothal which has signified an impending wedding - and therefore the removal of the woman from the marriage market - for centuries.
“If you like it, you should have put a ring on it,” screams the Beyonce song, as “all the single ladies” wag their ring fingers in the air in a sign of what they somehow believe to be feminist solidarity but actually sums up everything that, to me, is wrong with marriage in the modern age.
The idea of ownership, that a man should find something he likes and “put a ring” on it to mark out his territory - and, what is worse, that a woman should want him to do so and no longer wants to be in a relationship with him if he won’t - makes me want to hurl my own diamond into the nearest lake in the name of modern feminism.
The tradition of engagement rings as we know them dates back to 1477 when Archduke Maximilian of Austria presented a diamond ring to his fiancee, Mary of Burgundy. While this is the first properly documented gift of something akin to what we would now regard as an engagement ring, the tradition of a ring signifying marriage or betrothal dates back even further.
In the second century BC, the Roman bride-to-be was given two rings: a gold one which she wore in public, and one made of iron which she wore at home, presumably so that she didn’t damage the precious metal while scrubbing at the atrium floors of her luxurious Domus.
This week a survey has found that people are beginning to shy away from presenting the traditional engagement ring - with more than a third saying they would prefer to have something else in place of a diamond ring - with funds for DIY projects, a luxury holiday or even a pen taking precedence over the sparkly bling. Others said they would susbstitute a diamond ring for a different type of jewellery: the less glamorous signet rings, necklaces, bracelets or a swanky watch, according to the report from insurer Protect Your Bubble.
I don’t blame them. However equal the relationship in the Bradley household, I still feel slightly uncomfortable with a tradition that requires a woman to wear a symbol of betrothal which a man does not have. Was I to get engaged now, rather than over a decade ago, I may well have considered marking our engagement in a different way - however much I like my ring.
Brides and grooms to be are also, according to the study, more likely to choose the ring together - if they choose one at all - rather than the man opting to present a ring at the point of the proposal.
The study found that just four in 10 people who proposed with a traditional ring surprised their partner by choosing the engagement ring themselves. Meanwhile, only just over half of those who didn’t choose their own engagement ring said that they loved it. Not great odds for something that you are likely to have on your finger for the rest of your life.
A separate survey released earlier this year found that couples who do opt for a traditional ring are spending 20 per cent less on them than they were a decade ago, with Scots likely to fork out the least. Almost half of those who were recently engaged said they spent less than three weeks’s salary on a ring. Meanwhile, more than one in ten spent less than they earn in just one week, with the cost of an average wedding and engagement ring coming to just £563 and £862 respectively in Scotland - compared to a total of £2,778 in London.
We are a sensible lot, us Scots. Why should something so small cost so much? The answer is clever marketing.
The concept that a man should spend a significant proportion of his annual income for an engagement ring originated from an ad campaign created by diamond firm De Beers at a time when they spotted a gap in the market - and money to fill it. In the 1930s, the firm suggested that a man should spend the equivalent of one month’s income in the engagement ring; later the suggestion was upped to two months’s income. Such was the effect of the campaign, if he failed to spend that much, no mean feat at a time when young couples would be looking to save for a house, he would be regarded as a skinflint.
Very clever marketing indeed, given that almost a decade later, we are still - even if to a lesser extent in Scotland - following an advertising campaign launched close to a century ago.
Perhaps it is high time to modernise the old tradition.