{the lessons} Seven Things I’ve Learned About Engagement Rings

by Rachel on April 12, 2012

Not a whole lot has changed in my life since I got engaged and became a “bride to be.” (Yes, I’m using finger quotes on a lot of wedding-related terms until I feel more comfortable using them.) But one thing that has changed is the appearance of a bit of new jewelry on my left hand and Eric’s right hand. And along with the new bling, I’ve also picked up quite a few lessons about engagement rings.

1. Rings used to be a form of virginity insurance. So says this article recently published in The Atlantic. I find this fascinating.

2. I love my ring…but I would have loved a condo too. Eric and I both liked the idea of doing something special to mark our engagement, but, like a lot of women, I wasn’t convinced that it needed to be a ring. I wasn’t against the idea of a ring — I like jewelry and wear it regularly; I like that it’s an easily-identifiable symbol of commitment — but I was pretty flexible. So, we discussed options. My favorite alternative we discussed was putting money toward property instead of buying a ring. Even the night we went shopping for my ring, we were driving by some of my favorite condos on our way to the store and I said, “Hey, we can totally do a condo instead of a ring. It’s not too late.” But he still wanted to do a ring and because I didn’t feel strongly one way or the other, I was fine with that. Another thing I’ve learned in the past several months is that men have a lot of thoughts on engagement rings — thoughts that can be as steeped in cultural pressure as everyone assumes women’s feelings are — so I wanted to feel confident that we were both on board with whatever we decided to do.

3. Rings are mysterious. When Eric and I decided to go ring shopping, we were pretty overwhelmed. First, I had no idea where to start. A lot of my friends or people I’ve talked to have known for years what they want in an engagement ring, from carat size to cut to baguettes; I am always amazed by this. But how do you know? I always think. I’d literally never tried on any engagement rings in my life; how could I possibly know what I’d want to wear for the rest of my life? I spent a lot of time looking but nothing I was seeing on the web  — whether I was on traditional, trendy, indie, or vintage websites — was doing it for me. (For starters, yellow gold — which is all I wear — gets no love these days!) I thought it was going to be really hard to find a ring that I liked that he liked too, which is why we decided to go shopping together. In terms of what to buy for Eric, the fact that there is less tradition involved in male engagement rings made it both easier and more confusing. He really had no idea what he wanted. He knew what he liked in wedding bands, so we decided to get him something markedly different for him to wear on his right hand, even once we are married. But beyond that, he was as clueless as I was.

4. Seriously though…rings are really mysterious. Neither Eric nor I knew what the “right” amount of money to spend on rings was. (Google it and you’ll get a lot of “that two months’ salary thing is nonsense; do whatever you’re comfortable with!” which is nice, but totally useless.) And we didn’t know how people typically pay for rings. Do they save up and then pay for them in full or do a down payment and then pay them off? We had no idea and we felt weird asking people. Eric was — no joke — basing all his knowledge of diamond sizes and prices on Kim Kardashian’s engagement ring. I eventually talked to some of my good friends, because, well, you can talk to your good friends about things like this without feeling like a nosy asshole, and, in the name of research, they were open about what their rings had cost; still, I didn’t feel like that was a great starting point because all of our incomes and tastes varied so widely.

He asked me what my expectations were but because I didn’t know what I wanted, I didn’t really have any. We looked at rings online but neither of us knew what a carat actually looked like in real life — what if the ring I fell in love with online cost, like, $100,000 when you put a stone that looked proportional on my finger/hand in it? — and then there were all the other factors to consider. Cut? Clarity? Are we getting ripped off? I tried to get out of having to think about that by telling Eric to just give me a budget, that I would be happy with anything. But I think he was afraid that I’d be disappointed by said budget. The night we finally set the budget, I seriously expected him to write it on a legal pad and wordlessly slide it across the table to me.

5. Shopping together helped us a lot. All our questions were finally answered the night we just went ring shopping. We were both anxious about it — going into a jewelry store was kind of intimidating, and I think we both felt pretty shy that night. And, honestly, think we were both nervous that the budget was going to be a problem — that once you put shiny things in front of me, I was going to stop being a rational person. While the idea that all women believe bigger is better when it comes to engagement rings is constantly reinforced in the media and it’s incredibly obnoxious, Eric and I both know damn well that I really love nice things, even when I cannot afford nice things.

That night, I tried on some different styles and settings, but nothing was doing it for us. It didn’t help that everything was white gold or platinum and I couldn’t visualize how it would look with yellow gold. But still, a lot of the styles that I thought I’d like just didn’t thrill Eric or me. After a little while, the saleswoman suggested I try on a solitaire in every single shape, just to get a starting point.

So down the row of loose stones we went. Round. Princess. Emerald. Oval. All of them were beautiful stones, but they just weren’t me. Finally, she gently placed the marquise on the yellow gold setting I had on my left ring finger.

Oh. There. This one is the right shape for my hand and fingers. Eric and I both knew it immediately. Honestly, I never saw that coming. I don’t know anyone who has a marquise diamond — especially one set in yellow gold. It’s just not a popular shape these days. But it was my shape.

Now that we had that figured out, we asked to see more stones. She brought us one that was a bit bigger than the original one I had tried on and once she set it on the setting, it was like the whole store sort of sighed happily. I was loving it, turning my hand this way and that, and then I asked Eric what he thought of it. I didn’t know how much he’d really care about this whole process, as he’s not the one wearing the thing, but I still wanted his opinion. I was expecting him to say, “Hey, if you like it, I like it.” But instead he said very softly, just to me, “I would be very proud to buy you that ring.”

In this whole process, that is the moment that stands out to me. I don’t know why, but that was the moment it was real for me, that I felt engaged, and have ever since. It wasn’t because I was wearing a ring; it was because I knew then, without a shadow of doubt, that we were both really ready and really excited to be engaged.

Also, I think we were both just pumped that the ring we both loved was actually under budget.

6. Buying someone a ring can be really fun. After we picked out my ring (and we did go to a few more stores the next day, just to be sure, but ultimately agreed that we would buy a ring the same way we did everything with this relationship — fast and sure of ourselves), we started looking for Eric’s ring. Buying Eric an engagement gift of some sort was really important to me. First, he chose to buy me a ring to symbolize certain things and I felt he deserved the same in return; I felt uncomfortable receiving without giving. Also, I wanted to make clear from the start that this is an equal partnership. It made sense to me to start the official process by saying, “Don’t just ask about my ring. He has a ring too!” (Which I do say, repeatedly, and a lot of people look confused, but whatever.)

We looked in several stores for his ring, but he didn’t love anything we were seeing so we started looking online. I also talked to my male coworkers to get advice and ideas. It was fun and really interesting — I started to get a better idea of what men have gone through for years. We also looked at watches and bracelets, but ultimately came back to rings. I was starting to get nervous that we wouldn’t find something before the engagement party, but then I came across a great ring on Etsy that we both really liked. Loved, actually. I contacted the seller and asked if he could do a “shotgun engagement” and he said he could.

I wasn’t expecting that I would feel so excited when I hit the button to actually buy the ring. I got this huge rush and e-mailed all my friends to tell them I had just bought Eric an engagement ring. I love buying gifts for people, but this one was just extra exciting.

7. Rings still foster competition. I thought we had moved past rating couples’ love or determining how long their marriage will last based on the size of engagement rings, but it turns out…I was wrong. Because of all the mystery involved, I read a lot of articles and online forums discussing rings when we were going through this process, along with talking to my friends and coworkers. Depending on who I was talking to/observing, I saw two different types of competitive conversations taking place. The first is the “My ring is bigger than her ring therefore it is better” conversation. (Then there’s a subset of that: “My ring is smaller than her ring but it’s a higher quality diamond, therefore my ring is still better.”) And then there’s the one I wasn’t expecting: “My ring is teeny tiny/conflict-free/a ruby/only cost $20/Oh yeah? Well I don’t even have a ring and I’ve been married 20 years!!/Well I had my ring finger surgically removed to show my love because a marriage isn’t about a ring!!!!!” Well, no shit a marriage isn’t about a ring. I understand being proud of a ring — or the lack thereof — but I don’t really understand why that pride is so often displayed at the expense of others. I love hearing about other people’s choices, but I hate that we live in a society where women are screwed for both liking and not liking rings.

I’m still learning how to care for the ring (do I wear it to bed? in the shower? to yoga?) and how to handle it when people want to talk about it beyond my comfort level or get competitive, but I’m definitely getting used to it. And I do like it. It’s pretty, it’s shiny, and it reminds me of a special thing that Eric and I did together and of the big things we are planning to do in the next few years.