In Search of the Modern Engagement Ring
You know the scene. The bended knee, the glittering stone. The initial astonishment and subsequent answer in the enthusiastic affirmative. And the ring—always the ring—ready at hand, set, mounted, slipped on. A perfect fit. But most people I know don’t do the scene. Or the scene comes after a lot of talking and budgeting and Googling and bargaining. You never see the bargaining, neither the relationship bargaining nor the diamond bargaining.
My father is a jeweler, but I want to see the hunt for engagement ring from a couple’s perspective, so Will and Lauryn are letting me tag along as they shop. On the walk to the jewelry store Lauryn gets thirsty. I tell her they might have water there.
“I think they should,” she says.
“They should give you cookies, too,” I say. “And a little bit of liquor.” Lauryn and Will kiss on a street corner.
It’s Christmas day. We’re hoping the store is open. Will is anxious. Back at their apartment, he’d told me that he associates the diamond industry with getting ripped off. “That’s every thought I have about it. I’m overwhelmed with the fear of getting cheated.”
Indoors, it looks a little bit like a jewelry store crashed into someone’s grandmother’s house. A family of Russian dolls loiters on top of a large display case that snakes around the side of the store like a border, separating the customers from the sales staff. Behind the case hangs a framed portrait of some unnamed patriarchal figure wearing hunting gear. Photographs of satisfied customers with their diamonds dot the walls.
In addition to actual merchandise, colorfully wrapped sucking candies line the display. A plastic wedding cake couple kisses next to a figurine of Marilyn Monroe, and little phallic ring stands point upward. Beside them, necklaces, bracelets, and rings wink up through the glass with varying degrees of glint. A few of them feature gold chains, colored gemstones, or complexly poured platinum settings. Some of them look like your prom date’s studs, others like your rich aunt’s finest. Later, we will learn that there is half a million dollars worth of jewelry inside this showcase.
The owner of the store, a man in a three-piece suit who likes to refer to himself in the third person and will occasionally pop in with cheery remarks like “Aren’t you gonna have fun looking for a diamond?” is helping another couple, but turns to us while an assistant goes to get Lauryn’s water and asks “What, is a jewelry store making you nervous?” He sticks his tongue out. “It’s only your life!”
When it’s Will and Lauryn’s turn, Clyde, the owner, brings out a few stones for them to look at. Some come in parcel papers. I’ve seen my father and his diamond dealer friends use these. Usually they’re blue because this makes diamonds look whiter by underplaying the way the eye detects the color yellow.
“These are all certified,” Clyde explains. What he means is that they all have a report from the laboratories of the Gemological Institute of America (the GIA), stating their carat weight, color, clarity, and, for round brilliant diamonds of certain colors, cut.
The diamonds this shop sells don’t go below an I in color. Lauryn asks why not, and Clyde explains that they’d be yellow—and then she’d be “stuck with a yellow diamond. And you’re living with him.” Throughout our visit, Clyde cracks jokes (“she’s not that cute,” he says when Will and Lauryn look at a whiter stone). But it’s not just him. There’s something about the prospect of dropping large sums of cash that make people tell—and laugh at—unfunny jokes.
Clyde comes back with tweezers and a loupe and tells Will to “find the flaw.” He says he’ll teach him. “Put your elbow on the table.” Flaws can come in all shapes and sizes. If they appear on the exterior of the diamond, they’re called blemishes. Those on a stone’s interior are inclusions.
Lauryn decides that a one-carat diamond is too big for her.
Will: “She’s crazy, right?”
Clyde: “She’s cute.”
Before we leave, Clyde concedes that Will and Lauryn have to visit more than one shop before settling. But he does throw in that they won’t find a better price. Confidently, he prophesies, “I’m gonna sell him a diamond, because he might not like me, he likes Mary.” He points to his saleslady, a girl with a cleavage-liberating shirt.
After Clyde steps away, Mary shows Will and Lauryn some wedding bands.
“When are you guys getting married? Do you have a date?”
This is a complicated issue. Will and Lauryn have been married for four years. There were fewer than ten people at the ceremony, including the bride and groom.
“That was the timing that made sense for being married, but not the timing that made sense for having a wedding,” Will had explained to me. No judge, no rings. One day, they want a wedding with a rabbi and a chuppah. That’s one day. Today—or soon—they want the rings. They’re craving the rings. Will, especially. It’s not that he’s unprogressive. It’s that to him, as to many other people, the ring or lack thereof, is a signifier.
“Lauryn,” he put it frankly, “is very indecisive, so commitment isn’t in her vocabulary, and not wearing a ring has always been to me this emblem of lack of commitment on her part, so it will be nice that she’s in a position where she’ll be announcing to the world in some very subtle way that she is committed to me.”
Technically, there was once a ring. It was Will’s grandmother’s, and Will gave it to Lauryn when they got engaged.
“So it is this family heirloom, and I thought that that would be something that, like, a girl would want, but it turned out to be the exact opposite—”
“Nooo!” Lauryn half-protested. “It’s just that it was built up by your father really, and it just—”
“And my father, for some reason, did have the impression that this is a really—it’s a cloudy diamond, it’s nothing special.”
The truth is, Lauryn worried about losing the ring, this heirloom ring. Give it to one of Will’s nephews, she figured. They would appreciate it.
Before we left for the jewelry store, Lauryn said, half to me and half to Will, “I think it’ll mitigate your bitterness.”
“You hope it will mitigate my bitterness.”
“You said. You said if we get a ring and I wear it, you won’t—”
“That would be better…”
Better is what they’re looking for in this ring, in the $2,000 to $3,000 they’ve decided to spend on a diamond that Lauryn will put on her finger—and also a band they’ll each wear. Not the scene. Not the sky’s the limit. Not revelation and surprise and an unbargained purchase. Better.
Follow Lauryn and Will’s engagement ring stories and other diamond news in subsequent installments of Diamonds.
Note: names and identifying details in this article have been changed to preserve the anonymity of its subjects.
Photo by cjmartin
Read More by Alicia Oltuski: Precious Objects: A Story of Diamonds, Family, and a Way of Life
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