Engagement Rings: A Symbol of Eternal Love or A Noose Around Your Neck

Recently I was talking with a guy I just met, and the issue of marriage was brought up. He expressed that he knows that he wants to be married; however, he doesn’t want to end up broke trying to get there! Having some inclination of the nature of his concern, I couldn’t help but ask probing questions to hear more. His concern was essentially the price tag comparable to a mortgage that accompanies present-day engagement and wedding rings, in addition to the wedding ceremony and reception.

I found myself talking about this exact same issue again last Friday while at happy hour with two of my friends; they asked me how I felt about having a wedding, should I ever get married, and what my stance was on “the ring.” While my views regarding this subject are very strong (as in the case with most things,) I want to take you through the journey I myself experienced which gave birth to the sentiments I possess today.

During my undergraduate days, I found myself in many conversations, mostly with young women, about wedding and engagement rings. Considering the fact that I was in a space of higher learning, I desperately wanted to discuss more relevant topics, like the hyper-polarization of the distribution of wealth or the vandalized identity of the collective African American community. In spite of my quiet and sometimes overlooked plea, I still found that I was being asked by my peers to share my thoughts on engagement and wedding rings. While my mind couldn’t have been further from that topic, my innate inquisitive nature forced me to really reflect and ask myself, “What and how do I feel about wedding rings?”

After listening (with a little shock and horror) to the way in which these young women spoke about this subject, I knew I didn’t share the same perspectives. They would go on and on and on about the exact cut, carat size, “value” of the ring and whether they would have a gold, silver, or platinum band! I remember thinking to myself, “God….are they serious and is this really happening to me?” These young women spoke so emphatically about pieces of jewelry, yet never spoke once about the quality or type of marriage they wanted or the qualities they desired in their potential life partner, husband or soul mate, which truly disturbed me!

While in the midst of this outbreak of the Victorian Era, I wondered how they came to hold the strong convictions they possessed. Asking the question, “What do wedding/engagement rings mean to you?” I heard many responses, such as a “symbols of eternal love and devotion," a "declaration to the world of one’s unwavering commitment to another soul," a "tangible representation of spiritual unity between two people” among other explanations. One can’t help but be moved by the intoxicating terminology used to express the underlying significance of these rings. Nevertheless, I still felt compelled to go a step further and ask how the ring itself came have the profound connotations attached to it. What were its origins and how and why have they become so widespread and for lack of a better term fashionable?

Surprisingly, none of my peers knew the historical context about engagement and wedding rings, despite their fervent intentions on having one. Also, if wedding rings are symbols of eternal love and devotion, how is it that we are able to place a monetary value (and a high one at that) on something that represents the most immeasurable facet of life and love!

Feeling very strongly about knowing the history of present-day phenomena, this is what I’ve found about the history of wedding rings: The birthplace of the wedding ring, dating back to Ancient Kemet (also known as Egypt) originally consisted of braided pieces of shrubs and weeds that grew along the Nile River, which were placed on either the fingers or wrists and worn to adorn the body. With the circle as a sign of eternity, a force without beginning and end and the center as a gateway to both things known and hidden, the original Egyptians gave reverence to this ring as the symbolic representation of the endless joining of two souls. With the delicate state of weeds and shrubs, ivory, bone and leather were soon introduced as a more permanent material for these marital ornaments.

Since that time and after the destruction of Ancient Egypt at the hands of Alexander the Great Destroyer, this tradition of the exchange of rings swept across Europe where Romans altered the representation of wedding rings; Roman men gave rings to women they selected as a sign of ownership, instead of an indication of endless love. It was during this time, that metallurgy was presented where iron [and later gold] was used to create Roman wedding rings with engravings. Over time, wedding rings became institutionalized as the emblem of one’s undeniable marital status. This naturalization of an exchange of rings during the wedding ceremony gained increased popularity through religious influence from the Christian and later Catholic Church in 860 AD and over time, it has permeated holy spaces across the globe.

There is another, more influential component of the widespread popularity of wedding rings; an entire industry surrounding the production, distribution, and marketing of these coveted jewels. World renowned diamond companies, such as DeBeers, exploded into the market during the late 1880s, which, interestingly enough, were established right after The Berlin Conference, a moment in history better known as the “Scramble for Africa.” During my second year of college, I was introduced to this historical event by my mentor and it profoundly inspired my perspectives about the diamond industry. It was at this assembly that political leaders from France, Britain, Italy, German, Belgium, and Portugal came together to literally divide the African continent, its people and the resources, which forever changed the course of history.

DeBeers, a Belgian corporation founded in 1888 in Johannesburg, South Africa by Cecil Rhodes (one of histories most notorious terrorists) is one of the World’s largest diamond companies, grossing over 6.5 billion dollars. The Williamson Diamond Mine, an English company is another famous diamond business, located in Tanzania. Other European diamond companies, like Cullinan, the Premier Diamond Company, and countless others have built billion dollar companies through two key features: a) the surge of an unrelenting capitalist ideology and b) the implementation of oppressive, dehumanizing and imperialist mechanisms towards natural-born citizens on the African terrain.

It is no secret at all how diamonds are manufactured: native citizens from South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and other countries are coerced, (due to the nation’s severely depressed economic state as a direct result of colonialism and Structural Adjustment Programs), beaten and tortured into submission to extract these stones from the earth which holds their ancestral memoirs. Additionally, with the inherent inequitable nature of the capitalist market, those that are laborers receive wages that are substantially disproportionate to that of the owners of these terrorist organizations.

Knowing the inhumane and classist conditions of this industry, how could I wear jewelry that has the blood, sweat, tears, and degradation of those individuals whose blood also flows through my veins? Whenever I’ve shared my views about wedding and engagement rings, people always attempt to make the argument about not purchasing conflict diamonds. My rebuttal to this is simple: all diamonds are full of conflict given the fact that they are extracted from the earth by the hands of those who, while the originators of the land, are not the recipients of the billions of dollars that these companies generate.

For me, I have firmly resolved that I don’t need a ring, as it will not determine whether or not I’m actually going to marry my eternal partner, nor does it determine the quality of the marriage that I’m going to have. An eternal promise of fidelity, love, and unity is made with a genuine heart and spirit, not a tangible representation of that. It’s unfortunate that in our society, we rarely think about why we do some of the things we do or have beliefs in certain things, as in the case of the conversations I had with the young women in college. There’s an unfortunate knee-jerk response that our global culture has to things like engagement rings, getting married, going to college, etc.

When will we as a society ever get to a place where we actually ask ourselves these necessary questions instead of being confined to the socialization and encoding process we’ve all endured? When will people begin to realize that the choices we think we make have actually already been made for us by larger institutional forces like capitalism, patriarchal ideology, and socially-constructed gender roles. In this case, little girls are programmed to believe that they must have a big diamond ring in addition to a wedding with all the trimmings, while little boys are indoctrinated to accept that they must give a woman a “socially acceptable” diamond ring to make her truly happy. This "that's the way it is" mentality is further reinforced through strategic marketing techniques designed to pull on the heart strings of consumers everywhere: "A Diamond is Forever" and "Every Kiss Begins with Kay" are undeniably memorable phrases employed to capture the minds, hearts, and moreover wallets of betrothed couples, as well as experienced ones hellbent on making that special someone "happy!"

The deep historical symbolism behind wedding rings is quite intoxicating and truly can make anyone fall in accordance with its meaning. But knowing the evolution that it's been through and the present-day dehumanizing feature attached to it, it really makes you ask yourself, "Do I really need a ring after all?!"

My name is Jamekaa Flowers and while originally from Atlanta, Ga., I currently reside in Washington, DC where I work in education reform and community development for DC Public Schools. My lifelong passions include deconstructing the numerous "isms" (i.e. sexism, racism, classism, etc.) that plague our society and challenge people to think critically about how they are both affected by and affect others with these "isms." My mission to ignite the global mobilization of people of African descent through mental emancipatory "re-education" models reflecting core/authentic Pan-Africanist elements will be my legacy....I Am We! Visit Jamekaa's Blog here.

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