A number of bloggers have called attention to a fascinating work of art by D.C.'s very own Lee Gainer. She created a series of 20 prints entitled "Two Months' Salary," depicting what engagement rings a man can "afford" according to his profession. The piece questions the traditional idea that the "right" amount to spend is the equivalent of two months of pay.
It turns out that the "two months" metric was first promoted by DeBeers during the late 1940s, when the diamond conglomerate hoped to take advantage of the postwar economic boom and rush of young veterans to the altar. Previously, lavish engagement rings had been the exclusive provenance of the rich. For a great history of the engagement ring, check out this Meghan O'Rourke Slate piece from 2007. The rings originated as a sort of down payment on a girl's virginity. By requiring suitors to cough up major dough for the privilege of calling themselves betrothed, the wealthy — who prized virginity — hoped to discourage men from proposing just to get in a girl's knickers.
Today, it's pretty appalling to think about what the "two months' salary" metric means when the average American family holds about $8,000 in credit card debt alone. Indeed, one thing that struck me about Gainer's piece was how similar the most expensive and least expensive rings appear, once you get beyond the size of the actual "rock." Most of the rings have the same gaudy, more-is-more aesthetic, squeezing as many sparkly baubles as possible onto the band. I'm the kind of girl who likes getting flowers and who, despite being a child of divorce, is cautiously hopeful about someday entering into a feminist marriage. I totally understand the appeal of engagement rings in that they visibly mark a milestone in someone's life. And yet, the idea that they ought to be as expensive as possible is completely alien to me. As Conor Friedersdorf once wrote:
In a way, it's bizarre that women given engagement rings don't respond by saying something like, "I'd love to marry you." (Beat.) "And thank you so much for this ring. (Eyes welling up.) I cherish the thought behind it, and I'll keep it forever if you'd like. (Happy tears.) On the other hand, we could take it back and use the money to spend several months together in coastal Italy.
Or couples (of any gender) could mutually decide to mark their engagement with an affordable weekend holiday, or the mutual exchange of meaningful gifts, and then call their friends and family to "make it official." In a time of recession, the "two months' salary" tradition just makes less and less sense.
cross-posted at TAPPED