Register Friday | June 22 | 2018

Fingering Your Identity: How Rings Came to Represent Power, Passion and Profit

The Decanter

ENGAGEMENT RINGS: DeBEERS

When the Great Depression hit and jewel prices collapsed, the majority of the world’s diamonds were controlled by DeBeers, a South African company. In an effort to boost sales in the United States, the company—more of a cartel, really—hired the advertising agency N. W. Ayer to psychologically link the idea of romance with diamonds. Movie idols were given the jewels to be used as symbols of indestructible love while pictures of glamorous women wearing diamonds crept onto society pages. The Ayer plan even called for high schoolers to be lectured on diamond engagement rings so that their whole generation would know how to identify true love. It was an Ayer copywriter who suggested the slogan “A Diamond Is Forever.” (However, as Edward Jay Epstein notes in the Atlantic Monthly, “diamonds can in fact be shattered, chipped,0discoloured, or incinerated to ash.”) In a memo to DeBeers from the late 1950s, the ad agency stated, “Since 1939 an entirely new generation of young people has grown to marriageable age. To this new generation a diamond ring is considered a necessity to engagements by virtually everyone.” In recent years, DeBeers has turned its attention to men, with campaigns recommending that future husbands spend two months’ salary on an engagement ring. By that logic, Ben Affleck got off cheaply with the six-carat pink boulder he gave J. Lo last year.


WEDDING BANDS

This tradition goes back almost five thousand years, to when ancient Egyptian spouses exchanged plants twisted and braided into circles to represent their numinous, everlasting love. Rings were worn on the third finger of the left hand because the Egyptians believed that the vein from that finger went directly to the heart. The Romans later dubbed this the vena amoris , or love vein. Gold became the Christian betrothal-metal in 860 AD, when Pope Nicholas I decreed that matrimonial intent required a form of collateral; a gold ring showed the financial sacrifice a man was willing to make for his future wife. Of course, not everyone could afford gold. In early England, less fortunate men gave wedding bands made of rushes. In 1217, concerned about the widespread use of rush-rings to coax girls into consummating phony marriages, the Bishop of Salisbury declared the rush-ring exchange to be a valid legal contract. That put an end to that. England is also believed to hold the record for the smallest wedding band, which was made in 1518 for King Henry VIII’s daughter Mary. She was espoused to the French dauphin at the age of two. He was only seven months old.

Reformation-era Puritans rejected wedding rings as luxurious pagan indulgences, a practice continued by the early American settlers who preferred the more practical thimble as an engagement gift: after the wedding, the bottom of the thimble could be cut off to make a wedding band. In time, however, other American forces—market forces—took over the tradition. Pope Nicholas would be happy to see that some men sacrifice to the tune of $11,000US on Tiffany.com, although he may be less impressed with the websites cashing in on new same-sex marriage laws. Crystalrealm.com—providing “exquisite gifts from the realm of mystery and magic since 1983”—has an “exclusive collection” of such rings, although what’s gay about them is anyone’s guess.



KISS THE RING

In July 2002, Mexican president Vicente Fox caused an uproar when he kissed the ring of Pope John Paul II, breaking his country’s 140-year tradition of keeping the state separate from the church. The papal ring packs quite a symbolic punch for something so humble in appearance: it is a simple gold signet depicting St. Peter casting his net (the first pontiff was a fisherman before he became a disciple of Christ) and is engraved with the name of the reigning pope. Each new pope is given his own “Fisherman’s ring” as a symbol of his role as Peter’s successor. Upon the pontiff’s death, the Cardinal Chamberlain destroys the ring to symbolize the end of that pope’s authority. Bishops, too, wear rings; according to tradition, it symbolizes their marriage to the Church. The nun’s “profession ring” also uses wedding imagery. When a nun takes her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, she is said to become a bride of Christ. Some orders even engrave the name of the messianic groom on the inside of the ring.


JOSTENS

No discussion of rings is complete without mentioning Jostens, the Minneapolis company devoted to linking every moment of existence with a ring. Jostens.com claims that their rings help customers “remember the greatest years of their lives”—implying, of course, that once you have the ring, the greatest years of your life are over. Unsatisfied with just high school, college and sporting events, Jostens has expanded into some unusual niche markets: there are now rings that “recognize the achievements of your home schoolers,” while the 9/11 Commemorative Ring “is your chance to proudly display your brave spirit.”


SPORTY BLING

Early examples of this tradition are low-key, like the simple gold band of the original 1893 Stanley Cup rings, given to the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association. One such ring (originally owned by J. Lowe) sold for $31,384.29US last year at Leland’s, a leading sports auction house. Montreal players hold not only the first Stanley Cup rings, but also the most: the Canadiens’ Henri Richard won eleven rings, followed by teammates Jean Béliveau and Yvan Cournoyer with ten each and Claude Provost with nine. Championship rings have become considerably more lavish since 1893. After winning the 2003 World Series, the Florida Marlins received gargantuan finger-tumours encrusted with 228 white diamonds, 13 rubies and a teal diamond. And forget anything you may have heard about doping in professional football—clearly all the steroids have been saved for the Super Bowl rings. For the 2002 champs, the New England Patriots, Jostens (yes, that Jostens) designed a fourteen-karat white-gold band with 143 diamonds. The Patriots’ logo is made out of garnet and sapphire and is surrounded by diamonds. A platinum Lombardi Trophy sits in the background. Each year, the National Football League pays for the winners to be outfitted with up to 150 rings at $5,000US a pop and, like most sports memorabilia, the rings gain value with age. Just ask Lester Hayes, former LA Raiders quarterback, who hocked his Super Bowl XVIII ring for $800US in order to cover an emergency dental surgery. After Hayes failed to claim the ring, the shop put it up on eBay; within twenty-four hours, the bidding was up to $11,000US. Hayes then offered the broker $16,000US, but the ring eventually sold online for $18,200US.


HAMMERED IRON

Like nuns, Canadian engineers are endowed with rings once they’ve formally accepted certain obligations. The hammered iron bands are handed out at the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer, a private ceremony with an original text by Rudyard Kipling. (Inspired by the Canadian example, American students founded a similar organization, the Order of the Engineer.) Engineering legend states that the rings given out at the first Ritual, in 1925, came from the wreckage of Quebec City’s ill-fated Quebec Bridge, which collapsed twice during its construction. As such, the ring has come to act as a reminder of its owner’s occupational fallibility. It is worn on the little finger of the “working hand,” allowing you to identify engineers in bars and approach or dodge them, depending on your taste.


ETERNITY & RIGHT-HAND RINGS

The final word goes to DeBeers, the masters of turning rings into identity and identity into profit. Faced with a glut of small, Soviet diamonds in the 1960s, the company crowded a bunch of them onto bands and created the “eternity ring.” The ensuing marketing campaign was aimed at older women looking to commemorate recaptured love. As one DeBeers ad puts it, “Nothing says you’d get married all over again like a Diamond Anniversary Band.” The company’s latest brainchild is the right-hand ring for liberated ladies. The ads read, “Your left hand declares your commitment. Your right hand is a declaration of independence. Women of the world, raise your right hand.” Women of the world, raise your middle finger.