Friday, March 22, 2013

Goes around, comes around

Maybe these things are cyclical, because this doesn't feel entirely new, but it seems we've rediscovered that middle school is awful. A parent writes (anonymously) to the NYT parenting/mothering blog that her daughter is in seventh grade and doesn't want to go to school. Should she transfer? We're told much about the school and her academics, not why she doesn't want to go, which would probably give us the answer. Bullying? Transfer. Seventh grade is unpleasant? Stay put - it'll be over soon enough. 

Also cyclical: the re-re-rediscovery that diamond engagement rings, rather than being an essential fact of human sexuality, are - gasp - a cultural construction. Rohin Dhar at Business Insider has penned the latest exposé, although in 2007, Meghan O'Rourke brought us to about the same place. Dhar begins with what I'm going to read as hyperbole: "American males enter adulthood through a peculiar rite of passage - they spend most of their savings on a shiny piece of rock." Jewelry aside, is marriage how men these days enter adulthood? And are they really rendered so destitute by ring-purchases? His point -- "Diamonds are not actually scarce, make a terrible investment, and are purely valuable as a status symbol." -- is a mix of true and eh. Is anyone buying a diamond ring - or a pair of pants, or anything other than a stock or similar -- as an investment?  

As a rule, I like the idea of telling people that things they think they must buy are actually optional. And there probably are men out there who need to hear that the world won't end if they don't go broke buying a ring. But these revelations always come up short. Yes, marketing is a thing; companies want us to buy their products; companies mark up prices to turn a profit; and if we knew where just about anything we owned/ate came from, we'd be horrified. This isn't diamond rings. This is capitalism. This is why we don't all go around in potato sacks. (Diamonds are probably worse than sneakers, are definitely worse than quinoa, but might not be worse than other gemstones. It's possible to win at unconventional and fail at ethical.) 

And, allow me to repeat myself, but these revelations inevitably inspire comment threads of individuals explaining how non-sheep-like they were or will be in their own formation of government-stamped heterosexual unions made official when the man offers the woman a precious metal band with a gemstone in it. 

Meanwhile, marketing isn't everything. The human interest in adornment isn't unique to capitalist societies. Nor the human interest in symbols. The value of a diamond (or diamond-looking) ring isn't necessarily status, at least not in the way Dhar suggests. Some couples want wedding jewelry that looks like what it is. And we live in the society we do, shaped by forces, marketing and more, that preceded us - a diamond or diamond-looking ring of a certain shape says "nuptial." The stone doesn't have to be any particular size or authenticity for that to be the case. 

Personally - fine, on this topic, why not the personal - I'm not interested in jewelry, can maybe get it together to wear earrings, but mostly not even that. (Shiny ballet flats, yes. Sparkly nail polish, yes. Jewelry, never saw the point.) The only jewelry I wear, 99% of the time, is the symbolic variety, so yes, I like that it looks like what it is. 


Britta said...

I know someone who studies diamond mines & the diamond trade in Angola, and he told me that diamonds have absolutely no resale value, unless it's basically the Hope diamond. Once you buy one, it's worth less than the gold band it's placed on if you try to pawn it. I was very surprised to hear that, given how much more expensive than gold it is.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

That may be, but is anyone buying a diamond ring as an investment, with pawning or other resale in mind? Money can enter into the symbolism, but what matters in that case is that the man has spent $X and thus means business re: an impending wedding, not what the woman could resell the ring for. (Of course, if an engagement breaks, and the man gets the ring back, he can presumably propose with it again.)

Mostly, though, the value of a diamond or diamond-looking ring (separate from the actual material) is that it is what our society recognizes as an engagement ring. I'm not sure why it's supposed to matter that this only started to be the case relatively recently, or that marketing largely explains its origins. Things mean what they do - why are denim pants 'casual,' if they're no more comfortable than dressier pants? While obviously there are wealth-flaunting sorts, I'd guess that the overall motivation for choosing this stone/look is the desire for a piece of symbolic jewelry to be readily decipherable.