What you pay for or what you’re selling

As we enter the high season for weddings, Slate has devoted an entire issue to weddings. One article examines the tradition of the engagement ring. Most accounts of the popularity of the diamond engagement ring attribute the rise to the De Beers advertising campaign begun in the 1930s, which culminated in 1947 with the ubiquitous line, “Diamonds are forever.” But a legal scholar argues that there are other, more socio-economically determined factors that contributed to the increased popularity of the engagement diamond ring.

Until the 1930s, a woman jilted by her fiance could sue for financial compensation for “damage” to her reputation under what was known as the “Breach of Promise to Marry” action. As courts began to abolish such actions, diamond ring sales rose in response to a need for a symbol of financial commitment from the groom, argues the legal scholar Margaret Brinig—noting, crucially, that ring sales began to rise a few years before the De Beers campaign. To be marriageable at the time you needed to be a virgin, but, Brinig points out, a large percentage of women lost their virginity while engaged. So some structure of commitment was necessary to assure betrothed women that men weren’t just trying to get them into bed. The “Breach of Promise” action had helped prevent what society feared would be rampant seduce-and-abandon scenarios; in its lieu, the pricey engagement ring would do the same. (Implicitly, it would seem, a woman’s virginity was worth the price of a ring, and varied according to the status of her groom-to-be.)

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