As a junior at J.E.B. Stuart High School in 1967, Tom Scarry remembers being pulled out of PE to order his class ring. Like everyone else, he provided his initials, his ring size and $19.75 and received a 10-karat gold ring with the school and county seals on either side.
Those days are long gone.
Today, class rings are more like wedding dresses than school-issued keepsakes. They come in collections with names such as Heritage, Signature and Tradewinds, in styles such as Conqueror, Enchanter and Champagne. They're made of yellow or white gold, cheap metal alloys or pricey platinum, with stone cuts and colors that include glittering rows of real diamonds. With hundreds of options -- symbols for everything from rock music to calf roping to paintball -- a ring can be all about the student and only incidentally about the school.
The $19.75 price is also a thing of the past. Today's class rings average $250, and many students spend a lot more. Plain metal alloy models sell for less than $50; a platinum ring with all the fixings can exceed $2,200. Along with yearbooks, photos and other graduation products, the rings are part of a $2 billion industry -- even though demand for them has been slipping.
This month, companies are warning seniors to hurry if they want rings in time for graduation. But according to Jostens Inc., a company that has sold class rings since 1921, only one-third of high school students still buy them, down from half in the 1960s. Theories abound as to why -- a drop in school spirit, more foreign-born families who don't know the tradition or perhaps a reluctance to wear what Mom and Dad wore.
At Arlington's Washington-Lee High School this month, a representative displayed graduation items from a Fairfax City company called National Quality Products.
Ana Mejia, 17, hurried over to claim the ring she had ordered weeks earlier. "I'm the first one in my family to be graduating, so it's something huge," she said, beaming at the $444 white gold and lavender ring that became the talk of her lunch table.
Ana's mother, an immigrant from El Salvador, paid for most of it. "She was like, 'Why's it so much?' " Ana said. "I just picked it without realizing it."
One youth admired a picture of a ring studded with 17 diamonds and declared it to be "tight." But few students filled out orders. A group of seniors said they agreed with their parents that the rings were too expensive, especially given senior-year costs such as portraits and proms. One teen mused about what he'd put on a ring -- "a microphone; I'm a rapper" -- then vowed to buy one at Wal-Mart, which, like most class-ring companies, lets you design your own online.
Dan Cavanaugh, 17, walked on by. It wasn't for lack of school spirit, he said; he just doesn't like the rings' flashy appearance. "They look kind of funny, they look kind of big and -- I don't know what the word is -- too extravagant, I guess."
Don't tell that to his principal, Gregg Robertson, who wears a jawbreaker-size gold Virginia Tech ring for which he paid $700 in 1995. "The diamond in it's real; I went all-out," he said.
Some students are eager to approximate the large, bejeweled rings of rappers or athletes.
"It's the generation of bling-bling," said Joanne Butts, the National Quality Products representative who was at Washington-Lee. "If they're into jewelry because of the rapper thing, they'll go all the way."
Rich Stoebe, a spokesman for Jostens, defended the cost, comparing it to a few months of cell phone bills or the price of a prom dress. To counter the argument that rings are a bad investment because many students stop wearing them after high school (eBay has a steady supply), companies market to juniors and sophomores.
They are more popular at some schools than at others. At Robinson High School in Fairfax County, about 300 of 688 juniors ordered rings this year. At Cardozo High School in the District, an assistant principal said most students couldn't afford them; only about five of 151 seniors ordered rings this year.
A few schools still conduct ring ceremonies, with homemade casseroles and various rituals, but the tradition is fading, Butts said. She blamed the explosion of options.
"It used to be if you saw a ring on someone's finger, you knew exactly where they went to school. It used to be more of a unity thing," she said. "Now you have kids come up and say, 'It was too many choices, I just couldn't pick one.' "
National Quality Products' owner is Tom Scarry, the J.E.B. Stuart graduate who bought his ring for $19.75 (and sold it a few years later when the price of gold shot up). A 31-year veteran of the industry, he said that in the early 1980s, a company called ArtCarved "opened the Pandora's Box" of choices. "Instead of getting the school seal that the principal said you had to get, you could get band, you could get cheerleading," he said. "Unfortunately, once it became a personal thing, it was no longer a school ring."
At Fairfax High School, he added, sales plummeted 20 years ago when the school replaced its former mascot, Johnny Reb, with a crossed swords design. "Fairfax had a town identity," he said, "and that was no longer the ring that their dads and granddads had."
Some private schools still don't allow much choice, and sales are higher there, he said. Recently, 41 of 42 graduating seniors at Chatham Hall, a private girls' school in Virginia, bought virtually identical rings.
But Stoebe, whose company offers more than 500 options, including a North Korean flag and a "heating, air conditioning and refrigeration" design, says today's teenager is not interested in a ring like everyone else's.
"High school students really want to tell their own story," he said, adding that more home-schooled students are ordering rings these days. "Not only their affiliation, but also their own ambition can be captured on that ring."
Outside the cafeteria at Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School, Yecenia Ruiz, 17, handed over the $75 down payment for a $319 10-karat white gold ring.
Were her friends ordering them, too? "Some of them it means more to than others," she said. "Some people have a harder time getting through school. It means a lot to them to graduate ."
The class ring can sometimes mean more to the person paying for it than to the one who will wear it. At T.C. Williams, Alma Yopp eyed the sample rings as she waited for her granddaughter, Nicole De Los Reyes. "When I was in high school, all I could wait for was the class ring," Yopp said.
Nicole arrived, trailed by a friend who wasn't buying. With a tiny sneer, Nicole, 17 , said she preferred one of the smaller styles. Asked what symbols she wanted, she shrugged -- tennis, maybe. The thrill Yopp remembered seemed to be missing.
"You sure you want one?" Yopp asked. Nicole nodded slowly, and Yopp said, "Yeah, I think you should have one."
As Nicole and her friend discussed college plans and the ring representative filled out the form, Yopp asked again. "Are you sure you're going to wear it?"
"Um, maybe, I don't know," Nicole said. "I guess so, since it's so expensive."
But when her grandmother turned away, Nicole wrinkled her nose and said she guessed not.