A battle for the hearts, minds and fingers of the nation's high school students is being waged in the tiniest of spaces: the side panels of senior class rings.
School mascots and graduation year, the hallmarks of rings in the past, are being bumped aside or minimized to make room for "pride sides" -- minuscule designs that would be hard to link to in-class accomplishment, including zodiac and peace signs, skateboarders, ethnic flags, rock climbers and figure skaters.
And there are thousands more options, an explosion of choice that is part of the industry's efforts to revive interest in a tradition that may have peaked with poodle skirts. Companies are turning to high-tech sales tools, lower-priced mystery metals and overall fashion trends to compete against the unending similarly priced choices teens have to reward themselves for completing high school. ("Do I want a mini-iPod or a ring that is dangerously close to something my parents wore?")
Although ring companies still employ campus representatives, they have begun pointing students toward the Internet, where "configurators" enable would-be buyers to design rings and view the results before committing. Product developers attend jewelry and accessory trade shows to plug into the latest fads, then incorporate them into designs.
"I joke that our slogan should be 'Bling-bling, buy a class ring,'" says Deb Gabor, director of retail marketing for ArtCarved, which sells school rings in jewelry stores.
When you throw in the hundreds of ring options -- from color, cut and adornment of the stone to type of metal and style of ring -- it can make flipping through a half-pound ring catalogue about as much fun as cramming for the SAT. And although price remains an issue for some students, relevance may be a bigger one, educators and people in the industry say. Being true to one's school is increasingly taking a back seat to being true to oneself.
"We are kind of losing touch with the idea of a ring bringing a class together as a unit. With the ring evolving into me-me-me product design, the school is less and less a part of the process," says Kean Chan, product manager for Austin-based Balfour, one of the big three companies that sell rings on campuses.
A few schools, especially more traditional private ones, are moving back to the one-ring concept, which they see as more unifying, Chan and others say. Ring companies are also dealing with a backlash over too much choice by streamlining catalogues and pricing structures that can seem as complicated as calculus.
The equation was simpler before the mid-1970s, when "activity panels" and fashion rings that bore little resemblance to their traditional counterparts were introduced by ArtCarved, which is owned by the same company as Balfour.
"Those designs led to one-upmanship, and it kind of got out of hand," Chan says. "Once the genie is out of the bottle, you can't put it back in. Who doesn't want choice?"
About half the nation's students purchase a class ring, according to industry estimates. That's down about 15 percent from a decade ago, says Chan. Given prom bids, grad night, senior portraits and graduation announcements, "the price of being a senior is astronomical," says Jon Lyons, the student-body adviser at Pasadena High School in California. "Some do say, 'I'd rather have a ring than go to the prom.' It's a series of choices students and parents have to make."
With the average cost of a ring about $250 to $275, one of the first expenses to go may be a piece of jewelry whose post-graduation destination is the sock drawer.
When students buy rings, educators say, they often try to save money by choosing a less costly nonprecious metal while still going all out to personalize it.
The demand for personalization can be traced to the proliferation of campus activities over the past 50 years, according to Jostens, a ring manufacturer based in Minneapolis. It's not unusual for a school to offer 20 sports activities, plus band, choir, drama and other groups, says Tim Larson, vice president of marketing for Jostens, which sold its first class ring in 1921.
"We live in a customized and personalized society. All you have to do is listen to all of the cell phone rings. Everyone wants to have some uniqueness and be a part of the group," says Rich Stoebe, director of communications for Jostens.
By regarding rings as self-expression, students are redefining them, manufacturers say.
Requests for symbols of faith, from a cross to a Psalm, are increasing. Many appear on rings for home-schooled children, with "Deus Veritas Familia" (God, truth, family) or "Home Education" circling the stone where the high school name would be. Since ArtCarved introduced a home-school line in 2000, sales have increased 25 percent.
Sports that usually don't offer a varsity letter -- from kayaking and windsurfing to martial arts and motocross -- have also become insignias on rings.
To capitalize on what Gabor calls the "super hot" personalization trend reflected in Tiffany initial necklaces and personalized handbags, ArtCarved came up with a line last year that turns a student's experience into a mini-tribute.
"You can take the personalization all the way down to the position you played and the jersey number you wore in a sport," Gabor says. "You weren't just in the band, you were first chair. You weren't just a cheerleader, you were captain."
The "bling-bling factor" is manifested in diamonds or other stones that pop up as the zeroes in class years, she says. Jostens has a new line that allows students to incorporate stones in their names.