Rebecca Vipond-Brink never wanted an engagement ring.
For her first marriage, Vipond-Brink, a freelance writer and editor in Chicago, had a $6,000 ring. “I hated every second of wearing it, because we had a really tough time financially, and I was walking around with thousands of dollars on my hand. And I thought we could get rid of so many problems if I could just take this off and not have it anymore,” she said, adding that she also didn’t feel safe walking around with it.
When Vipond-Brink got married a second time in 2015, she wanted her finger bare of an engagement ring. “I would much rather put the money toward the wedding or the honeymoon or our bills or whatever,” she said. “Anything seems like a better expense than a ring.”
The national average price paid for an engagement ring reached $6,163 in 2016, according to wedding brand The Knot. But for some, the diamond engagement ring is losing its luster.
And for a variety of reasons. For Vipond-Brink, her financial priorities changed between her first and second marriages. “Engagement rings have no legitimate utility,” she said. “That lack of utility becomes even more stark when a $6,000 ring is equivalent to 6 percent of your student debt being paid off or 15 percent of your yearly salary.”
As far as marking the commitment in a relationship, living together has become the de facto engagement ring. About a third more U.S. adults were in cohabiting relationships in 2016 compared to nine years earlier, according to the Pew Research Center. “Once you move in together, then people begin to treat you as an indivisible couple. If you’re going to invite one to a party, you have to invite both,” said Stephanie Coontz, historian and author of the book “Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage.”
While relationships have changed tremendously in the past decades and centuries, the engagement ring has been among the last relationship markers to evolve. In the 15th century, Archduke Maximillian of Austria gifted his fiancee the world’s first diamond engagement ring, though the expensive practice did not initially spread among the general population, said Coontz, who is also the director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families.
“By the 1950s, you got kind of a cookie-cutter approach to marriages. Everybody was wearing white. Everybody’s supposed to have a diamond ring,” Coontz said. “[Women’s] role was to be a wife, so the engagement ring was a sign of, ‘Okay, I’m moving into that role. This proves that I’m attractive to men. It proves that I can get a husband. It proves how much he loves me, depending on the size of the ring.’ ”
Engagement rings also served as a status symbol during a time when the average woman got married before 21. “Even though the nature of marriage and the nature of relationships has changed immensely over the last 40 years, becoming much more egalitarian, these kinds of symbols have been the last to die out — the man who’s supposed to propose, the woman who’s supposed to be full of delight and joy, and the woman who’s supposed to show off the ring,” Coontz said.
Slowly, some people are changing those traditions. Same-sex marriages have fewer established customs, so people are free to create more of their own. For example, after dating for almost nine years, Rose Cameron and her now-wife got married in April while on vacation in Florida. “There was no proposal. There was no engagement ring. It was just a mutual decision,” said Cameron, a pharmacy business manager in Fruitport, Mich.
But when she told people about her decision to get married, they looked to her hand. The couple designed their own wedding bands, but neither woman wears an engagement ring. “It’s just something that is expected. ‘Oh, you got engaged? Where’s the ring? I want to see the ring,’ ” Cameron said. “I think people automatically look for the ring, and we didn’t have one. They didn’t ask or anything, but they definitely looked for one.”
Vipond-Brink said people don’t have much of a reaction when they realize she doesn’t own an engagement ring. “It could be that I’ve cultivated this group of people around me who are of my way of thinking. I don’t have a lot of traditional people in my life,” she said.
Skipping the engagement ring doesn’t always mean skipping symbols of commitment. For instance, Olivia Harlow got engaged during a camping trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains with her then-boyfriend. “We kind of just got into this deep conversation, and it came up, and we talked about it for a few hours,” said Harlow, who got married in 2016. “He said: ‘If I had a ring right now, I would ask you.’ ”
She still said yes. The next day, Harlow and her fiance got tattoos instead — three lines tattooed on her ring finger and two lines on her now-husband’s finger — a commitment that’s much more permanent than any piece of jewelry. She said her close friends understood the decision not to spend thousands on an engagement ring. Six months later, her fiance unexpectedly gave her an engagement ring, featuring a yellow sapphire instead of a diamond.
Even as some couples are skipping the engagement ring or choosing a stone other than a diamond, Coontz said symbols such as the engagement ring are still largely sticking around.
“We have just transformed what these relationships are, and I think you’re seeing more and more variation in the types of wedding ceremonies that people go through, the types of things they do before marriage, the types of marriages that they work out,” she said. “I would certainly expect that more people will depart from the old tradition, but it seems to have very long legs.”