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My mom has a story she loves to tell about her engagement to my father. She was a recently divorced 25-year-old when they met; he, at 28, was ready for marriage and felt that she was the one. After five months of dating — engagements came a lot sooner in 1969 — he popped the question. She demurred. Though she told me later she knew he was the right guy, she didn’t want to rush into anything, not when dating was so much fun. He kept asking. Finally, she responded in mock frustration, “Fine, if you get me a diamond wedding band, I’ll marry you.” His response: “Let’s go shopping.” (My parents are as sassy as they are romantic.) He bought the ring; two months later they walked down the aisle, and to this day they both treasure the jewelry and the story. My dad says, “Two things Mom learned from our pre-engagement: I wasn't cheap — I bought her a big ring — and I was very persistent.”
The tradition of engagement rings is hardly new. Ancient Egyptians are thought to be the originators of the tradition, though the diamond as the modern-day engagement standard didn’t come about until Frances Gerety created the wildly effective “A Diamond Is Forever” tagline for De Beers in 1947. It was once thought that the fourth finger of your left hand contained a vein that ran straight to your heart, which is why we wear rings there — romantic, right? Of course today’s engagement rings come in all shapes and sizes and with an array of gems, and some people don’t go for the tradition at all. As with weddings, doing it your own way has become the new norm. Of course, there’s always help to be gained from the experiences of others. Here’s what 13 people had to share about the process.
1. You don’t have to spend two month’s salary on a ring.
My fiancé bought my engagement ring at a pawn shop with his unemployment check and proposed to me five days after I graduated from Auburn. I was crazy to say yes! People always ask me if it is a "family piece." I say it probably was from somebody's family.
He realized that I was the woman he wanted to marry and went and bought me a ring he could afford. Every time I think about it, I am reminded of how much he loves me and how precious I am to him. I've heard of people "upgrading" their rings when they get older, but I will never part with mine. —Alana, 37, Alabama
2. You can buy your ring online. (Really!)
Back in 2002, we were 25 and in grad school and poor as church mice. After a lot of back-and-forth, including hand-wringing over whether or not engagement rings were feminist, it was decided that we'd look for a vintage ring. Everything was way too expensive. So then we looked on eBay and found one that I liked. It was in our price range, and it looked so sparkly and friendly. And we both were like, “Ooh! It's so pretty!” But buying jewelry on eBay is insane, right? Yes, clearly, that's a terrible idea. But we bid on it. And we won it.
It arrived a couple weeks later in a tacky little heart-shaped ring box, but the ring was so sweet and pretty and sparkly. We took it to an auction house in Boston that does free jewelry appraisals. To our surprise, it was worth maybe a little more than we paid. —Katherine, 40, New York City
3. Ring communication is emblematic of ALL communication.
We’d been dating about nine months, and we were starting to have conversations about getting married. I’d said, “I’m not into all the trappings; if you want to save money, you can save money on a ring.” He starts dropping hints, and I’m thinking the proposal is coming any minute now. We walk into his apartment and he gestures across the room to a bike I hadn’t noticed and was like, “This is for you.” Earlier in our relationship, he’d taught me how to ride a bike, and at some point I realized “Oh, he’s using the bike to propose to me.” He’d taken “I don’t need a fancy ring” to mean “I don’t need a ring at all,” which was not the case.
My dad mentioned that he had my grandmother’s ring, and we decided we’d make our own using one of its stones (and we’d treat the bike like a wedding present). My fiancé had his grandfather’s ring, which was gold. He decided to have that melted down for the band, and we’d put my grandmother’s stone in it. But after we figured out this plan, he came over and got down on one knee and handed over a box. Inside was a very ugly engagement ring. I was like, “Why are you doing this?” and he said, “You said you wanted a ring.” I can’t remember if they let him return it or gave him a credit. What a terrible waste of money. It was a second chance to question his judgment and listening skills.
Eventually I did end up with my ring, which is beautiful. But it’s in a safe deposit box, because a couple years later we got divorced. I think the process of engagement ring shopping was really emblematic of important ways we did not communicate well. As with any part of a relationship, getting engaged is a good test of whether you’re really willing to meet each other’s needs. —Jessica, 44, Washington, DC
4. There is such a thing as a feminist engagement ring — it’s called “doing whatever you want.”
My fiancée just wasn’t that into valuable material goods being given from a man to a woman as part of our decision to live happily ever after, but she also came from a culture where rings are a pretty big deal. She was on the fence. She had a group of friends she enjoyed monthly boozy brunches with: a Sociology PhD, some book editors—a rather feminist and lefty bunch. So I hatched a plan: Why doesn't she ask them what they think? I sent her off to brunch secure in the knowledge I'd just brilliantly saved "two months salary" and struck a blow for feminism to boot. The brunch group wasn't interested in striking a blow for equality; they were excited about the wedding, the engagement ring no less than anything else. I think one fellow well-educated and accomplished bruncher was quoted as saying something along the lines of "You better get that rock, girl!”
And that is the story of how I found myself, the next week, engagement-ring shopping. We did live happily ever after. My wife kept her own name. But she has a pretty kickass engagement ring. —Steven, 46, & Karina, 35, New York City
5. You don’t need to be on the verge of a proposal to buy one.
My friend Mary and I were having brunch, and she was telling me things were getting serious with her boyfriend. She asked me if I was interested in going wedding-ring shopping with her. I said wasn't it a bit presumptive to go wedding ring shopping — how did she know if her boyfriend was going to propose? "He'll propose," she said.
So we go to a ring shop in downtown Portland and eye a few rings. Then an older woman came into the store. The clerk excused himself and told the woman, "I have your ring ready!" and gave her the little box and she opened it and squealed. Mary and I were like, "Wow, that's a great ring!" and I asked "Who is the lucky person you’re marrying?"
"Oh! I'm not engaged,” she said. “I'm not even dating anyone right now. I just know that one day I want to get married and I want the guy to use this ring."
Mary was like, "There is a woman who knows what she wants," and I sort of agree, but I also thought, “There's a woman who has given up on the whimsy of being engaged.” I'm 31 now and thinking more about marriage than when I was 22, but I still think it would be weird if a guy got down on one knee in front of me and I was like "WAIT I ALREADY GOT THE RING." —Shefali, 31, Washington, DC
6. Ring shopping means endless things to learn.
There are so many options out there, and a lot of them don't even involve diamonds! My ring is "The Oval Gatsby" by Heidi Gibson Designs. It’s a custom design with mixed stones. Stick to what you want in your heart, and someone out there can definitely create that for you!
My fiancé had used my best friend as a decoy without me knowing. I had zero idea what my ring size was, and my best friend made me come with her to pick up her wedding band and check my ring size while I was there. She then relayed this information back to my fiancé.
After I got my ring, it was slightly too big. I’d gotten my ring size measured while I was hot and sweaty in August, which meant that my hands were swollen. I needed to get my ring sized down slightly. Now, resizing a ring really weakens the metal, and I didn't know that before. However, Heidi Gibson offers these sizing balls that can be removed at a later time, which helps it fit my hand better. —Allyson, 30, New York City
7. You can wear it on any finger.
I didn't want one, but my fiancé got me one anyway, and it's good. I wore it on my middle finger so it wouldn't be An Engagement Ring. It's not a simple band/solitaire, so it doesn't look like an engagement ring, though it does have a diamond — vintage, so it doesn't look conspicuous. And when people asked to see my engagement ring, I showed it to them on that finger, but I don't remember anyone saying anything. Before engagement and marriage started dictating my jewelry, I usually had one ring finger ring and one middle finger ring (one on each hand), so this set-up feels right to me. —Jaime, 34, New York City
8. Definitely get a friend involved.
I happen to have a friend who's a jeweler in LA. Several years ago, when my now-husband and I were there visiting family, we went to see him and I tried on a bunch of stuff, and my friend took notes on what I liked and didn't like and literally filed it away. Then when my husband was ready to propose, he called up my friend and had my ring made based on those notes from years before. I had never seen my ring before, as it was custom-made (so I was surprised), but I was confident and comforted in knowing it would be something I would like, as I would be wearing it daily and I'm picky about jewelry. Definitely more of a practical approach rather than a romantic one, but it was the right way for me. My husband was beyond relieved he didn't have to figure this out by himself. —Jenny, 41, San Francisco
9. Tiffany’s is still the real deal (even if the marriage isn’t).
I picked out one at Tiffany’s with the private consult, since three had been selected prior to my arrival. But when your dad tells your boyfriend that he can't have his daughter's hand in marriage... I never got to wear it. —Emily, 38, Alabama
The Tiffany's on Fifth Ave pops Dom Perignon for you when you buy an engagement ring and the whole floor congratulates you. I've been proposed to many times, and call me a cold superficial bitch, but that one is the only one I ever took seriously. I don't believe in bullshit cute engagements. You want me to take you seriously? Put a real ring on it. ;) —Jean, 40, Mexico City
(But also if it is.)
We walked into Tiffany’s like a couple of rubes and walked out with a simple diamond studded infinity band. I told my husband that was the only piece of jewelry I'd ever need, since I couldn’t care less. I'm a cheap date. —Allison, 51, New York City
10. You can make shopping a family affair.
My niece, Ally, who was 19 at the time, happened to come to town when I was looking for rings, and I took her with me. We hit four or five stores before finding a ring she loved and thought my now-wife would, too. Her advice was, "Make it nice because I like her," which was simple but helpful.
I would totally advise bringing a family member, but make sure it's not someone jaded, or too old. No guy should go alone for something like this. We had the best time, and four years later, my niece and I still laugh about that day. I bought the ring and held onto it for a few weeks, waiting for the right time. My niece texted me every damn day for updates. I finally had to tell she'd be the first to know, which she was. —Robert, 43, New York City
11. You can do it together (and sometimes no surprise is the best surprise).
We decided to get married together — there wasn't a surprise proposal — but people seemed really, really confused as to whether or not we were engaged. So a few months later, my partner proposed with a $10 brass ring he bought at a local women's artisan collective in Nairobi (a ring I had been admiring and that I love). We got a "real" ring made in South Africa. We bought the stone — a really unique sapphire unlike anything I've ever seen — separately and had the ring made at a jeweler in Cape Town. We saved money, have a good and memorable story, and did it in a way that felt fun and relaxed and like us (that feels cheesy to say, but it is true).
Lessons learned: Sometimes you try to do it your way, but these cultural norms are so ingrained that it's hard to explain your relationship without adhering to some of them. Figuring out how to adhere to them in a way that still feels like you can be interesting. —Jill, 33, Nairobi, Kenya
12. If all else fails, leave it to a mom to save the day.
My engagement ring is one that my husband David's late grandfather gave to his recently deceased grandmother. She had stopped wearing it when she remarried. David's family really wanted him to marry me, but he couldn't afford a ring. His mom gave it to him so he would ask me (but inadvertently told me about it first). It is absolutely priceless, especially now. —Mattavia, 41, Alabama
13. There’s no deadline for an engagement ring.
When I got married, I was more interested in travel than jewelry. That was a good thing, because we didn't really have enough money for both! We bought wedding bands, had a small wedding, and hit the road for two weeks.
Our 15th anniversary and my 40th birthday were around the same time. I was at the jeweler having something repaired and tried on a three-stone ring (diamonds on either side of a rather large sapphire). I fell in love and texted my husband a photo. He wrote back, "Are you trying to tell me something?" I wrote back, "You’re a smart man." He wrote back, "Buy it."
I wear it almost every day. It says a lot to me about how we've changed and grown together. It's worth waiting until you find something you love! —Nicole, 45, New York City
As for what I’ve learned...
My favorite ring is one my grandmother designed herself. It’s a half-carat diamond surrounded by a cluster of other diamonds — it’s vintage and unique and somewhat magically always sparkly, even though I’ve never had it cleaned. She had it made out of an engagement ring she received from a man named Hamilton Booth, though she never married him because he died soon after the proposal. A tragedy, yes, but she turned something sad into something beautiful and strong and special. I think about that every time I wear it, because you don’t have to be married to wear an engagement ring at all. You just have to love it.
Statements have been edited and condensed for clarity.