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Book excerpt: Dear women, did you know buying yourself diamonds is an act of feminism?

Wendy Doniger’s new book The Ring of Truth looks at the history of jewellery and the part it played in romance and seduction across cultures. In this excerpt, she writes about the 21st century woman’s rebellion against wedding rings.

books Updated: Jul 22, 2017 08:58 IST
Wendy Doniger
A still from the 2008 Hollywood drama Sex and the City.
A still from the 2008 Hollywood drama Sex and the City. (IMDb.com)

The Rebellion of Twenty-First-Century Women

Almost a century ago, women began to revolt against wedding rings and engagement rings, as Kunz reported in 1917:

“In England, it is said that a movement has been initiated to abolish the use of the wedding-ring, possibly in some sense as a war measure, to constitute a slight check on the use of gold for ornamental purposes. It is, however, conjectured that its real source is rather to be sought in the general movement for the complete independence of women, the wedding-ring being looked upon by some extremists as an antiquated badge of slavery. It is hardly probable that such a movement will meet with any considerable measure of success, for the idea that the ring is a symbol of faith has become too deeply rooted in the popular mind to warrant the rejection of the time-honored usage.”

Time has proven Kunz right; most women do indeed still insist on their wedding and engagement rings. But some twenty-first-century women have rebelled against the De Beers mythology, and moved to free themselves from the power that men have exerted over them through jewelry. They rebel in various ways: not only by (a) selling their diamond rings but by (b) buying their own diamond jewelry, or (c) buying themselves something other than diamonds, or (d) buying costume jewelry instead of the Real Thing, or (e) forswearing jewelry altogether, or, for many women, (f) never giving a damn for jewelry in the first place. Only option (b) still plays into De Beers’s hands, but it, too, can serve feminist ends.

A woman prefers to buy her own diamond ring in one of the subplots of the first film of Sex and the City (Michael Patrick King, 2008):

An actress named Blair Elkin is selling, at auction at Christie’s, all the jewelry she had received from her billionaire boyfriend before he kicked her out on the street. Elkin is now getting “the ultimate breakup revenge: an embarrassing and very public auction of all the jewelry he had given her when they were happy.” Samantha (Kim Cattrall) wants to buy a two-finger diamond cocktail ring in the shape of a gardenia; when she saw it in the catalogue she told her boyfriend, Smith, “This flower ring is the essence of me, one of a kind, filled with fire.” At the auction, she remarks, “I deserve this. I work hard. Sex with only one man for I don’t know how long.” She bids furiously on the ring but is outbid by someone who buys the ring, via phone, for $55,000. Later, Smith (wearing nothing but bulging underpants and coming on to her) gives her the ring, and she realizes that he was the one on the phone at the auction. She tries to explain to him that she wanted to buy it for herself, but he insists on giving it to her. She hedges: “Well, just to be clear, this is a ring with diamonds…. It’s not a diamond ring, right?” “Yeah.” “Well, in that case, I love it.” And they go to bed together.

But some time later, talking to a woman friend about the way that she always thinks of Smith’s needs before her own, she looks at her ring and says, “Even this ring. I wanted to buy this for myself. That meant something to me. To be able to do that. Then, he buys it for me…. Now, every time I look down at it, I see him. Not me.” Eventually, when she leaves him, she looks at the gardenia ring on her finger and starts to take it off, but then she tells him, sadly, affectionately, “No. I’m keeping this. Every time I look down at it, I want to think of you.”

Several conflicting ideas about jewelry are packed into this tiny, fragmented vignette, beginning with one incident taken from the life of an actual public figure. “Blair Elkin” is a near-anagram for the name of the film actress Ellen Barkin, who in 2006 had auctioned off at Christie’s the jewelry that her husband, Ronald Perelman, had given her. The New York Times called it “a symbolic and literal purging of the union” and quoted Ms. Barkin as saying, “These are just not memories I want to wear out every day.” “Take Back Your Pearls” (a line from Adelaide’s song, “TakeBack Your Mink”) was the Times’ caption for one of the photographs in the story, but of course Barkin did not tell her ex-husband to take them back; she sold them.

So, in the Sex and the City story, Blair Elkin is selling the jewelry that she presumably received in love and now is disposing of in hate. Samantha wants her ring to have no connection with love at all; she wants it to symbolize herself as an individual, not a partner; yet she says she has earned it not only through her individual effort (she will be spending her “hard-earned money”) but also through her fidelity to a single partner. She is therefore playing a double game. Her boyfriend ruins her dream of independence by sweet-talking, and sex-talking, her into accepting the ring from him. All she can do to reaffirm her independence is insist that it is not a “diamond ring,” an engagement ring, and that she is therefore still at least technically a single woman. In the end, she leaves him to become single altogether, though now that she is free of him she values the ring in a new way, as a memory of him that takes his place. Presumably the many viewers who buy reproductions of Samantha’s two-finger cocktail ring available from several online merchants are women buying them for themselves—but perhaps not.

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, Pages: 397, Price: Rs 899 (Author photo courtesy: Speaking Tiger)

As the movement for women to buy their own jewelry gained momentum, De Beers tried to sleep with the enemy by advertising, in 2012, a ring, generally featuring stones of less than 2 carats, that women were encouraged to buy for themselves. The implicit message of these ads is “that women don’t necessarily need a man to buy them diamonds, and that female empowerment is only one purchase away.” An ad in Vanity Fair aimed at married women declared, “Your left hand celebrates the day you were married. Your right hand celebrates the day you were born.” Another ad cut to the chase: “Your left hand says ‘We.’ Your right hand says ‘Me.’ ” (A brand of diamonds marketed in India to women rather than men was called Asmi, which means “I am,” in Sanskrit.) A spokeswoman for De Beers said that the right hand ring was designed “to create a ‘cultural imperative.’ ”

A more political ad, with echoes of the suffragettes’ battle to win the vote for women, ran like this: “Your left hand believes in shining armor. Your right hand thinks knights are for fairy tales. Your left hand says, ‘I love you.’ Your right hand says, ‘I love me, too.’ Women of the world, raise your right hand. The diamond right hand ring. View more at adiamondisforever.com.” Cunningly expressing the same sort of ambivalence that Samantha confessed to, De Beers assures women that they can have their ring and eat it too. Indeed, Zoellner suggests that the “Right Hand Ring” ads are aimed primarily at “single women seeking a bit of Sex and the City glamour.”

De Beers used a similar ploy in a vain attempt to make diamonds replace gold in the Indian imaginary. In Bollywood, when Sushmita Sen, a former Miss Universe and the star of Main Hoon Na (I Will Be There, Farah Khan, 2004), was seen wearing a 22-carat solitaire ring, people started speculating about a possible engagement—surely some man had given her the ring, but who? Sushmita insisted that she had bought the ring for herself: “I don’t need a man in my life to have diamonds. I can own them myself.” Yet one can detect a bit of slippage in a remark that she made (invoking the De Beers line) on another occasion when asked about that ring: “A diamond is forever. My most famous rock, a massive ring that I gifted myself a while ago[,] gently stated, ‘Either beat the size of my stone or match the size of my heart.’ ” Presumably, if he did “beat the size of her stone,” he would own her.

Other diamond merchants have tried in vain to duplicate De Beers’s marketing bonanza. The Jared jewelry company in 2010 produced numerous commercials trying to convince the buying public that “He went to Jared!” should be a woman’s joyous exclamation meaning, “He proposed marriage to me!” But the company stopped the ads when the slogan failed to catch on, except to inspire some good satirical Internet videos, of which my favorite is, “He went to Jamal,” in which a young man complains bitterly that Jared expected him to cough up three months’ salary for a diamond ring; instead he buys a big red plastic ring from Jamal, a sleazy guy who flashes jewelry on the inside of his coat, in the parking lot of Jared’s. “She couldn’t tell the difference,” he insists.

Many women are finding their way out of the tyranny of diamonds. As Proctor optimistically remarks, “Diamond rings were popular in an era of sexual inequality…. In a more egalitarian society, and especially one with a less rigid sense of ornamental aesthetics, the diamond fashion may lose some of its appeal.” The spectacular boom in diamond engagement rings that De Beers engineered in Japan starting in 1966 suddenly ended at the end of the twentieth century; the bubble burst. If the Japanese could break the spell (admittedly under very different cultural and economic conditions), why can’t we? Tiffany’s is still doing good business, better than ever, using the same tried-and-true mythology: “Fall in Love,” exhorted a Tiffany’s ad in 2013. But many women are raising their left hands without diamonds on them. As Sarah Maza put it, “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend and, if a considerable body of imaginative literature is to be believed, a kind of poison.” Diamonds are, as one critic archly remarked, “a cartel’s best friend.” Sean Connery, as James Bond, in the film Diamonds Are Forever, mused, “I suppose they’ve replaced dogs as a girl’s best friend.” Diamonds may once have been a girl’s best friend, but they are no longer always a woman’s best friend.

Excerpted with permission from The Ring of Truth: Myths of Sex and Jewelry, Wendy Doniger, Speaking Tiger.