real life

'I was excited to announce I was engaged. But my engagement ring made people uncomfortable.'

I got engaged in late December of 2014. I’d known the fella who I intended to (and did) marry since I was five years old, and we’d been dating for a little over a year. At the start of our engagement, he was 20 and I was 22.

Five months after we started dating, moments after the strike of midnight on New Year’s Eve, we had quietly, timidly admitted to each other that we’d both been thinking we wanted to marry the other person.

Moving a bit fast, you say? Don’t worry. Everything else went at a glacial pace — or at least it felt that way at the time. Because although we’d decided we wanted to get married, we kept this (largely) to ourselves for almost exactly another year.

Saying my then-boyfriend, now-husband proposed just doesn’t seem like the right turn of phrase. He knew the answer to the question he was asking. No proposition was made.

Perhaps it’s more accurate to say he gave me a ring, a public symbol of what we’d decided. Later that week, we went home for winter break and told our families and friends. I announced it to my mother-in-law-to-be the only way I could think of: by holding up my left hand.

Watch: Engagement ring trends through the decades. Post continues after. 

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From then on so much seemed to depend upon a bit of gold on my left hand.

That’s when I started to realise the mistake I’d made: my ring was woefully inadequate.

We picked out the ring together.

Are you sensing a theme yet? We’d prefer to do most things together.

However, since I was going to be wearing said ring, most of the decision making power obviously came down to me. And I cannot put this strongly enough: I had no idea what I was doing.

For all the Pinterest boards I’ve made in my life — and I’ve had many— I’ve never had a wedding or engagement ring board, secret or otherwise.

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As a teenager, I never dreamed about my future wedding, let alone my future engagement ring. It didn’t occur to me until well after the fact to ask if there were any heirloom rings that might be passed down to me, either on my side or his.

I had some idea that diamonds were common features of engagement rings, but I’d heard some disclaimers about their worth and true desirability.

I didn’t even know what kind of ring I liked generally, since I only wore one: a slim wire band with a loose knot.

Engagement rings had not been something I’d encountered much of during my upbringing. I’m not even sure what my mother’s looks like because as far as I remember she never wore it.

My grandmother wore her ring occasionally, but she decked her fingers in a variety of gemstone and diamond rings so it didn’t really stand out to me.

I’d had a cousin or two that got engaged but I’d not taken note of their rings. Without Facebook or Instagram, I was oblivious to any brouhaha that might have surrounded their engagements.

I’d not even gained much cultural knowledge about engagements or the rings therein from movies or TV shows. I mostly watched science fiction and fantasy, which doesn’t include many nuptials. And if not that I was watching period dramas, where engagements are more often sealed with frantic kisses and swelling violins than with bands of metal and diamonds.

So there I was, a naive early twenty-something, in the whirlwind of a relationship — my first serious relationship — picking a ring. The ring. It was to be the representation of our relationship being taken to a new level and, later, a memento of the grandeur of our love at its blossoming.

At the time, I didn’t know how tall the order was.

I didn’t even know where to begin.

What I knew for sure is that I am clumsy.

Nothing delicate or highly detailed would be safe on my finger. I also fairly arbitrarily decided I didn’t want a diamond. Too normal. Instead, I wanted either an aquamarine (my mister’s birthstone) or a moonstone.

Together, we settled on the latter. My adoration for Wilkie Collins aside, a moonstone seemed the best decision because it isn’t marked up highly and it’s a neutral colour. (Our first kiss was also under a moon and the Northern Lights, so there’s that nice connection.)

The metal was an easy choice because I prefer gold.

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I believe these decisions were largely made in the space of a few hours, on an evening in March, whilst perusing Etsy. I never Pinned or pined after a single ring.

No, that came later.

You see, the other concern was a monetary one. My mister and I didn’t have much money. We were college students, he still in his first year. It never occurred to me to ask for a ring that was anything but highly affordable. (I also had deeply rooted and unresolved self-worth issues at the time.)

Something structurally sound and aesthetically pleasing but not costly seemed the best route to go. Really, it seemed the only route to go. After all, I figured, it wasn’t the ring that made you engaged.

In short, my engagement ring was selected for its practicality.

Uncommon, I now realise.

What was the ring we settled on? It’s a whisper-thin (0.85 mm), lightly hammered band with a 3mm cabochon moonstone set very securely in a tight bezel.

underwhelming engagement ring
The ring. Image: Supplied,

I own shoes that cost more than it (but they are very nice, leather boots that take quite a beating, let me tell you). The cabochon moonstone — smooth and non-faceted — is just as tiny as it sounds. It’s about the size of a cooked grain of quinoa.

Yep, that’s it.

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When it was given to me, along with a question to which the answer was already known, by a fella I love very much, I was — to quote a period drama of old — incandescently happy.

It was a family member who first asked if it was a real engagement ring.

What’s the alternative, I now wonder. A fake engagement ring? A promise ring? This family member didn’t verbalise what they thought it might be instead, only that they were confused about what this minuscule bauble really meant.

I stumbled through my explanation. Yes, of course, it was a real engagement ring. We were getting married, after all. How could it be anything else?

Call me naive (I definitely was) but until that moment it had never occurred to me that other people would have a reaction to my engagement ring.

A reaction to my engagement itself, sure, but not my ring. I’d never registered that people fawn over engagement rings that belong to complete strangers.

Somehow I had made it through my childhood and teenage years as a young American female without internalising the idea that engagement rings are a status symbol and or a cultural fascination. How I managed this, I don’t know.

What I can tell you is that I did not find this hole in my knowledge to be in any way convenient.

Over the course of our seventeen-month engagement (like I said, glacial pace), it became more and more obvious that the general consensus was that my engagement ring was a disappointment.

When people heard I was engaged, their gaze would immediately gravitate to my left hand. Then they’d see it, or I’d reluctantly extend my appendage for inspection. Nine times out of ten, their expressions of confusion and pity were completely unhidden.

They were visibly uncomfortable, unsure of how to proceed. In retrospect, I can’t blame them. This was not something they’d ever encountered before, a very tiny, underwhelming engagement ring.

Some people said nothing, just gave a tight smile. Some people would squeak “oh, how…nice.” There was nothing to gush about, no questions to ask, no need to turn my hand in the light to make the stone glint. It was simple, plain and apparently a letdown.

On top of this, neither my mister nor I knew anything about being engaged. At least, we didn’t know anything about what was culturally expected of us as engaged people. We found it to be rather awkward, all the congratulations for not really having done anything.

My mister and I are both the eldest in our families and we’d seen exactly one engagement go down. (It went down quite badly, I might add. After four years, we were not surprised to hear they were divorcing.) One star out of ten on Yelp, is what I’d say about being engaged.

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But then, finally, we became not engaged any more. Or rather, we wed.

My engagement ring was joined by a wedding band about four times thicker. If anything, this makes the moonstone gem more diminutive.

It was after we married — all the wedding shenanigans behind me — that I came up for air and finally truly saw the cultural fetishisation of engagement rings.

And this realisation sat like a stone in my stomach.

I don’t know why it took me so long to catch up with the rest of society, but as a newly married lady suddenly my eyes were gravitating towards women’s left hands. Engaged women, married women, young women, old women.

I looked at them all. At the time, I worked as a barista so I saw a lot of left hands and a lot of engagement rings. There was many an opportunity to compare my ring to theirs, many an opportunity to become jealous.

I started looking at engagement rings online. I started to Pin them, gosh darn it. It became a little bit of an unhealthy obsession.

People continued to be confused by my engagement ring and I, in turn, continued to be ashamed of it. For a short time, I stopped wearing it.

Maybe — I’d say to myself — maybe we’ll “redesign it” for an auspicious anniversary. Maybe for our fifth anniversary, since that was the least far away auspicious date I could come up with. We could add a halo of speckled grey diamonds around the moonstone, or triangles of labradorite on either side, along with a thicker band.

I was trying to play catch up. But catching up to what, I’m not sure.

I like jewellery well enough. Mostly earrings, because they stay out of my way, but I like the aesthetics of rings on fingers. If aesthetics were all I was after though, I could have gotten myself more rings.

I could have worn the opal Art Deco ring I already had in my jewellery box.

The sting, I suppose, was that it felt like I had failed. I was a people pleaser (now I’m a recovering one) and when people saw my ring they were not emphatically pleased as I had seen other people be about other people’s engagement rings.

I had also let a fleeting opportunity disappear, it seemed. I’d had that one chance to demand something grand, something I would have never otherwise bought or requested.

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Something that was expected to be bigger and better than any Christmas present or birthday gift.

My engagement ring was supposed to be the showstopper of gifts from my significant other, the glittering symbol of our love. But I had neither selected nor felt worthy of such a thing.

I could tell myself that engagements are sexist, or a waste of money. I could tell myself that diamond engagement rings are a marketing gimmick.

My husband loves me, ring or no, and I was thankful that he had not spent several months worth of his small, part-time bar-back and part-time cheesemonger salary on a ring. More money for travel, or to save for kittens.

None of that made me feel any better.

It took me almost five years to get over my engagement ring shame.

Can you change your engagement ring a year after you receive it? Post continues after podcast.

I’ve now been married for 1,188 days. I’d say it’s been within the last month that I’ve become truly okay with my engagement ring. Add to that my seventeen-month engagement, I’ve consistently regretted my decision for about 2,022 days. That’s a lot of wasted time and energy.

Finally something shifted.

I like my engagement ring now. Suddenly. At last. I can look at my left hand and feel pleased with that tiny moonstone.

If I tell you what made me come to terms with my engagement ring do you promise not to laugh?

Promise?

It was Outlander.

Yes, a fictional tale of time travel and the Scottish Highlands. And not even the books, I am ashamed to say. It was the TV show.

It was Claire Fraser’s wedding band in the STARZ adaption, which — yes, I know — is not faithful to Diana Gabaldon’s books.

If you haven’t seen Outlander, fret not. All you need to know is that it is a grand love story plus a blend of historical fiction and sci-fi. Indeed, it has a lot of deeply devoted fans who I really think are largely drawn to it for the love story between Claire (a time-travelling nurse/doctor/healer) and a 1700s Jacobite Scottish Highlander, Jamie.

Their relationship is considered wildly romantic, a tale of epic proportions. These two combat all odds to be together.

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(I promise it is not a cheesy as I may be making it out to seem.)

What matters for our purposes here is that in the TV show the heroine’s wedding band is, subjectively, quite ugly.

It’s made of a silver key, reshaped by a blacksmith in the 1700s to be a ring. It’s rough. It’s as simple as they come. I’ve held old keys; they’re not very refined. She doesn’t have an engagement ring at all. Just that wedding band, the very opposite of a showstopper.

But that ring — while not canonical — means so much to the characters and to the story.

What I came to love about it is that it’s really practical. The gal wearing this ring is sprinting around 1700s Europe, healing people and assisting in rebellions. She’s busy.

I feel like a diamond of any carats would get in her way. Additionally, her husband had made it from what he had available at the time of their hasty wedding.

And she loves him. Like, a lot. So she wears her refashioned, made-at-the-last-minute castle keyring with pride, even to Versailles. And within the narrative that coarse metal ring is still considered highly romantic.

Game changer.

Yes, it’s fiction. But it’s a different narrative than I had ever seen before. No one fawned over her ring, but she loved it and the camera seemed to gravitate to it despite how much it lacked aesthetically. It gave me a new way to look at my own ring.

My ring is also practical. It always has been. That is why I picked it. No need for ring insurance here, or concern for a diamond falling out.

Practicality is meaning more and more to me the older I get. I want practical clothes, I want hair that needs nothing done to it aside from braiding,

I wear less and less make-up. I have things to do, people to take care of, gardens to plant, food to cook. This ring is everything I need it to be, which is very little. And I’m the person wearing it.

I don’t think I want it redesigned anymore. It is what it is. Simple, the size of a mustard seed.

If people are confused about why my husband gave me a tiny ring, it’s finally neither here nor there to me. He loves me. I know that. The ring’s got nothing to do with it.

Because it really isn’t the ring that makes you engaged, or married. It’s a lovely bonus that can be whatever you want, and need, it to be.

This article was originally published on Medium and was republished here with full permission. For more from Ema Hegberg, find her here. 

The feature image used is a stock photo from Getty. 

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