When I got engaged, I knew exactly what my ring would look like. I had made very clear to my then-boyfriend (now-husband) that I wanted a round solitaire diamond set high on a thin platinum band. I gave specific limitations on size (I have small hands and didn’t want a big diamond that looked gaudy or ostentatious on my little fingers, and I wanted to be able to wear it anywhere—in court, on the metro—without feeling uncomfortable).
This may sound princess-y and unromantic. But it is certainly not unusual. I have friends who designed their own rings. Others picked out the exact ring with which their boyfriends proposed.
In fact, I know very few people who were surprised with a ring they knew nothing about. For better or worse, diamond engagement rings are the norm these days. And while they are (or are supposed to be) a symbol of undying love and fidelity, there’s not a lot of romance surrounding them anymore. The proposal is (we hope) surprising and romantic; the ring is not.
And maybe that’s appropriate, considering the diamond engagement ring’s history. Beginning in the 1940’s, De Beers (the world’s biggest diamond wholesaler) hired Ayer ad agency with a strong agenda: to make the diamond engagement ring the only appropriate token to present during a proposal. When their campaign began, only the very rich wore diamonds. With decades of strategic ads, De Beers and Ayer changed that.
In addition to making diamond engagement rings de rigeur, Ayer created the two-month rule (the cost of an engagement ring should be equivalent to at least two months’ salary) as part of its campaign. And it coined the term “the 4Cs” (referring to a diamond’s cut, color, clarity, and carat) to encourage people to be more discerning—and, thus, buy more expensive diamonds.
The woman behind all this was Frances Gerety, a young, female copywriter (who, ironically, never married). She was responsible for knowing the female perspective, and De Beers was her biggest client. In 1947, she wrote the appropriately enduring tagline, “A Diamond Is Forever,” for De Beers.
The Engagements is a book of multiple storylines, which span several decades. The first, which is the anchoring storyline around which the others revolve, is largely based in fact and follows Gerety and her work at Ayer for De Beers.
Each of the other four story lines follows a different couple in a different decade at a different stage in their relationship. The diamond engagement ring makes significant appearances in all four of the stories and ties them all together.
Briefly, they are:
- Evelyn and Gerald in 1972. They are wealthy and happy and have been married for over 40 years. Gerald is Evelyn’s second husband; her first husband died when she was young. Gerald and Evelyn have one son, Teddy, who is kind of a mess. He is married to the perfect girl, Julie, and he has two girls. Evelyn, a retired teacher, lives for her grandkids. But Teddy is effing everything up. He met a girl on a business trip and has now separated from his wife. Evelyn is devastated.
- James and Sheila in 1987. They were high school sweethearts. Now, they are the parents of two little boys, and they are struggling to make ends meet. Sheila is a nurse; James is an EMT. They are deep in debt, and it’s Christmas. Sheila has just been mugged, and the mugger took everything, including her diamond ring.
- P. J. and Delphine in 2003. Delphine moved from France to New York to be with P.J., a famous violin virtuoso, who is several years her junior. She fell in love with him for his passion, his love of music, and the excitement. But things have gone awry.
- Kate and Dan in 2012. Kate and Dan are happily un-married, with a three-year-old daughter, Ava. Kate is staunchly anti-marriage, anti-diamond. Her family is in town because her best friend and cousin, Jeff, is marrying his partner of ten years, Toby. Jeff has become wedding obsessed, and Kate can’t relate.
The author, J. Courtney Sullivan, got married less than two weeks after this book was released. Tellingly, her engagement ring was not a diamond, but a sapphire. In these stories, the diamond engagement ring is not a symbol of undying love and affection, romance, and happiness. And marriage is not all sunshine and happiness.
Rating: 2.5/5 💎
My favorite part of the book, hands down, was the history of the Ayer ad campaign for De Beers, as told through Frances Gerety’s story. There are excerpts from actual strategy memos that are really interesting and informative. The history of how the ad campaign shaped America’s cultural obsession with diamond rings is fascinating.
The rest of the book was fine. It is easy reading, but it is longish and not very creative. The writing is adequate but not very noteworthy or impressive. Normally, while I’m reading, I make note of lines or passages that I find particularly unique or profound or witty (or, conversely, particularly vapid or trite or cheesy or annoying). Tellingly, I made no such notes while reading this book. The book is middle-of-the-road.
Who should read it: this is good plane or metro or beach reading, assuming you don’t mind fluff that isn’t particularly happy or uplifting. If you’re planning on spending some time doing any of those any time soon, you may want to check it out. It is a book that doesn’t take much effort.