Why you should care
You might think you know everything about engagement rings and gender norms, but there’s a history behind male engagement rings that will surprise you.
I remember when I first thought of man-gagement rings. I was speaking with people at a bar when I saw a guy point to my left hand and whisper, “Dude, look, she has a ring” to another guy, who promptly walked away. Apparently the conversation he had been a part of — pre-ring-spotting — was no longer engaging. If I had been a more jealous, possessive person, my thoughts might have immediately wandered to my fiancé, walking around with his naked fingers. When he’s at a bar, people don’t automatically know he’s engaged. Where is his off-the-market social indicator?
Of course, I didn’t think of this at all. I also didn’t start to research the history of engagement rings and what they reflect about changing gender norms. Ha, riiiiight.
What most people don’t know is that male engagement rings have a history of their own.
In the U.S., engagement rings are displayed proudly — at times, a little too proudly. It’s easy to judge women who post zoomed-in photos of their hand on Facebook, sometimes as their profile pictures, as if their finger was affianced and not themselves. It’s even easier to talk about said person’s ring: Did you see the size of her rock? Sadly, I cannot throw 5-carat-sized stones: I’ve been guilty of both.
Vicki Howard, author of Brides, Inc.: American Weddings and the Business of Tradition, explains that engagement rings for women didn’t just start with De Beers’s and the jewelry industry’s push for diamond rings in the 1920s. Howard says betrothal rings date back to ancient Hebrew traditions or medieval times, when women were given rings as legally binding promises that the men would marry them.
What most people don’t know is that male engagement rings have a history of their own. Jewelers pushed for them in ad campaigns in 1926. “Jewelry was not necessarily socially acceptable for men, so [jewelers] had to overcome rings being effeminate,” says Howard. Rings were advertised as an “ancient custom” for “he-men,” and advertisements used images depicting ring-wearing knights going into battle or posing with a cigarette, donning a ring.
In the 1920s jewelers came up with names for male rings, not necessarily wedding-related, to suggest leadership and authority. Examples: the Stag, the Master, the Executive, the Pilot.
The rings were understated signet rings, made from iron or bronze, some with carvings or stones, but not solitaire diamonds. “They were not meant to yell out ‘engagement,’” says Howard. “In fact, some of the ad copy said that to women: ‘Nobody need know that it’s a betrothal ring, except you and your husband.’”
They never caught on, and Howard’s theory is that while the jewelry industry can promote customs, they don’t succeed unless what they promote fits the gender norms at the time.
Does that mean men currently don’t wear them because it’s not traditional? Not really. In fact, men didn’t start wearing wedding bands on a regular basis until the 1940s and 1950s. Howard, who studied why male wedding rings caught on versus engagement rings, suspects it has to do a combination of factors: World War II romantic sentiment, an increasing marriage rate and family taking on a more important role, with men proud of being husbands and fathers.
Advertisements used images depicting ring-wearing knights going into battle or a male hand posing with a cigarette, donning an engagement ring.
So, if men just started wearing wedding rings a few decades ago, are man-gagement rings next? Maybe. Jewelers are starting to sell male engagement rings, a 2011 survey by TheKnot.com and Men’s Health says 17 percent of men surveyed would wear a ring, and Details even wondered whether man-gagement rings should be a trend. It’s hard to tell if more male engagement rings are being purchased now than before because straight men want to wear them or because of a spike in same-sex marriage proposals across the U.S. (take that, DOMA).
While some stories I encountered in my research involved women proposing to men with man-gagement rings simply because the men were “taking too long” to propose, I particularly liked the man-gagement story involving two recently married friends of mine, Rachel and Healey Cypher.
“I felt like he’d be pissing all over my finger,” says Rachel about Healey proposing to her with a ring, sans her involvement. She expressed her concerns, and they agreed to make everything mutual: They wrote proposal vows to each other and recited them on top of a mountain after a hike, both exchanging rings.
Healey adds he might have been jealous of Rachel getting a cool ring if he hadn’t received one. So how did people take it when he told them?
“Girls were like, ‘That’s so nice; you have such an equal relationship,’” he recounts. “Men would be like, ‘Dude, that’s gay.’ It would invariably start an interesting conversation about why they wouldn’t wear it. At the end, I would realize they were old-school misogynists, and I was really progressive,’” he says, laughing.
Conclusion? Engagement rings are tricky, both for women and men. As a society we are starting to question whether we should have rings at all, whether couples should go dutch for a girl’s ring, whether we should cease engagements (or even marriage) altogether. So, I’ll add a question: Why shouldn’t heterosexual men wear engagement rings, too?