Wearing wedding rings is a tradition that dates back as far as ancient Egypt. They are significant symbols of the union of marriage. Many couples choose to wear them 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Even many prisons allow inmates to keep their rings on while in prison.
The tradition of men proposing to women with an 18kt yellow gold diamond ring that cost two months salary isn't really a tradition at all; it's a marketing myth perpetrated by De Beers (the massive diamond cartel that held a virtual monopoly in diamonds throughout the 20th century) in the late 1940s.
The truth of the matter is that traditions vary dramatically from culture to culture and time to time, and that the most important thing should always be open and honest conversation between partners to align expectations.
Relationships in America are changing.
Among the many institutions millennials are blamed for destroying, marriage certainly ranks highly. While many of our parents got married in their early 20's, millennials are delaying it or avoiding it altogether.
Since the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, same-sex marriage is now recognized in every state in America, and the proportion of people identifying as LGBT is ever-increasing, leading to a new generation of traditions for wedding jewelry.
In addition to changes in relationships, our financial situations are a lot different from that of our parents. We have massive amounts of student debt from which we will likely never recover, we are far more likely to rent our home, and the prospects of maintaining a steady job for the next 30 years are pretty near nil.
All this creates a different environment for marriages from the one our parents experienced. If there were ever standard traditions for wedding jewelry (something I'm not so sure about), it's out the window now.
I again want to stress that open and honest communication between partners is key to a successful relationship, and that there are no hard rules for wedding jewelry.
You know your partner best, but in my opinion, surprise wedding proposals without previous discussion are a pretty bad call. While they may have some traditional romantic appeal, they also have some pretty anachronistic implications of gender relations.
Surprise proposals also force an incredibly important decision to be made in a high-pressure, often public moment, and it requires the proposer to make certain decisions without proper communication, decisions like how much to spend and what designs to choose.
The Engagement Ring
For straight couples, the engagement ring is often given by the man to his fiancé during the proposal or betrothal. It's a totally valid decision to have open and honest conversation with your partner, and to still stage a more traditional formal proposal as a romantic gesture, where the only surprise is the timing.
It's also totally fine for women to propose, to bypass a formal proposal altogether, to design rings together, to not get an engagement ring at all. Hell, you can even get a ring tattoo if you'd like (I don't do tattoos, but I know some Brooklynites who do)!
The engagement ring is often more ostentatious than the wedding bands. They can be solitaires, featuring a single large gemstone, sometimes with smaller stones for additional ornamentation. They can also feature multiple large stones, many small stones, or no stones at all. Again, there are no hard-and-fast rules here.
If you're purchasing the ring for your partner, I recommend getting feedback first on what they like. It's important to understand if your partner has any particular stone or metal preferences, any metal allergies, what their ring size is, and it's also important to stay within a budget you can both be comfortable with once (and if) your finances are tied together.
I also deal with plenty of couples who come in together to design their engagement ring (or rings), either before or after betrothal. This ensures that you are both able to make this important decision together and get a result you can both be happy with.
Growing in popularity is the idea of men's engagement rings. Couples exchanging engagement rings with one another, during or shortly after a formal proposal, is a great way to demonstrate the mutual respect, commitment, and admiration they feel for one another.
The Wedding Bands
It is common for couples to exchange wedding rings during the wedding ceremony. Many couples choose to wear these two rings at all times afterwards.
Wedding bands are often very simple bands made of a precious metal with no ornamentations whatsoever. They sometimes also contain smaller gems or ornamentations. The "infinity band" features stones all the way around the band, and some people are into that kind of thing.
It's not entirely necessary, but it's a good idea to think about how the wedding bands will look together and with the engagement ring. Many couples choose to get wedding bands in the same metal and with the same finish.
The design of the bands can vary a little bit more between the two, but again, it's a good idea to think of how they fit together, and how that relates to their symbolic power for your relationship. It's also totally fine if you want two different band styles to highlight your mutual individuality in union.
While bands are typically not worn until the wedding ceremony, some men choose to wear their band during the engagement as well as the woman. You're both grown-ups now, and you get to decide what that means.
The way the band looks with the engagement ring is also important. Some people choose to wear their engagement rings alongside their wedding rings at all times after the wedding, either on the same finger or on the right hand. Some people only wear the engagement ring during special occasions. Either way, you should consider how they relate to one another.
For people who want to wear their rings on the same finger, the wedding band often has a curve or inset ornamentation of some kind to allow for the engagement ring to sit nicely beside it. It is also common to match metals, but mixing metals has recently grown in popularity too.
How much should you spend?
If anybody tells you that that tradition is to spend two-month's salary on an engagement ring, slap them right in their corporate shill face! I'm a jeweler who would probably benefit from this rule, but I feel I have an ethical duty to steer you far lower.
Sure, you can walk into any jeweler, tell them your credit card limit, and just get the biggest rock you can find on sight, but the truth of the matter is that most people care more about getting a personal result that serves as a powerful testament to their relationship. Spending a lot doesn't buy much in terms of commitment.
That's why I recommend doing a custom commission. You can save money vs. buying retail, and I can tune the design to match your needs. I can help you navigate the different decisions involved in material and design to find something perfect that matches your budget.
As a general rule, I don't recommend going into much debt to purchase an engagement ring. I think the idea of tying your financial futures together with an irresponsible purchase isn't a particularly bright one, especially given the high overall costs of weddings these days and millennials' already high debt burdens.
The important thing is to choose a budget that you can both be comfortable with, after discussing it with one another. This sets an important precedent for making financial decisions in your relationship, and so it shouldn't be taken lightly.
Make it your own
Marriage is (supposedly) a lifelong commitment and represents a unique union between two individual human beings, each with their own unique preferences and characteristics.
There's no reason to listen to other people when it comes to making decisions about your marriage or your wedding jewelry, even me.
Wedding jewelry is important. It's something many people wear all the time, and so it serves as a symbol of your relationship, presented to everybody you meet. But never make the mistake of confusing the relationship for the jewelry that symbolizes it. Have an open conversation with your partner, and work together to make sure it's exactly what you both want.
I can help. If you have any questions whatsoever, or if you'd like to schedule some time to meet and design some custom pieces of wedding jewelry, I do custom commissions.