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Engagement Rings Are Hardly Romantic -- Sparkly Rocks Are a Reminder of a Time When Women Were Property

Let's not be so sentimental.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/taro911 Photographer

 
 
 
 

After Vancouver's most famous jilted paramour got his 15 minutes of international attention recently, I was left wondering how we came to be living in a culture manufactured almost entirely by marketers.

Pasquale Angelino ("Charlie") Zampieri  hit the headlines when he sued his former fiancée for the return of the $16,500 sapphire and diamond ring he gave her, after three weeks acquaintance, in anticipation of their soon-to-be wedded bliss. They'd met on one of those online dating sites, the news stories recounted with glee, and by his account it was kismet.

Alas, it was not meant to be for reasons not quite clear in the reports, although poor Zampieri says he felt Jessica Bennett, whom he characterized as some sort of a digital Jezebel, took advantage of him. Two weeks ago he filed a suit in B.C. Supreme Court to reclaim the ring. Last week, she filed a suit for defamation.

What's left of the once intrepid news reporting staffs of this town sprang into action to get man-on-the-street views. Streeters, once considered the last resort of lazy incompetents, are now the gold standard in journalism and I have to admit they do deliver a kind of insight.

The public view falls into two camps, as summed up by a middle-aged couple: "It's a gift, she's entitled to keep it!" the wife insisted. "She dumped him, she should give it back," countered her husband. (I fear they may suffer marital discord off-camera too.)

But not one person in the parade of sidewalk strollers offered the only sensible response: What the hell did this guy think an engagement ring was for?

The engagement ring is not, as diamond advertisers of the last 80 years or so have insisted, a symbol of love: it's a sort of down payment on a virgin vagina.

I've always thought giving engagement rings was a slightly unsavoury custom, given that it began in an era when women were chattel, more or less. It's hardly romantic. The rings remind me of a time when women couldn't own property because they were property. Well, except for widows. There's a reason that Merry Widow of opera fame was so merry.

As Scott Fitzgerald noticed in the 1920s, the rich are different from you and I, and the custom of laying down an engagement ring was something rich people did in an era when marriage was recognized for what it really is: a business contract. It was done to secure property (and political alliances among royalty and the aristocracy) and to ensure there would be an heir and a spare to inherit it all.

That's why female virginity was such a big deal. It had financial value because it was connected to property. Pre-DNA testing, no one could be sure who the father was unless the bride was irreproachably chaste. And no one wants to see property going to bastards. Post-delivery of the requisite sons, everyone was free to go about discreet amusements, and the country weekend at the manor house came into vogue.

And by society they didn't mean hoi polloi like thee and me, either. They meant what the insightful 19th century novelist Edith Wharton called New York's 400 families.

Rings as retainers

Then, engagement rings functioned as a sort of retainer -- a lease-a-womb scheme, if you will. The unspoken part of the deal was that an engagement often allowed for a sampling of the goods.

A broken engagement was like a business deal gone bad: there were economic consequences and the injured party (the woman, who was acknowledged to be more vulnerable) was entitled to compensation.

 
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