The Fellowship of the Ring

Ah, Valentine's Day. A time for heart-shaped candy, romantic dinners, and most importantly, serious bling bling. It is the most popular day in the year to whip out the little velvet box that your woman has always dreamed about -- y'know, the mega-carat ring that will make her single gal pals green to the gills.

Every Christmas needs its Scrooge, and V-Day would hardly be complete without unhappy singles mumbling 'Bah, humbug!' on the sidelines. But not this year, not when there is a Right-Hand Ring to ease their pain. This time around, Bridget Jones won't be bawling her eyes out in front the television, but wandering around Tiffany's picking out a sparkler of her very own -- a ring that "signifies the strength, success and independence of women of the twenty-first century," to quote the website of the Diamond Trading Company, aka DeBeers.

In these emancipated times, even the age-old symbol of sexual superiority is no longer the exclusive preserve of the smugly hitched -- if the savvy marketers have their way. The diamond ring is instead a badge of freedom -- but only when you wear it on your right hand. "Your left hand declares your commitment. Your right hand is a declaration of independence," declares the DeBeers print ad. "Women of the world, raise your right hand."

The truth is that a right hand ring is sadly more retro than revolutionary. Women down here on planet earth are way ahead of the DeBeers curve. A single friend of mine wears her mother's engagement solitaire on her left hand, just because she likes it and that's the finger it fits best on. I did the same ten years ago while in the throes of a bad relationship, except it was a silver filigree number with a black stone that summed up my view of love at the time.

As usual the images in the pages of People and Us Weekly don't reflect the reality on the sidewalk. Right-hand rings are all the rage these days, be it the catwalk or the red carpet. And it's not just Halle Berry, Janet Jackson, and Sharon Stone flashing their self-bought bling, but also married gals like Julia Roberts, Debra Messing, and Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham.

The message is clear: Just because she has a husband, a woman doesn't have to sit around waiting for him to buy her some sorry piece of ice. The diamond industry has been careful not to exclude its most reliable supporters, married women whose "left hand rocks the cradle" while their "right hand rules the world."

Of course, quite contrary to the 'I am woman, hear me roar' message of the ad campaign, the real goal of this hot new trend is to boost slipping sales figures. As Rob Walker reports in the New York Times:

"(T)here are more career women with money to spend, says Kenneth Gassman, a diamond-jewelry analyst, but 'they just haven't been spending it on diamonds.' Focus groups, Morrison says, revealed 'a sort of superstition' that a diamond ring should only be a romantic gift from a man. Thus the positioning of the right-hand ring as a 'signature style piece' that 'liberated' women from a taboo. ... 'The idea,' Morrison says, 'is that beyond a trend, this could become a sort of cultural imperative.'"
First cigarettes and now diamonds: we've come a long way, baby!

Working women, especially the unmarried ones, have become the latest cultural icon of liberation. Be it Hollywood or Madison Avenue, corporate America is frantically wooing the career girls with money to spare. Forget those boring images of the dutiful, angst-ridden Mary Tyler Moores of yore. The independent woman of the new millennium likes to spend, spend, spend. As Harry Winston public-relations director Carol Brodie-Gelles puts it, "The right-hand ring is the ultimate liberator. It allows a woman to completely self-indulge. In an era of (the Atkins diet), who wouldn't want to treat themselves to a big dessert such as a decadent ring?" Indeed, nothing screams revolution like gluttony.

The faux equation of greedy consumption with liberation is hardly new. And perhaps the popularization of feminist concepts -- a woman has the right to control her money -- even in a degraded form is a heartening sign of a changing zeitgeist. The bigger problem lies in the very concept of a right-hand ring.

To begin with, it simply renames an existing practice as a new "trend," as though women never conceived of wearing rings on their right hand before the diamond industry gave them permission to do so. But that's just a minor quibble. What's more insidious is the delineation between this must-have accoutrement from its matrimonial counterpart.

Not only is the ring placed on a different hand, it is also carefully designed to avoid any confusion -- just in case onlookers are a little dyslexic in these matters. The diamonds are never positioned across the finger, include a solitaire, or include any setting typical of an engagement ring.

The right-hand ring, in fact, is not about the right hand at all. It instead speaks volumes about society's obsession with the left ring finger, which we are expected to offer up to the gods of matrimony. It is they who will decide what a man or woman should wear on that finger and when. Heaven forbid, if any of us should choose to do with this digit as we please.

I wore my faux left-hand ring constantly for couple of years until I met and married my husband. My wedding and engagement rings didn't last that long. I put them away in my sock drawer two months after the wedding. And there they've stayed ever since.

Over the years, I have been repeatedly questioned -- always by men -- about my indecently bare finger. "Why don't you wear a ring," they ask me querulously. Am I lying about being married? Or do I want to pretend to be available? Maybe the damn rings are just a pain in the ass and don't go with anything in my wardrobe. For some reason, the last answer seems to offend them more than any of the alternatives.

The social imperative to wear a wedding ring once you're married is merely the flip side of the taboo that forbids a single woman from sporting a solitaire on the "wrong" hand. Each demands we perform our marital status for the benefit of the world. So if we must seek liberation through jewelry, then bring on the left-hand ring. Now that would be a true declaration of independence from the obligation to advertise our personal choices in the sexual marketplace.

Lakshmi Chaudhry is a Senior Editor at AlterNet.

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