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‘With Grandma’s Ring, I Thee Wed’
« on: April 09, 2014, 10:12:21 AM »
‘With Grandma’s Ring, I Thee Wed’

APRIL 4, 2014


Grandma’s Diamond Is Forever

Ian Ross’ paycheck as a freelance EMT wasn’t enough for bills and an engagement ring. So like many millennials, he turned to a family heirloom when he asked Madlyn Wendell to marry him.

Nervous yet hopeful, Ian Ross knew what he wanted to ask, but he wasn’t sure just how to say it. He stared into her eyes, knowing that the whole proposal was riding on this moment.

But it wasn’t his girlfriend’s answer he was waiting for. It was her grandmother’s. He was asking for her diamond ring.
Mr. Ross had not planned on proposing to Maddy Wendell with a secondhand diamond last May. But working as a freelance emergency medical technician, he had barely made a dent in his $25,000 student loans, and buying a new ring would have meant raiding his savings. Instead, the couple, both 24 and living in Chicago, saved thousands by using “Grammy’s” 0.77-carat old-European-cut diamond ring.

Mr. Ross is among many young people who have turned to heirlooms or other vintage rings for more affordable, often more meaningful, alternatives to new diamonds and wedding bands. Family members often pass down these rings freely or after some hand-wringing.

Concerns that newer diamonds might have been used to help finance civil wars in Africa — so-called conflict or blood diamonds — have also fueled interest in heirloom rings, though diamonds of all eras may carry some historical baggage.
CreditTom Bloom

Until the 1940s, brides generally did not expect to receive diamond engagement rings. But then De Beers, the world’s largest diamond producer, began aggressively marketing the link between diamonds and romance. In 1947, a Philadelphia agency hired by the company created a slogan — “A Diamond Is Forever”— that cemented that connection in the American mind.

“The De Beers campaign and the increased wealth in the economy meant that people were buying many more diamond engagement rings than they had previously,” said Tim Jackson, the chief executive of the Jewelry Industry Research Institute, a consulting practice. “With the passing of those that married in the postwar years, their precious jewelry has been handed down to a younger generation.”
Later, De Beers advertising added another caveat, suggesting that grooms should spend two months’ salary on the ring.

But Ira Weissman, the founder of the consumer education website Truth About Diamonds, says that couples today are more reluctant to spend that kind of money on an engagement ring.
“This generation, more than any in the past, knows what De Beers is all about, so to have them tell you that you need to spend two months’ salary to buy one is crazy,” he said.

Mr. Weissman, a former diamond salesman, answers thousands of reader emails and has seen a 50 percent increase in questions related to hand-me-down gems.

There is a good reason that more young couples are turning to the family jewelry box. According to a recent Pew Research survey, millennials have higher levels of student-loan debt, poverty and unemployment than the two previous generations had at the same stage of their lives.

That forces would-be grooms like Mr. Ross to choose between diamonds and debt. “I was nervous about using an heirloom,” he said. “It certainly felt weird, because it seemed not how you were supposed to go about it,” he added, explaining, “I felt a pressure as a man of, ‘I should go out and buy a ring.’ ”

Stephen Lussier, the executive vice president for marketing at the De Beers Group, said that the two-months’ salary benchmark originated from consumer research and that it might not apply to every situation. Still, he advised grooms of all income levels to view the purchase as a long-term investment.

“If you buy a car, you’d probably finance it over a few years, and at the end, it’s a goner,” he said. “With a diamond, you’re going to have it forever, so taking advantage of financing plans in jewelry is probably a helpful thing, because it means you’re going to be able to buy the diamond you’re going to be happy with for your whole life.”

But for some couples who share an apartment — and the bills — before marriage, the idea of a groom’s being required to spend an arbitrary amount on a ring is viewed as antiquated, if not outright anti-feminist.

Not only was Ms. Wendell opposed to Mr. Ross’s paying too much, but she also offered to split whatever the cost turned out to be. “I felt like it was just crazy that he should have to pay for the whole thing, for something that I was going to wear my entire life,” said Ms. Wendell, a graduate student at the University of Chicago.

Those without access to Grandma’s ring can explore the booming antique-jewelry market, which offers unique designs in addition to cheaper prices. “Typically, other jewelers will buy old-cut stones for less, and, therefore, they have room to sell them for less,” said Ilya Kunin, a jeweler and distributor of certified old-cut diamonds in Chicago. “It’s pretty much a buyer’s market, because it’s a niche product.”

Mr. Kunin started designing his own vintage-style line in 2007 in response to demand. “The young hipster movement has definitely opened up the vintage-jewelry market,” he said. “It’s not like those boring halo rings that you can find in your everyday mom-and-pop jewelry store. It’s something that’s rare and one of a kind.”
Many retailers have started catering to that spirit of individuality. “Millennials want everything to be personalized and nonuniform,” said David J. Bonaparte, the president and chief executive of Jewelers of America, a national trade association.

When Michael Mallick, 39, dropped to one knee last August, his girlfriend, Katie Wagner, 31, couldn’t have hoped for a more perfect ring than her grandmother’s 0.67-carat diamond. Its Art Deco style suited Ms. Wagner’s vintage taste — her clothes hail from Goodwill and her furniture from flea markets. But more important was the ring’s link to her past. Both of her paternal grandparents died when she was 6, and the ring is her only remaining connection to them. “They spoiled me because I was the first grandchild,” said Ms. Wagner, the founder of Remark Media Relations in San Francisco. “I just remember being the center of their world.”

Not everyone wants an engagement ring to be their “something old,” however. “We particularly see that a lot for the bridal market, where people refer to them sometimes as ‘virgin diamonds,’ ones without any history,” said Mr. Lussier, of De Beers. “They want to make their own history.”

Last May, when Matt Fellows asked Brittney McDermott (now Fellows), both 26, to marry him, he bought a new ring instead of using her grandmother’s 1950s diamond. “I wanted to get something special that just my wife, and only my wife, would ever wear as her ring,” said Mr. Fellows, an accountant in Salt Lake City. “There was a degree of wanting to show that this is my commitment and this is my investment into us.”
Buying a store-bought ring, though, has some couples worried about supporting “blood diamonds” — illegally mined stones used to finance armed rebels in conflict areas of Africa.

In October, Andrew Martin, 28, proposed to Mallory *rd onstage at a concert in Raleigh, N.C., presenting her with a conflict-free 1.96-carat engagement ring that originally belonged to Ms. *rd’s great-great-grandmother.
“I would not be wearing a giant diamond that was new from a store had this ring not come into play,” said Ms. *rd, 27, a community coordinator, who will also use her great-great-grandmother’s wedding band this weekend when the couple marry. “I would have been looking at vintage rings on Etsy or getting a ring that was eco-friendly, and I knew the source of the metals or the stones.”

But major retailers like Tiffany’s say that they also take special efforts to ensure that their jewels have been mined and processed in an ethical manner.

And less than 1 percent of diamonds mined in the world are conflict diamonds, according to Andrew Bone, the head of government relations for the De Beers Group and vice president of the World Diamond Council, a coalition representing diamond and jewelry industries. He attributed the decrease to the Kimberley Process, a United Nations-backed initiative that has for more than a decade worked to stem the flow of conflict diamonds.

Yet groups like Amnesty International are skeptical of the 1 percent figure and say that the Kimberley Process has not been as effective as it should be.
Of course, older rings can also have dark origins. Diamonds mined in colonial Africa exploited the continent’s indigenous inhabitants. Other rings were seized during the Holocaust and their provenance hidden when they were eventually sold.
“Late in the war, the Germans, knowing they were going to lose, took a lot of small, valuable items like diamonds into neutral countries like Sweden or Switzerland,” said Greg Bradsher, a senior archivist at the National Archives. “It’s almost impossible to ascertain if a particular diamond came from a victim.”
Yet because these events were so long ago, many see nothing negative about using antique rings. “Buying a vintage diamond, you’re not perpetuating ongoing abuses, because you’re just recycling and reusing,” said Beth Gerstein, the co-founder of Brilliant Earth, an online jeweler that uses only recycled gold and platinum in its engagement rings. In 2011, the site introduced antique rings, which became its fastest-growing category.

Ethical concerns aside, sometimes the preference for vintage diamonds just comes down to sheer romance.
For Stephanie Musso, 30, slipping on the ring of the great-grandmother of her fiancé, Cody Goodwin, 28, in January 2013 became her own Cinderella moment. “It felt like the universe aligned with us falling in love and deciding to get married, and then he gave me this ring, and it fit perfectly,” said Ms. Musso, a public relations account executive in San Luis Obispo, Calif. “It felt like destiny.”

A version of this article appears in print on April 6, 2014, on page ST20 of the New York edition with the headline: ‘With Grandma’s Ring, I Thee Wed’.