Marriage, Dowers and an Argument Against Diamond Rings

Close up on hand of a man put on an engagement ring on the finger of the bride
Pitcha Torranin/Shutterstock

I once had a Kenyan co-worker who explained to me the “dower” practice in his culture. To get married, my friend had to invest a large amount of personal property in his bride-to-be. This property was intended to remain with her for the rest of her life, to be a kind of security in the event of his untimely death.

Variations on this tradition (sometimes known as bride price) exist all over the world, causing us and our modern values all kinds of discomfort. Most archaic of all may be the dowry tradition (not to be confused with dower), wherein the groom to be pays his bride’s family a bunch of money or property in a kind of exchange for the woman. This simply won’t fly these days, but I’m here to say that our current wedding traditions are no less irrelevant. Later on, I’ll show how my friend’s dower investment worked out to benefit both him and his wife.

Creating and Marketing a Tradition

While the archaic idea of trying to somehow make a valuation on a future spouse, one’s love for her or her economic potential makes me queasy, Westerners have been duped into doing something equally misguided. Much has been made in recent months of DeBeers’ invention of the diamond engagement ring tradition, as an essential part of every engagement.

In the 1930s, having secured the bulk of the world’s supply of diamonds, the company just had to find a good way to sell them. And sell them it did, atop rings signifying men’s eternal devotion to their future wives (the company tried to roll out diamond engagement rings for men, but it never caught on). Highly visible shiny rocks at celebrity weddings solidified the tradition in the mind of the public. Diamonds are forever. And if you want your marriage to be, you’d better have one of your own.

The 1930s marked a change in American marriage. A generation before, less than 10 percent of marriages ended in divorce. This number began steadily increasing until the ’70s and ’80s, when the divorce rate approached and sometimes exceeded 50 percent. But all the while, the expensive diamond engagement ring remained pervasive, though it frequently outlasted the relationship it symbolized. By this time, it was culturally accepted that a man spend three months’ wages on a ring like this. That makes quite a statement, but is it really the best use of that money?

Three Months of Earnings

As a finance writer, I have to say, ardently, no. I’m not a married man, but if the day comes, I’m sure my betrothed will agree that two to three months’ wages could be better used for nearly any other purpose. We could put a down payment on a house, start a business or have a honeymoon for the ages. While a diamond is certainly far from worthless, it’s not a true investment. It’s speculation.

Just as buying gold bars to sew into your mattress is just a wager that the price of gold will one day go up, a diamond can’t do anything for you. When the day comes to (god forbid) sell it, you’re bound to the fickleness of world diamond prices on that particular day. Now imagine if you took that same amount of money and used it to build a life for yourselves, together.

Back to my friend from Kenya. What makes his situation special is that he agreed with his wife’s family to use the traditional dower to move with his wife to Canada, where he could get a good job and build a life for themselves and their future children. After some consideration, the family agreed, and the young couple moved here, where they have secured citizenship, mastered the language and built an enviable life for themselves.

I can think of no better example of a modern attitude toward symbolized love and commitment in a marriage. Whether Anasa has ever bought his wife a diamond, I don’t know, but he could certainly afford one now. If you are reading this — and believe yourself to be marriage material — I urge you to consider the best allocation of your engagement and wedding capital. While rings and ceremonies can be beautiful symbols, I think there is nothing better than building something real, as a couple, with money that would otherwise just go to the diamond vendors.

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