Diamonds: Not Every Girl’s Best Friend
Unbeknownst to some, the custom of giving one’s (female) beloved a diamond engagement ring only dates back as far as the twentieth century. It was introduced through one of the most successful advertising campaigns of all time, sponsored by the South African diamond mining and trading company, De Beers.
A diamond is forever. So sayeth the master copy-writer; though given the level of penetration in the Jewish (and Christian) West, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a biblical command.
I decided many years ago that I would never wear a diamond and since my partner and I announced our intention to marry, people young and old, religious and secular, Jewish and otherwise, have related the De Beers ‘wisdom’ to me. Some have even repeated the copy verbatim – Why don’t you want a diamond ring? Diamonds are a girl’s best friend!
Despite hearing more statements to this effect over the last three months than I ever could have imagined, I am happy to confirm that I still believe that my best friend is a person, and know that love cannot be immortalised by a rock however shiny.
In addition, I am aware that diamond mining, along with the mining of other very precious stones, is one of the most exploitative of all human trades. Conflict over land is often precipitated by the desire for jurisdiction over natural resources, and diamonds are no exception to this rule.
But in the case of diamonds, the exorbitant monetary value of stones small enough to be smuggled from a mine in a worker’s pocket, also promotes violence and exploitation in the diamond mining industry. Although it is possible to buy diamonds that are conflict-free (mined in a country that is not at war), it is still difficult to ascertain the work conditions in which a diamond was mined.
Whilst the various tit-bits of pro-diamond propaganda that I have been exposed to of late have not convinced me to start wearing a diamond on my finger, they have prompted me to think about why this young tradition has become so widely accepted.
In addition to Law, tradition has long been considered an important part of Jewish practice. So much so that some traditions (called minhagim) are considered to be halakhicly (legally) binding even though they are not based in Torah Law.
I am not suggesting that the diamond engagement ring tradition is so pervasive to have become binding minhag. I do wonder, however, whether the large group of secular but traditional Australian Jews who nevertheless feel very strongly about adhering to Orthodox Jewish tradition at life-cycle events distinguish between those customs that can be said to be more authentically Jewish and those, like the diamond engagement ring, whose origins are more commercial.
And as one secular-traditional Australian Jew said in defence of Jews wearing diamond engagement rings, every woman in [the ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn neighbourhood of] Borough Park has a diamond ring. One could also add that every (married) woman in Borough Park has taken on her husband’s surname even though the tradition of taking a married name is as also foreign to the Jewish tradition. Ashkenazi Jews only started using surnames at the time of emancipation, circa 19th century. Prior to that they were known by their first names and the names of their parents, which obviously didn’t change after marriage.
So why do some non-Jewish life practices gain traction in the Jewish world, while others do not? This question begs another question about more ancient Jewish customs, many of which would also have been derived from foreign practices many years ago.
It is interesting that Maimonides argues that many Jewish practices were devised by God to be similar to idolatrous practices without actually constituting idolatry. For example, Maimonides argues that God commanded sacrifice precisely because it was already an established form or worship prior to the giving of the Torah; the idea being that the Jewish people were used to worshipping through sacrifice. By commanding them to offer sacrifices to God only, their desire to sacrifice would be channelled toward good and they would be weaned toward monotheism. (See Guide for the Perplexed, volume 3, chapter 32.)
Using similar logic, one could argue diamond engagement rings should become Torah law; so that when people wear them they do so for God rather than money. But I’d prefer to drop the extraneous tradition, and thank God that it was only commanded by De Beers and not Torah.