Veblen writes, “the earliest form of ownership is an ownership of the women by the able-bodied men of the community.” (15) We see this ownership present today in the diamond engagement ring. It is on one hand a show of ownership, this woman is off limits, belongs to someone. Once upon a time, it would have come with an exchange of a herd of cattle or some tremendous dowry. It’s clearly also a display of conspicuous consumption – the bigger, the more the man is worth. It “should” cost the man so many months’ salary to pay for it.
“If you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it” – Beyonce
We know the myth perpetuated by the DeBeers family in South Africa, artificially created a market for diamonds. The diamond is a perfect symbol of leisure consumption. It’s of no use (at least as a stone on a ring) and it’s not actually all that rare. But by constructing a myth of its value, diamonds became a way for men to show off their wealth vicariously, and to be of good manners, good blood, have to literally buy into this, and take ownership of the ring. That isn’t to suggest, as Veblen does, that useless things can’t have other uses. In this case, the symbolism of commitment – literally engagement, but such a show of symbolism need not be achieved by a diamond, for anything agreed to by both parties as having importance should suffice. The diamond ring is however, primarily a way to show off wealth, to claim ownership of the wearer. The man is saying, I have so much, I can bejewel my property or as Veblen writes, “possession of the honorific booty” (18) and women’s “usefulness as trophies.” (16)
“That girl is feeling Trapped by that ring on her finger” – Johnny Clegg
For the women, the ring is a sense of pride, something to be showed off, and oohed and ahhed at by their friends. It’s an affiliation, perhaps of love, but certainly of connection to wealth. The connection between the engagement ring and ownership has bothered for some time in the abstract. Veblen’s ideas compound my existing feelings, as the idea of the ring is not quite so much in the abstract at this point in time. – Nick