Twelve years ago, when my mother was dying, my younger sisters and I lay in bed with her, passing around her engagement ring. The diamond solitaire, which had originally belonged to my father’s grandmother in the 1800s, sparkled on my mother’s left hand every day of our lives. Now, however, my mother was so frail and thin that the ring kept slipping off. My sisters and I had always loved the ring, but she had never said which one of us would inherit it. On that day, just a week before she died, she settled the matter with a sudden aesthetic judgment: “It only looks good on Elliott’s hand.”
It’s true that only my fingers were small enough for the ring. I have my mother’s slender hands—beautiful hands, people always tell me—and so my sisters accepted her decision. My sisters are both married; they wear rings from their husbands. But the stunning heirloom I inherited spends most of its time in a box. For me, the ring is a Proustian madeleine—I conjure my mother’s hand when I put it on—but it’s so clearly an engagement ring that I rarely wear it.
On Instagram, there are 4.7 million posts tagged #engaged, and another 1.2 million tagged #engagementring, most of which are close-ups of left hands, displaying women’s betrothal bling. Engagement rings—most of them sporting diamonds—have long been treated as prizes by heterosexual women; a ring symbolizes how much a man values you. (Per Beyoncé: “If you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it.”) All those Instagrammed rings seem like victory laps. Women all over America (this strikes me as a particularly American phenomenon) are perpetuating the materialist notion that diamonds are a girl’s best friend. Or, as the De Beers advertising campaign began declaring in 1947, that “a diamond is forever.” (The slogan was penned by a copywriter named Frances Gerety, a woman who never married.)
I’m not a diamond person; even if the jewels are ethically sourced, bling is simply not my thing. And my feminist principles make me uncomfortable with engagement rings. If I ever agree to marry someone, I wouldn’t wear one unless my partner wore one, too. And yet, when I do wear my mother’s, I put it on my left hand. An engagement ring on my finger offers useful protection when I don’t want men to bother me. And when people ask me when I’m getting married, I like to say, “Never.” I even posted a picture of my hand, with the ring, on Instagram earlier this month, to see the reactions. (“This raises questions,” one friend commented; another emailed me to say, “Oh my God, did you meet someone?!”) I like divorcing the ring from its symbolism, from its proposed function.
It’s ironic that the traditional engagement ring design (think of the famous Tiffany six-pronged setting) is called a “solitaire”—a word rooted in the Latin for “lonely.” In French, solitaire is a noun meaning “recluse,” and to do something en solitaire is to do it alone. I know my mother hoped that I’d end up getting married and having children; she wouldn’t have wanted me to live en solitaire. But the older I get, the more my solitary life feels like a gift. I live on my own terms, which is more precious than any diamond.