Behind hoped-for Valentine's Day bling ... er ... ring

"Her diamond's bigger but mine's better," a colleague once remarked of another's engagement ring. At the time, I doubted I'd ever meet a man with whom I wanted to spend a lifetime, so I ignored the competitiveness. At least I thought I had.

But when the love of my life turned out to be hopelessly romantic and proposed shopping for diamonds, I confess that I thought: "Nobody's gonna talk like that about my ring." I got on the Web and searched "engagement ring," "Tiffany's" and "DeBeers," fanatically.

Soon I found myself salivating for the sophistication, status, and overall classy aura of a Tiffany ring. I itched to say, with nauseating pseudo-modesty, "He wanted nothing but the best."

On the Internet, I discovered one expert's claims about the top diamond shapes whose wearers were least likely to stay married and felt idiotically relieved that my favorite - the princess cut - wasn't on the hit list.

Then I found a top-10 list of reasons "Why You Should Never Accept a Diamond Ring ... Even If They Really Want to Give You One." It cited environmental damage from open-pit mining; "conflict diamonds" from war-torn African countries, the sale of which fuels atrocities; and advertising campaigns that have brainwashed us to believe that diamonds equal eternal, passionate, trustworthy love.

I felt betrayed.

"How about a tract of land instead?" I joked to my sweetie, remembering an Ann Landers letter from a man whose fiancée, he had discovered the hard way, preferred carats to acreage. I'd sympathized with him. After all, land appreciates. Jewelry doesn't.

I e-mailed several companies: "What is your response to consumers who would be delighted with your rings but don't want to inadvertently support environmental damage and human suffering?" I wanted socially responsible replies showing that they were on top of the issues.

I didn't get one. One company mentioned conflict diamonds, but my questions about holes in their comforting yet vague promises of selling "conflict-free" stones met silence.

Boycotting diamonds, I read while surfing the Web, can be irresponsible, too. Diamond revenues in Botswana, for instance, are vital for fighting illiteracy and the spread of HIV, says a website of Debswana, a company jointly owned by DeBeers and the Botswanan government. Still, I couldn't bring myself to patronize companies whose public relations people ignored problems I cared about.

I tried rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. Their ethical track record was equally dubious. More searching turned up high-quality diamonds guaranteed to be mined, cut, and polished in Canada, and Canadian jewelry stores with owners committed to bettering their industry.

My fiancé's uncharacteristically practical reaction: "How much over budget can we go for our principles?"

Anyway, I was beginning to wonder if the whole engagement ring fuss was linked to pre-Ms. days when women were defined exclusively by their relationship to men. Why is it only women who wear visible symbols of their "taken" status before the wedding?

And while the joke about a wedding as a woman's crowning achievement - "she's earning her M-R-S," like a PhD, only reassuringly feminine - has died out (I think), the competitiveness of flaunt- ing engagement rings reminds me of the still current, ever hurtful, always wrong idea that being never married or divorced means you're a failure, or undesirable.

We ended up with a ring that his father gave his mother once upon a time: rubies in the shape of a flower, with tiny diamonds between.

My feminist principles are mostly intact because I'm not showing it off like a trophy. And as for sporting a token of his takenness, my fiancé offered to wear some sort of prewedding, ring too. ("Let's save that money for our honeymoon," I replied.)

The ring has good karma from his parents' love, which lasted until death did them part after 30 years of growing together in wisdom and happiness. I love the fact that his mother offered it to us with her blessing, and that looking at it during my day-to-day activities brings me back to the moment when, his voice cracking with nervousness as though we hadn't started discussing marriage the week we met, he formally proposed.

But from which country did the gems come? At what cost, to whom? It's easier not to know. If I'm rationalizing, so be it.

If we have kids, we'll teach them about sparkly stones and whether principles have a price tag. And hope that they'll have more choices by the time they grow up enough to offer their lives to a lover who reciprocates the trust, passion, and heart of such a gift.

Siri Louie, a PhD candidate in history at the University of Toronto, lives in Boston.

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