Today's class rings blend something old, something new

While they may have found Pearl Jam in their stockings and Jewel under the tree, the first gift of the season for many teenagers this year was real bling: their high school class rings. Fitted up and ordered back in the fall, class rings typically arrive just in time for holiday wearing.

In this demographic, where a ring is as likely to adorn a toe or an eyebrow as a finger, shared tradition still holds appeal. "About one-third of all high school students purchase class rings," says Rich Stoebe, of Jostens, a major supplier to high schools. This is down from a high of about 50 percent in the late 1960's.

But don't try to identify someone's alma mater from the look of his ring. "When I went to high school back in the mid '60's, all the boys got one style and all the girls got one style.

"Now each ring is individually crafted," says Michael Williams of Herff Jones, another industry leader. As options for customizing abound, schools no longer have this unique look, and class rings are less about the class and more about its individual members.

Multiple options on today's rings

Today a ring may be shiny or antiqued, peridot or tourmaline, faceted or smooth with a crest instead, or even a diamond. It can proclaim your nickname or that of your true love, your religious persuasion, your interest in cosmetology, your love for the Confederate flag, your billiards acumen, your fondness for calf roping, your Latin prowess. All that and - oh - also your year of graduation.

To Sarah Durkin, of Cresco, Pa., a senior at Pocono Mountain East High School, that's a little sad. "Even if we just all had the same color stone, then it'd be more like a class." Still, she has managed to cobble together her own balance of individuality and school spirit, choosing a ruby, which represents both her birthstone and her school color, and a soccer ball for the side, allowing room as well for the school mascot, a cardinal.

But her classmate, and senior class president, Allen Ghaida decided not to get a ring at all. "I can't stand jewelry," he explains. "I have a yearbook. That's all I need." He can't see himself wasting money on a ring tied to high school.

And the money can be considerable. Ranging from about $60 for something in a nonprecious metal and with little customizing, to well over $1,000 if you include the diamonds, the average high school ring runs about $250 and is of 10K gold, Jostens' Stoebe says.

Some students, however, let others worry about prices. Sarah Durkin sheepishly admits that she has "no idea" how much her ring cost. "My mom handed me the check and said 'Here. Hand this in.' "

Ring salespeople still typically call on schools and measure students personally, but their on-line designing and ordering services are increasingly popular. And with printable strips to aid in sizing, discounters like Wal-mart are also getting into the act via the Internet.

A measure of school spirit?

At Pocono Mountain East High School, about half the students opt for rings, says student government association adviser Jerry Lastowski. "They take it very seriously." His district has been flooded with newcomers in recent years - including families fleeing New York City after 9/11 - and these new students are not as likely to buy rings. "The meaning of Pocono Mountain is not the same for them as it is for the ones who went from K through 12."

But forgoing class rings does not imply lack of school spirit, says Byron Goldstein, spokesperson for Abington High School, in suburban Philadelphia, where rings are not popular. In generations past, "The class ring may have been the first piece of jewelry worn, especially for a guy," he says. But today "a lot of jewelry is already being worn."

Now, he sees school pride displayed on T-shirts, sweatshirts, license plates, and caps.

Schools hoping to interject meaning into a carton full of rings bearing camera club crests, yin/yang symbols and "BoBo" engravings often do so through a ceremony. These are especially popular in private schools, as a way of launching upcoming seniors into school leadership, but they are now gaining ground in some public schools as well. Ranging from casual to solemn, ring ceremonies typically include readings and music important to the school, and background on the symbolism and tradition embodied in the ring.

"We wanted to do something a little more special than just having the students picking them up in the hall between classes," says Mr. Lastowski, of Pocono Mountain East's decision eight years ago to begin an annual ring ceremony.

This fall, Sarah Durkin enjoyed watching the class behind hers get their rings. "My friends came up and said 'turn it.' It was kind of special," she said referring to the custom of twisting a classmate's ring on his or her finger, a practice whose ultimate meaning and precise rules vary from school to school. "The turning signifies your class year, but no one really follows how many times you have it turned. Everyone turns it in the same direction, and then the last person turns it in the opposite direction to 'lock' it."

Like high school itself, "locking it" is a memory having more to do with the "who" than the "what." Durkin explains, "I picked my best friend to lock mine. And I locked hers for her."

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