When I turned 18 years old, my parents gave me a pair of diamond earrings. Later that same night at a comedy club, when a comedian on stage asked me what I got for my birthday, I showed him the diamonds.
"You must be Jewish, right?" he said.
Over the next few years, as more of my young girlfriends got engaged, boasting rocks the size of eyeballs on their smooth, manicured hands, I was as mystified by the appeal of these gargantuan rings as I was by the rush to the chuppah.
Why would you want to wear a $10,000, 2-carat obstruction -- getting snagged on sweaters, dirty on hikes, hidden on subways, lost during hand-washing -- on your hand every day? Was this the price of your dowry? Was it the measure of a woman's value, like so much chattel, as written into the traditional ketubbah, the Jewish wedding license?
It must be, I thought, as it seemed that the bigger the ring, the more valued my friends seemed to feel.
Look, it's not like young Jewish women are the only ones taken in by the diamond hype -- women everywhere have fallen for the industry slogan, "Diamonds Are Forever," which, as evidenced by the high divorce rate, they are not. (So what if the stones last forever? The promises of love they ostensibly represent can fade like ice melting.)
This whole issue came to mind again after watching "Blood Diamond," director Edward Zwick's exposé of conflict diamonds -- stones acquired in war zones, in this case during the civil war in Sierra Leone.
Much has been written about the film and the state of the diamond industry today -- for instance, is it true that the big companies store away diamonds to make them more valuable? Is it possible for consumers to differentiate between "conflict diamonds" and "conflict-free" diamonds? But after all is said and done, what bothers me still about diamonds is the same question I had when I was 18.
What do diamonds have to do with love?
Now, as when I was 18, I still believe: nothing.
When I was 18, I thought I'd buck the trend. I swore I wouldn't get married till I was at least 25, I said, to the consternation of my friends and relatives, and I wouldn't wear a diamond ring.
"You just don't understand!" My friends rolled their eyes at yet another of my feminist outbursts. A diamond, they said, represents something. "People see the rings on your finger, and they know you're taken, and well taken care of."
"Why can't I wear an amethyst, a sapphire, a ruby?" I said.
It's not like I really wanted to wear a different stone. There would still be the same snagging, mugging and hiking problems. As a matter of fact, I hate all rings, because when it comes to typing, writing, playing piano and surfing, they just get in the way.
But a diamond ring seems to me -- now that I see the controversy of their production -- a symbol of everything wrong about the institution of marriage.
No, I'm not so antediluvian as to say: "Why get married? It's just a piece of paper." I believe marriage is a holy covenant, one that makes both a private and public statement as to a couple's commitment. I just don't know why a diamond, through marketing genius, must represent that commitment.
And why we, as consumers, as single women -- some of whom now buy themselves diamond rings as symbols of their self-sufficiency -- give in to the hype, especially now knowing the controversial origins of some diamonds.
As to my own diamond earrings, like most of my jewelry -- lost, broken, languishing in boxes waiting to be restrung, cleaned, soldered -- I lost one of the earrings a few years after my birthday. I had the other one made into a necklace. It hangs from a gold chain, fastened by a secure clasp to prevent loss. It's a rather delicate, miniscule stone, really, and it's the only piece of jewelry I've kept over the years.
It survived the years with me: the transcontinental and transatlantic moves, the boyfriends, the jobs, the successes, the losses -- and somehow it has come to mean more to me than the sparkle it emits, more than the sum of its parts.
I hope that when I get married I'll eschew the whole ring thing, or at least the diamond, or maybe the diamond that costs two months' salary -- and especially the diamond that costs someone their hand or their life.
But who knows? Love -- and especially weddings -- have a way of making even the most staunch feminists starry eyed. Still, I hope it's my love -- not the materialistic sparkling symbol of it -- that lasts forever.
A girl can always dream.