23 March 2010

Shiny Things

I've read a lot of pieces online in the last several years about how diamond engagement rings are inherrently worthless, and advising people not to buy into that particular tradition. Frankly, I sort of agree with them: a diamond is just a shiny bit of 12C, and it would be a lot easier world to live in if the DeBeers marketing team hadn't thought this whole engagement ring scheme up a century ago.

What confuses me is that I never hear the people who object to diamond engagement rings objecting to jewelry more broadly. Is there any "inherent value" to pearl earrings or a silver necklace? For many people a diamond engagement ring is treated as a barrier to entering the next stage of a relationship, but gifts of jewelry in general are pretty much a prerequisite for maintaining a relationship over long periods of time for those same people.

For that matter, shouldn't the anti-diamond-ring people take the position that any aesthetic adornment is just as frivolous? What's the inherent value of the art prints I have on my wall, or the ties in my closet?

I used to be in the diamond-rings-are-silly camp until I saw how much pleasure it brings Special Lady Friend. The worth of an engagement ring isn't in what you can do with it, or make out of it, or any other utility calculation. It's in the happiness the receiver takes in it. Gifts aren't important because the giver likes them, they're valuable because the receiver likes them. Maybe women everywhere are being silly by deriving joy from these shiny bits of carbon, but if we dug a little deeper I think we'd find we do a whole litany of things for no better reason than "it makes me happy (even if I can't defend that happiness rigorously)."

Would it be nice if we lived in a society that was more rational about diamond rings and all the rest? Absolutely. But we don't. There are many, many, many things I wish we were more rational about. Diamonds are way down the priority list of those things.

Another curious inconsistency: I find it interesting that lots of people trumpet on about how diamonds have no "inherent" value, and simultaneously it is widely believed that the only worthwhile currency is gold.* One of these two camps has got to be wrong, don't they? Gold only has value because other people want it. Surely that's just as good an argument for diamonds, right?

Yes, gold has various properties that make it a good candidate if you need some commodity to back a currency: it doesn't degrade, it's easy to assay, etc. But at the heart of the matter is that it's shiny and other people want it. That's it.

* Yes, I realize the trading price of diamonds is driven up by the De Beers cartel, and that both gold and diamonds actually have various minor manufacturing uses. But if we remove both of those issues from the world with a magic wand gold and diamonds would trade at lower prices, but the general opinions of whether they had "inherent" value would be the same.

(I got on this topic because of a post by Conor Friedersdorf at The American Scene, though it isn't really a direct response to that. Friedersdorf is in the generally anti-diamond camp, though much more civil about it than most are.)

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