Why Do People Care So Much About Jewelry?

tags: Jewelry

Wendy Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago and the author of over 40 books, including "On Hinduism and Redeeming the Kamasutra," and, most recently, "The Ring of Truth: And Other Myths of Sex and Jewelry."

What I call the slut assumption—the belief that when a woman appears with a new piece of jewelry, people assume that she got it by sleeping with some man—came to me while I was working on a book about women masquerading as people masquerading as them (The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was), a book that had in turn sprung from the head of another, earlier book of mine about people masquerading as other people in bed (The Bedtrick:  Tales of Sex and Masquerade).   It was actually my Oxford University Press editor who noticed that, in many of these stories, jewelry seemed to provide the final clue to the identity of a sexual trickster.  

This started me thinking about why people care so much about jewelry; not just because gold rings are pretty—lots of other things are much prettier (daffodils, watercolors, swans)—or valuable, or indestructible, and so forth, but because gold rings are loaded with tons of mythological baggage. As a card-carrying mythologist, that sparked my interest. I soon discovered that the assumptions behind most of the stories were sexist:  women are deceitful, interchangeable, but, above all, things that can be owned, not only bought by jewelry but stamped (and identified as private male property) by jewelry.  At the same time, the stories expressed a feminist counter-agenda: women for centuries have used male assumptions about jewelry to fool their men, to trick them into acknowledging sexual promises and paternal responsibilities when they tried to wiggle out of them.   

Once I started looking for such stories, I found them everywhere, in ancient texts and Hollywood movies and everything in between.   I also found the mythological power of jewelry invoked in ways I had never noticed before.  

Marie Antoinette, for instance, was sent to the guillotine in large part because she was accused of having accepted a diamond necklace from Cardinal Rohan and therefore of having slept with him. A court trial proved that neither of these accusations was true (the Queen had never even seen the necklace, and had never had anything to do with the Cardinal).  But the Cardinal himself believed it because another woman had masqueraded as the Queen in the dark, just like a character in one of the old stories (or, more precisely, in Beaumarchais’s play The Marriage of Figaro, which had been premiered in that very same year, 1785). And everyone else believed it because they were bamboozled by the dominant myth of women accepting jewelry from men as payment for sexual favors.  

These are not just old stories that fooled people in the past who were not as sophisticated as we are now.  The power of the myth works on us too.    Take, for example, diamond engagement rings.   Everyone knows that a girl has to have a diamond engagement ring, and the general belief is that a man should spend three months’ salary on such a ring. People know that this is a very old custom.   Well, no, actually, it is not a very old custom.  It is a lie invented by the N. W. Ayer advertising firm hired in 1939 by the de Beers diamond cartel, to deal with a problem:  the South African mines had produced so many diamonds that their value had plummeted; in 1892 Sears was selling diamond rings through the Roebuck mail-order catalogue for as little as $5.75 each (about $150 today).   Riding piggyback on the idea that a man should give a woman a ring if he loves her (which is a very old myth throughout the European world), de Beers just slipped in the word “diamond,” and the motto, A Diamond is Forever, and voila!  An instant new myth!  And hundreds of thousands of men felt that it was—indeed, it always had been—absolutely essential to spend $10,000 on a diamond engagement ring instead of a down payment on a condo.

And so my research also uncovered a history of the power of myth to overcome reason. For within the stories, people would often raise reasonable objections to the “proof” offered by jewelry; the man faced with the signet ring that “proved” he had fathered the child in question would often say, “Sure that’s my ring, but you could have bought it” or “stolen it” or “gotten it from me on some other occasion than in bed” or, indeed, “That’s not my ring.“  Yet in the end, the power of the old story took over, and the ring was accepted as proof that he was the sexual culprit, and people added this latest variant to the ranks of the old story.  

Why do these mythic structures have such a stranglehold on the human imagination? More particularly, why do people keep telling stories that fly so blatantly in the face of logic and reason, even when logical concerns are explicitly raised in the course of the stories themselves? The ring story survives because, despite the distortions that it often inflicts upon reason, it also fulfills more positive functions. One is the salvaging of the sense of a moral world. Myths work against not the unreasonable but the immoral; they repair the immoral universe and give us hope that we might make it more moral.  The belief that love will last forever, and that your special ring is proof of this, is spectacularly counterfactual but not counterintuitive. It is entirely intuitive, it is what we want to believe, it is what our deepest intuitions grab hold of instead of reason, and it is what the mythology feeds on.

I continue to find new stories about jewelry that ring, as it were, new changes on the themes I thought I had pretty well locked up in my book.   I found, for instance, advertisements for LifeGems, a diamond that they will create “from the ashes of your loved one.” The LifeGem diamond can also be made from the carbon in a lock of hair.   Now, there are many examples in world mythology of jewelry, particularly rings, that become absorbed into a person’s body and become virtually part of their body.   And there is also the old custom of putting a lock of your beloved’s hair into a gold locket.   But nowadays, with LifeGems, you can have the reverse:  you can make your beloved’s body into a ring.   Clearly, reason still plays no part in our attitude toward jewelry.

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