Perspective: Ring in the New

Wedding bands, the new status accessories for guys

This week—specifically, on Thursday—some 260,000 American men will participate in an odd but enduring male ritual. No, not beer pong. They will drop to one knee before their sweethearts and propose marriage. In fact, Valentine’s Day is the single most popular square on the calendar in which to pop the question. And, of course, unless he’s angling to join the castrati, our hero will have a ring box in his hand when he does it. Ah, love. The most beautiful traditions never change.

But one look at the two wedding ring ads here will show you how nearly every other thing about proposing has changed. According to Ellen Fruchtman of Fruchtman Marketing, a consultancy specializing in wedding jewelry, the four decades that separate these 1972 and 2013 ads have witnessed the rise of many new trends, but perhaps none more startling than this: The ring has gone from being a commitment symbol to a lifestyle product. “Overall, from a creative standpoint, these ads are the same. The couple is in love, and the brands pull out the jewelry,” Fruchtman said. “But we have become materialists. Wedding jewelry has become about aspirations, no different from a luxury car.”

Before we get to that, let’s hit the obvious changes. If the couple in this Keepsake ad looks like two kids, it’s because they were. The median age for a first marriage in the early 1970s was 23 for guys and 21 for women. (Today, respectively, it’s 28 and 26.) We’ve also witnessed a dramatic shift in gender roles. In the 1972 ad, Fruchtman said, “She’s so submissive, looking longingly at him as if to say, ‘Oh, I just adore you!’” The newer ad says: “I’ll screw you!” In fact—forgive us—chances are she already has. According to the CDC, a mere 14 percent of women donning that white bridal gown these days are actually virgins.

The sexiness of the Triton ad speaks to more than just the redefining of personal morality, however. It’s just as much about style and individuality. Say you covered up all the text. Could this photo not pass as an advertisement for designer jeans or a seductive cologne? There’s a familiarity and irreverence to this couple that’s a million miles removed from the tentative touching of the 1972 ad. But the most notable shift is who this ad is directed at—not the blushing bride of the 1970s but the groovy groom of the millennial generation. “Today, he picks out his own ring,” Fruchtman said, “and men are looking for very different things.”

In fact, this Triton ring is the veritable anthesis of what most brides would want. It has minimal styling and mere chips for diamonds. “But the guy will buy it,” Fruchtman said, “because it’s tough.” Hold on. Isn’t that the same reason he’d buy a car or a wristwatch? Indeed so. The matrimonial evolution on view here proves that today’s dudes want to look cool, even if it’s marching down the aisle of a church.