The engagement ring can be seen as an exemplar of an object or symbol ‘doing work’ as a signifier. When worn on a certain finger; or when given to someone in a particular manner, it’s meaning is clear. However, what I want to explore is how this sign-value can be ‘damaged’ – or altered, through alternative forms of consumption. Let me pose a scenario: married man and woman divorce – she sells her engagement ring to a second-hand shop or another kind of retailer. The ring, once a symbol of the love in the marriage and ’til death do us part, now signifies the destroyed relationship for the woman. She just wants to ‘move on’ – the emotional losses she is suffering are somewhat soothed by re-selling the ring that symbolized her relationship. It gives her a bit of power in a situation where she feels helpless and alone. Now rid of the ring, she can perhaps put this money towards her new life – a deposit for a new home, a piece of jewelry to signify this new period or something else entirely. But what of the ring? Now sold to a second-hand retailer, it has lost it’s original sign-value and it sits in the glass cabinet, in limbo, waiting for someone else to decide what it can mean.
It could be that a new couple purchases the ring to signify their engagement and impending marriage. However, superstition bestows ‘bad karma’ on these kinds of rings. The new couple are more likely to purchase a new ring from a jeweler; a ring without a tarnished torrid past. The new engagement ring is seen as a better signifer; without the dark cloud of where the ring may have been and what it may have meant to another couple. A friend of mine likes to buy diamond engagement-style rings at Cash Converters because she knows that they have been symbolically de-valued and she gets the diamonds re-set into new rings. She doesn’t say it like that and looks at me strangely when I do. She just likes getting diamonds cheap.
The wedding dress is another example of this. Any woman who has been married will tell you that purchasing a new dress is expensive. But buying one second-hand is much cheaper. I bought my wedding dress second-hand. In the shop, the new ones were $5000 – $10,000. My second-hand dress, looking identical to those other dresses, cost $2000. Family and friends still think I’m weird for wearing a dress ‘with a history’ or with ‘mileage’. One asked me, ‘What if the other couple got divorced? A second-hand wedding dress is really unlucky’. My pragmatism could not justify the price difference and I thought the superstition around weddings was illogical. I didn’t enjoy playing the role of ‘bride’. The relationship I had (and still have!) with my partner superseded all this frou-frou and cultural custom. I was a poor sport going through some of the motions; I changed out of my dress after entree at the reception. I was antagonistic towards the sign-value of the bridal dress – I felt objectified and unauthentic. It did not symbolize my relationship and the generic bride culture left little room for uniqueness. I had the traditional wedding in the beautiful old mansion on acres of garden that my mother wanted for herself but couldn’t have due to her father’s ill health. It was a wonderful day with my family and friends; yet my grouchiness at having to ‘be’ something probably dampened the mood at times! My gorgeous sister-in-law just got married – and she was not only a vision of beauty and grace, but a class act. I cried like a baby several times that day, moved by her glorious womanhood and happy relationship. Only now can I see how ‘the bride’ can be conceptualized by loved ones – when someone special is playing the role, the role becomes a prosthesis on top of your warm feelings towards the person. I didn’t see my gorgeous little sis as a generic bride that day; she was The Bride – glorious, elegant and regal. I was in awe of her and I can’t wait to see the wedding pictures in a few days (I was her bridesmaid and didn’t get the chance for happy snaps).
There could be divergences to my thoughts – such as a beloved family heirloom wedding dress or engagement ring, rich with happy narrative and stories. Vintage objects fascinate me as a material culture researcher and theorist. They are rich with potential stories, symbols and romance. I find it interesting to think on the object – and it’s sign-value, how it can be asymmetrically understood. By this, I mean to address how we can keep secrets from each other. What if your fiance didn’t tell you that he bought you a second-hand ring? Would it change it’s meaning if he told you later about it? And what happens when couples disagree on the use of heirlooms to signify their marriage? I think that this is why the lead-up to weddings can be so emotionally charged; there are multiple worldviews – and familial cultures – colliding. It can be messy – like some awkward weddings I have attended – or it can be so loving and beautiful that it moves one to tears – like the union of my in-laws and my sister-in-law’s new family.The wedding also became a celebration of a widening family. When symbols, shared meaning, love, culture and emotions collide, it can be an incredible human experience.