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Diana Kept and Wore Her Engagement Ring After the Divorce. Is That Usual?

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Diana's Much-copied Sapphire-and-diamond Engagement Ring
Diana's Much-copied Sapphire-and-diamond Engagement Ring | Image credit: Netflix

Last year, before the 20th anniversary of her tragic death, The Story of Diana came out on ABC. I found it on Netflix a couple of months ago and watched the two-part documentary in one go. Diana is still a fascination, still an icon and forever a legend.

How could one person capture the imagination of the world like she has? The moment she was in the public eye, women were copying her hairstyle, her wardrobe and — after her engagement to Prince Charles was announced — her engagement ring. Replicas were sold in every price range — from cheap knock-offs to high-end versions.

If the public’s obsession with the design waned after her death, it was revived once more when her son, Prince William, presented the same ring to Catherine Middleton when he asked her to marry him. Story has it that after Diana’s death, her sons picked mementoes from her possessions. William chose a Cartier watch; Harry chose the engagement ring. When the brothers swapped mementoes is unclear. But as to why…

Apparently, when Harry saw how much his older brother loved Kate Middleton, he made a touching sacrifice and offered to take the watch instead. [Source]

True or not, who knows for sure? The interesting thing is that, obviously, Diana kept the ring after her divorce. And she had been photographed wearing it.

Is that usual — a woman keeping her engagement ring after the divorce? Whose property is the engagement ring anyway — the man’s or the woman’s? There seems to be more literature about what happens to the ring in case the engagement is broken off. But we can take a cue from such practices about who really owns the ring if the marriage ends in divorce.

Who owns the engagement ring?

The traditional practice is that if the woman breaks off the engagement, the man has a right to demand the return of the ring. If the man breaks off the engagement, the woman may keep the ring as some form of “compensation” for her besmirched reputation.

But that’s tradition. Legally, it depends on where you are in the world. In some countries, the engagement ring is considered a gift and, as such, its return cannot be demanded. In other countries, it is considered a “conditional” gift and the condition is that the marriage takes place. If the marriage does not happen, the condition is deemed not to have been fulfilled and the ring must be returned.

And if the marriage does take place, who owns the engagement ring? Is the the exclusive property of the wife or part of the community property of the spouses?

Well, even if we follow the thinking that it is a conditional gift, the condition has been fulfilled so the ring has become the property of the wife. And since it was given BEFORE the marriage, then it is her exclusive property (unless she signed a lopsided pre-nup that states everything brought into the marriage by both parties form part of the community property).

It follows, therefore — quite logically — that, in case of divorce, the woman gets to keep the engagement ring.

Wherever did the practice of giving an engagement ring come from?

There have been “betrothal” rings since ancient Rome and, apparently, it was the only ring given in relation to the marriage. The significance of the ring, however, was more ominous than romantic. Ancient Rome. Ancient practices when women were considered no better than chattels. The ring symbolized the transfer of ownership of a woman from her father to her husband. It was a reservation—and what has been reserved could no longer be the subject of another negotiation.

The practice underwent modifications over the centuries.

Diamonds did not really enter the picture until they were discovered in South Africa in the 19th century and diamonds flooded the market. But even then, diamond jewelry were associated with the royals and the nobles, but not with the man on the street.

That a diamond engagement ring is a “must” began as a marketing ploy of De Beers

So, how did it happen that majority of women have come to expect a diamond ring to “naturally” accompany a marriage proposal?

De Beers, the company that, by 1887, owned all South African diamond mines. It also fixed prices by claiming that diamonds were rare.

It brings all of its rough stones to a clearing house in London and sorts them into thousands of grades, judged by colour, size, shape and value. For decades, if anyone had rough diamonds to sell on the side, De Beers bought these too, adding them to the mix. A huge stockpile helped it to maintain high prices while it successfully peddled the myth that supply was scarce.

Although diamonds enjoyed a degree of popularity after South African mines started churning them out at the rate of 10 million carats per year on the average, the Western world was cash-strapped by the 1930’s following the double whammy that were World War II and the Great Depression.

De Beers wasn’t happy with the plummeting sales of its diamonds. It hired an advertising firm which connived with Hollywood actresses to publicly wear diamonds (a practice emulated by other jewelers, including Harry Winston, that persist to this day). It came up with a marketing campaign that said the engagement ring should be worth a man’s single month salary. But it wasn’t until 1947, when a female copywriter came up with “A Diamond is Forever” that made diamonds a must in the life of every bride-to-be. By the 1980’s, the “single month salary” campaign became “two months’ salary”.

The implication, of course, was that how much a man loved a woman was directly proportional with how much he was willing to spend for a diamond engagement ring. As twisted as it may be, the marketing ploy has been working since.