clock menu more-arrow no yes
an engagement ring
Poundland’s £1 engagement ring.
Sarah Lawrence for Vox/Poundland

Why placeholder engagement rings are on the rise

Engagement rings are pricey and (hopefully) permanent. Some are proposing with temporary solutions.

Rachel Liu’s new fiancé had done his homework — studying the Pinterest board of jewelry styles she’d not-so-subtly sent him six months prior — and when she looked last February at the ring he proposed with, she was pleased. The simple band with a sparkly, round solitaire checked all her boxes. Except the ring the law student admired in a state of just-engaged bliss wasn’t technically hers. The diamond wasn’t even a diamond, but rather cubic zirconia.

That’s not the one. It isn’t real, Liu, 22, remembers her fiancé explaining. “I was like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. This one’s perfect,’” she says.

Although he was armed with the Pinterest board for inspiration, Liu’s fiancé, Jamie, still wasn’t convinced he was going to pick the right ring. To assuage these fears, the jeweler gave Jamie the option of paying a $200 deposit in exchange for a placeholder ring for the proposal itself. The couple could then trade in the placeholder for the real-deal bling later.

a diamond ring in a box that says “Will You?”
The Helzberg Diamonds “Will You?” ring.
Gregory A. Larson/Helzberg Diamonds © 2018

A few weeks after their engagement, the couple returned to Toronto’s Fair Trade Jewelry Company and upgraded from cubic zirconia to diamond. Liu got exactly what she wanted, which is exactly what her fiancé wanted.

The act of proposing marriage with a ring is a centuries-old tradition, dating back to the ancient Romans. Over time, the ring’s materials and cost have fluctuated — recently, many couples are choosing less expensive pieces or opting for stones that aren’t diamonds — however, one fact remains: This needs to be a piece the wearer won’t mind sporting for the rest of their life. This daunting notion is what motivated Liu’s fiancé to choose a placeholder. As ring shopping increasingly becomes a couples game rather than a one-person effort, placeholders allow for a surprise engagement without sacrificing the ring receiver’s preferences. For other cash-strapped couples, the ring of their partner’s dreams may not be a financial reality. Using temporary bling is a way to put a ring on it while saving up for the major life purchase.

Sensing a shift toward collaborative shopping, jewelers are buying into the temporary ring trend. Last year, Helzberg Diamonds debuted its “Will You?” ring, a $50, size 7 band engraved with “This is a ring, not the ring,” designed to take the pressure off selecting the “perfect” ring. To determine if a market for a placeholder ring even existed, Helzberg surveyed young adults in relationships and found that for more than 60 percent of men, the hardest part of the proposal was selecting a ring; more than half of male respondents stressed the importance of having their partner involved in ring selection. “The objective was to merge a romantic tradition with a joint decision and offer a solution,” says Beryl Raff, the chair and CEO of Helzberg Diamonds.

Since its debut, the “Will You?” ring has seen a steady increase in sales, with the biggest boom this past holiday season, Raff says.

Similarly, Abby Sparks Jewelry, a custom wedding ring company based in Denver, unveiled a $500 cubic zirconia “Loaner Ring” in December 2016, which was designed to look like a traditional diamond ring and acts as a deposit. Inspired by proposers who didn’t want to wait the six to eight weeks for the creation of a custom ring before popping the question, the Loaner Ring, which must be returned when the final ring is completed, allows for spontaneity and surprise without sacrificing the wearer’s wishes. “I think the shift is people proposing want to get a little more buy-in from their partners,” says Madeleine Tuinier, design and account manager at Abby Sparks Jewelry. “It’s an opportunity to relieve some of the one-sided pressure in getting it right.”

Aside from sartorial concerns, purchasing an engagement ring comes with a financial burden. Placeholder engagement rings can be a salve for those who might want to pop the question on vacation but don’t have the funds or a diamond. (The average engagement ring runs around $1,900, according to a New York Times analysis.)

Poundland, the UK’s version of a dollar store, released £1 “Bling Rings” in January to surprising success: The chain sold 20,000 rings in one week. About 17 percent of all engagement rings sold in the UK between January and February were bought at Poundland, says the company’s seasonal buyer Frances O’Sullivan. “We’ve got Brexit going on at the moment and there’s consumer confidence concerns,” she says. The Bling Ring “was something our customers would really relate to, to have the opportunity to not be held back from proposing because of your income.” Poundland will restock the rings ahead of next Valentine’s Day.

The Greenville, South Carolina-based artisan jeweler Katie Poterala has designed starter rings for young couples who want to get engaged but can’t afford the lavish stones of their partners’ dreams. As the couples’ lives — and budgets — progress, they’ll upgrade the ring with larger diamonds or other embellishments, the 32-year-old says. She even designed her own placeholder ring. Poterala’s now-husband, Zach, placed a custom wedding band order under a fake name and commissioned Poterala to craft an 18-karat gold ring. “It’s weird for someone to order something in 18-karat,” Poterala says. “And then I thought there was no way I was getting commissioned to make my own ring.”

Poterala says she preferred getting engaged with a temporary ring, as it allowed her to create a custom piece to her liking. After her August 2017 engagement (Zach popped the question during the solar eclipse), Poterala took six months to source a gray diamond, design a new ring, and melt the gold from the original ring to fashion the final product.

As contemporary brides and grooms continue to buck traditions with micro-weddings and cash gifts, etiquette expert Lizzie Post of the Emily Post Institute says engagement ring choice, like all other aspects of the wedding, is wholly contingent on the couple’s preferences. “We know the most beautiful rings and the most elaborate engagements sometimes don’t end up in an actual ceremony happening,” she says. The level of planning — or lack thereof — before a proposal holds no bearing on the proposer’s commitment to their future spouse either, she continues.

A spontaneous proposal was especially on brand for freelance travel journalist Hannah Summers and her fiancé Jon Beck. While traveling in Tanzania last October, Beck was struck with the immediate desire to propose, so he meandered to a small shop across the street from their safari lodge to find a ring. The store didn’t carry rings, but the enterprising shop owner sold Beck an employee’s personal ring straight off the worker’s body. Beck proposed with the thick metallic band. “It’s really horrible,” Summers says. “I think it must be a man’s ring, so I wore it on my thumb for a few days and then I basically stopped wearing it.”

The couple selected another temporary ring that Summers wore for about two months until they found the ring, an antique Victorian design with a cluster of six diamonds, a piece of jewelry that both parties are satisfied with.

Keaton, who declined to share his last name, and his fiancé are less focused on the rings themselves than on having a physical representation of their bond. The 24-year-old industrial designer’s then-boyfriend recently proposed using a brass ring topped with a large, flat plate — a stylish piece, though not something Keaton would wear every day. The couple, who lives in Minneapolis, liked the tradition of popping the question with a ring but didn’t want the showiness of expensive diamond bling. “It would feel like less of a ‘thing’ if there weren’t a physical representation, and the ring is just a go-to,” Keaton explains. “It’s a reminder in some way, a physical piece to the actual event.” Instead, they purchased $2 placeholders from Target until they decide on their everyday-wear rings.

There is a part of Rachel Liu, the Toronto-based law student, that wishes she still had her placeholder ring, she says. It was the item her fiancé proposed with, after all. However, to keep it would’ve tacked another $200 onto an already steep bill. Liu admits she wouldn’t have worn it, but still, the sentimental side of her would’ve liked to admire the ring she said yes to, to have a tangible piece of the memory.

But ultimately, having a temporary ring allowed Liu to have a surprise proposal without a surprise ring, a true happily ever after. Since she plans to wear the ring for the rest of her life, she felt a placeholder ring was the perfect compromise. “Honestly,” Liu says, “It’s nice to have a little bit of say in what it’s going to look like.”

Want more stories from The Goods by Vox? Sign up for our newsletter here.

The Goods

MLMs might not be able to get away with their shady promises much longer

The Goods

It’s time for Americans to buy less stuff

The Goods

When can we start enjoying nightlife again?

View all stories in The Goods

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.