Why Couples Are Opting for Nontraditional Engagement Rings—or Rejecting Them Altogether

Fashion

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Last October, on a mountaintop in Mallorca, my now-husband balanced precariously on a pile of rocks and accomplished the impressive feat of pulling out a ring box without tumbling. As he slipped the gold band on my finger, I couldn’t stop smiling. The moment was perfect—intimate, natural, and totally us. And there wasn’t a diamond in sight.

While the proposal was a surprise, the ring was not. I was very particular with what I liked, unflinching in my conviction that I wanted to wear the same gold band as both an engagement and wedding ring. Even though I loved it, the choice to eschew the traditional solitaire diamond ring prompted many questions from friends and family who found it to be a bit unusual.

But to my surprise, I soon realized my decision was much less unique than I thought. There is a growing cohort of couples who are moving away from the “one-big-stone” ring style and choosing alternative options that better fit their lifestyle. I spoke with a handful of couples who went a nontraditional route with their engagement rings or forewent one completely. More often than not, the motivation behind the decision had less to do with finances and more to do with personal style, practicality, and priorities.

kouka webb engagement ring

Courtesy of Kouka Webb

Kouka Webb’s rings

When it comes to rings, eternity bands are a go-to option for people who want some sparkle, but without the typical solitaire. Model and dietitian Kouka Webb’s partner proposed to her with a stunning eternity band lined with diamonds in the Isle of Skye last March. “A friend of ours worked for Bvlgari, but she wears a plain gold ring,” Webb told ELLE. “I asked why, and she explained the trend away from ‘one-giant-stone’ designs. I agreed, but did want some stones. I picked out this eternity ring in white gold, then matched it with a plain gold wedding ring. I think the mixed-metal look and a non-traditional eternity ring is a better fit for who we are as a couple.” In terms of lifestyle, Webb explained that she runs ultramarathons and works in a hospital, so a streamlined band made more sense. “I think about accidentally lobbing the stone off, and I have so many friends who don’t wear their engagement ring for the same fear.”

Diamonds have long been associated with proposals, but the eternity band, a ring lined with identically sized diamonds, is a more modern development. Vivian Chen, the head of fine jewels at Sotheby’s New York, told ELLE, “The first [diamond engagement ring] ever recorded was in 1477 when the Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy.” Chen explained that while versions of an eternity band existed as early as the 18th century, the eternity band as we know it today was popularized by the jewelry designer De Beers in the 1960s. “In the more antique settings, you’ll find a lot of what we call half hoops, which are essentially half eternity bands, with a row of five diamonds set throughout,” Chen said.

Even with its more modern origins, the eternity band has proven to be a timeless, chic alternative to the single-stone engagement ring. Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy received a sapphire and diamond eternity band as an engagement ring, thought to be modeled after Jackie Kennedy’s swimming band. In a spin on the eternity band, there are also stunning wide gold bands dotted with unique gems and diamonds. Some notable non-traditional rings include Cameron Diaz’s chunky gold band ringed with diamonds, Fergie’s thick gold band with a starburst design, and Poppy Delevingne’s wide ring with one blue and two heart-shaped diamonds.

engagement ring

Courtesy of Emily Schultz

Emily Schultz’s ring

Bands can also be seamlessly layered, making them a natural addition to one’s collection. “I love the idea of the band, because I think the simplistic nature plays way better with the jewelry I wear every day,” senior brand manager Emily Schultz told ELLE. Schultz got engaged with a four-diamond eternity band, originally a gift from her grandfather to her grandmother. “I can add to it with other bands I already have super easily if I get bored of the minimalist look.”

While a band might feel like a simpler option, there’s still an opportunity to make the ring unique. Portugal-based stylist Mafalda Patricio’s ring was designed by her husband, and the gold band is adorned with flowers, each with a diamond inside. “I wanted a simple ring that I could use every day,” she said. “My husband designed the ring with a jewelry store here in Lisbon with some ideas he knew I’d like, and he decided to put flowers all over.”

It’s also not just the engagement rings that get all the fun. MaryRalph Lawson Bradley, founder of the clothing company Daily Drills, chose a three-piece Spinelli band as her wedding ring. “I hadn’t really seen anyone with it, which I loved. It also just seemed practical for my lifestyle,” she said. “I wear them stacked, but I also wear them separately when I’m out and don’t want to bring my diamond.”

engagement ring

Courtesy of MaryRalph Lawson Bradley

MaryRalph Lawson Bradley’s rings

Picking an engagement ring that can be worn on its own—i.e. without an additional wedding band—is also growing in popularity. Content creator Chelsey Jade Curtis designed her vintage-inspired ring with baguette diamonds on the band and a kite-shaped diamond in the center. “I wear it as a standalone ring; I never had a wedding band,” she said. “It’s a little harder to find a band that actually makes it look better.” Keira Wraae-Stewart, founder of fine jewelry store ætla, has recently observed that many couples are coming in for just one ring instead of two. “Using one ring for both an engagement ring and a wedding ring is becoming incredibly popular,” she said. “When customers go for one ring, it often has a slightly different look than the classic solitaire engagement ring, and in our experience, tends to be a wider or more substantial band, set with one or more stones.”

Some couples are considering whether an engagement ring is even right for them at all. David Wasserman and Cort VanOstran, both St. Louis-based attorneys, went with a watch instead of a ring. “When it came time to get engaged, a watch seemed like the obvious choice. I chose a handsome watch with a leather strap to propose marriage to David—relaxed, reliable, and classic, just like him,” VanOstran said. “In many ways, our relationship and our values are very traditional. But sometimes, traditions need updating to ensure they are inclusive of all different types of folks.”

Perfumer Andrew Nguyen’s husband proposed at the Rodin Museum of Art in Philadelphia with a diamond-studded gold bracelet from Cartier. “I wanted a bracelet, because I wanted something that I could wear all the time,” he said. “My husband was hinting at the 10 Diamonds Cartier Love bracelet, and I was like, ‘That’s perfect.’ It has some gold, and it has some bling.” For their wedding bands, Andrew and his husband have different versions of the cigar band by Lizzie Mandler. Nguyen wears his engagement bracelet daily. “It’s nice, because you don’t have to wear two rings,” he said.

engagement ring

Courtesy of Claire Parker

Claire Parker’s rings

Claire Parker, co-founder of Celebrity Memoir Book Club, was proposed to with a delicate necklace from Catbird that has her husband’s name on it. “My parents have been married for 40 years, and they have [simple] gold bands,” she said. “I’ve always had this idea that the ring does not make the marriage. As somebody who was very excited to marry my partner, I was very resentful of that first question being, ‘Oh my God, where’s the ring?’” Parker wears her necklace daily, along with two delicate bands, one that she bought a month after getting engaged and another that she and her husband exchanged at their wedding.

When I got engaged, I spent a lot of time explaining my decision to skip a traditional engagement ring. Now one month after our wedding, I don’t even think about it. The gold band my husband, Gustavo, proposed with is on my hand no matter the moment, whether I’m sleeping, traveling, or working out. I wanted a non-fussy ring that would remind me of our union but didn’t feel too precious. And as unique engagement rings continue to grow in popularity, it’s clear I’m in good company. For us, and for these couples, the right engagement ring has less to do with carats and more to do with the life you lead while wearing it.

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