Promise Ring vs. Engagement Ring: Fight!
July 7, 2008 12:24 PM   Subscribe

What's the difference between a "promise ring" and an "engagement ring"?

A little background: Given this article on Slate, I've decided that I'm better off not spending weeks becoming an expert on engagement rings, not caring about the "4Cs", and not spending an absurd amount of money on an archaic and possibly demeaning social convention (I'm a poor cook, soon to be a poor graduate student, so anything over $1000 is an absurd amount of money). Why buy an engagement ring at all? Well, the girl I love is a fan of nice jewelry and has indicated that, while she's happy to spend the rest of her life with me, if I'm going to do the thing (ask her to do so), I'd better do it right. So I'm taking the path of least resistance and looking at it like a really nice present, rather than something with a lot of added social significance.

I've looked over the older posts on AskMe about engagement rings, and decided that because of worries over diamonds (ecological, moral, aesthetic), I'm leaning towards a vintage or estate ring, probably with a sapphire or aquamarine (yes, she's indicated she's fine with a non-diamond ring). It also helps that the girl is a fan of older jewelry, and I think that the older settings look really nice. Looking on, I see things called "engagement rings" and things called "promise rings", and, to be honest, I have no idea what the difference is. The promise rings seem much cheaper, but their style (to my aesthetically challenged eyes) is not obviously different. Why is this?

Subquestion: Obviously I am looking at buying online. Is a good site? Has anyone had experience with buying such a thing online, and do you have any pointers/sites to share? I'd like to avoid eBay because I'm obviously such a noob at this, so I'd value any suggestions.
posted by scrim to Shopping (31 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Promise rings are an engaged-to-be-engaged thing that is generally employed by the too-young-to-wed/Christian set. If you find a "promise ring" that you think your lady would like, get it and use it as an engagement ring. It's just a piece of jewelery. The phrase and hype, though, has become so well-known that you can actually be in the business of selling "promise rings" only and turn a profit.
posted by phunniemee at 12:33 PM on July 7, 2008


This "promise ring" thing, as Engagement Ring Lite, is very recent. They're cheaper because they're marketed to be - if you can sell someone a promise ring and an engagement ring and one or two wedding rings, you've tapped the same customer 4 times. The price point is deliberately set below the arbitrary "two months' salary" designed by DeBeers in the first half of the twentieth century.

As rings themselves, they aren't going to be different or be identifiable as not engagement rings. If you see one you like, there's no reason not to use one as an engagement ring.
posted by Miko at 12:33 PM on July 7, 2008

To my understanding, a "promise" ring is just that. A promise to one day get engaged. An engagement is the actual thing, a real commitment and carries much more weight. To me, promise rings are a little "high school" but that may just be in my circle of peers. If you plan to marry her, go the estate jewelry route and get the real thing. Best of luck in theis big decision!
posted by pearlybob at 12:33 PM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Where I come from, a promise ring is something a high school kid gives his girlfriend because they are too young to get engaged.
posted by donajo at 12:33 PM on July 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

I think a promise ring is what you give your high school girlfriend right before you go off to college. It says, "I promise, one day you will get an engagement ring." And then you break up by Thanksgiving.
posted by Airhen at 12:35 PM on July 7, 2008 [20 favorites]

The promise rings seem much cheaper, but their style (to my aesthetically challenged eyes) is not obviously different.

The cost differential is the only real difference. A promise ring really doesn't mean much other than "I'm not ready to marry you yet but I have serious intentions of doing so at some point so here's this pacifier to signify my intent/keep you happy meanwhile".

And of course you're not going to spend a huge amount of money on said pacifier, even though it will resemble the engagement ring it supposedly foreshadows.
posted by orange swan at 12:37 PM on July 7, 2008

A promise ring says "I'll ask for your hand in marriage later, but I want a promise that you'll say yes now." I think it's a load of crap, but whatever floats the couples boat...

An engagement ring says "I'm asking you now: Want to get married?"

In practice though, there's not really that much of a difference other than the label.

Also, if you're worried about diamonds you could look into getting something Canadian. From my limited research (in which the girlfriend is helping because she knows what she wants better than I do), I've found that they're cheaper partly because they're not blood diamonds.
posted by theichibun at 12:38 PM on July 7, 2008

If you find a "promise ring" that you think your lady would like, get it and use it as an engagement ring. It's just a piece of jewelery. The phrase and hype, though, has become so well-known that you can actually be in the business of selling "promise rings" only and turn a profit.

Agreed. Just buy one and call it an "engagement ring", if that's what you're looking to use it for.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:39 PM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

And yeah, it's big among high school kids, and perhaps very young adults. My step-niece got one at 20 or 21, and then got dumped about six months later.
posted by orange swan at 12:39 PM on July 7, 2008

You people commenting on "high school kids" need to click on the link. There are apparently jewelers selling things called "promise rings" for north of $1200. I don't think that's a price point for the high school market.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:45 PM on July 7, 2008

A side note to the moral quandary: You can get diamonds mined in Canada, and they are cheaper. I specified that both my engagement ring and my wedding ring have Canadian diamonds and the jeweler and my fiance were happy to comply.
posted by desjardins at 12:48 PM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

That might be out of a typical high schooler's price range, but in my opinion it still takes a high school mentality to buy a pre-engagement ring.

Also, I wouldn't be surprised if some jeweler thought he could make more money by having promise rings available. I know more than a few people that went into a jeweler not knowing anything and trusting what they were told completely. For a jeweler who isn't completely honest, having this sort of thing could mean more in profits.

All of that is purely speculation that isn't based on anything at all.
posted by theichibun at 12:50 PM on July 7, 2008

I have also heard of promise rings being worn by teenagers to signify their commitment to pre-marital abstinence (also known as "purity rings" to separate them from the pre-engagement meaning of promise rings).

As ooky as that sounds to me, though, some of the rings you linked to are quite beautiful, and it's not like anything about them signifies "hey, this is for high school girls." So yeah, go ahead and get one. The only difference is the name and the price.

(This is probably going to be a recurring theme throughout your wedding planning, e.g. I have heard from numerous sources that there are $250 white/ivory bridesmaids' dresses that are just as gorgeous as four-digit bridal gowns, but if the bride heads into a bridal shop looking for a maid's dress and lets slip her true intentions, she's going to catch a lot of flak from the salespeople.)
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:57 PM on July 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

My dad gave my mother a promise ring. I've never really understood the promise-to-get-engaged-to-get-married thing myself, but it means something to my mom. It was just an inexpensive ring with a heart and a tinytiny diamond in the middle, but it's a keepsake for her now sort of like a baby's first Bible for the church folks. I think for my parents it serves to represent their dating years.
posted by katillathehun at 1:05 PM on July 7, 2008

Well, I had a promise ring before I had an engagement ring and it was when I was 27. I had given the guy in question an ultimatum that we get engaged after living together for three years or else I wanted to break up and get a place on my own.

Unfortunately, he got let go from his job right around that time and spent part his severance check on the ring to prove that once he got another job and was able to save for something decent, we would actually get engaged. And we did, a year and a half later. And we married.

The promise ring was my birthstone and I simply moved it to my right ring finger after the engagement ring showed up. Also, it was silver, and my wedding ring set was platinum with several diamonds. I thought it was sweet that he wanted to prove to me he was serious even when financially he couldn't get me what he thought I deserved.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 1:34 PM on July 7, 2008

Nthing "a ring is what you call it."

As for your small-print question, I'm a little wary of that Fay Cullen site, though I haven't looked at it closely, because it seems like they're not making a very clear distinction between jewelry that is actually antique and jewelry that is "vintage-style." Doyle and Doyle is a well-respected antique jewelry store in NYC whose site might be worth a look. I've never bought from them but I've heard lots of good things, and I'm sure they'd be very helpful in answering questions over the phone.
posted by doift at 1:51 PM on July 7, 2008

In 'vocabulary' terms, the difference between promise rings and engagement rings is clear. In jewelery terms, not so much. Engagement rings are more likely to be the solitaire diamond that's kind of the classic (or cliche, depending on your perspective) shape, but any ring can be an engagement ring, as long as your intended will be happy to wear it for the rest of her life.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:53 PM on July 7, 2008

I don't think the OP plans to buy his girlfriend a promise ring, it sounds to me like he's wondering if it's okay to use something marketed as a "promise ring" as an engagement ring. And it is! Looking at the links you gave, it looks like the promise rings have mostly smaller/less valuable stones.

Now, advice you didn't ask for on your general plan: I think it's wise to do some shopping in brick and mortar stores to get some idea of what you're looking for, what styles and stones you like, etc. Several jewelers in my area have great stock of antique and estate pieces at affordable prices, even for diamonds, so you might be surprised at what you can find. Another advantage of shopping at a real store is that you have somewhere to go if you have problems or maintenance needs.

Are you sure you know what your girlfriend wants? I would make sure you can return whatever you get in case she doesn't like it - it's something she's going to wear every day forever, and she might have something specific in mind - art deco setting, sapphire solitaire, somthing more modern??? - once you move past "traditional" engagement rings you really have any overwhelming number of options. And since you've admitted that you're "aesthetically challenged" and not up for a lot of reasearch, again: returnable is essential.

Would you consider proposing to your girlfriend in some well-planned way, ideally with some token gift that you know she would love, then let her pick out a ring shortly thereafter? Realistically, even if you propose with a ring she'll have to get it sized, so she probably won't be able to wear it right away.

Also, maybe tone down your complete lack of excitement a little. If I were your girlfriend I'm not sure I would want to hear you saying "path of least resistance" and "really nice present" used to describe your purchasing my engagement ring. Do you want to marry her or what? This is a big decision that you should be 100% behind. And this is important to her; do it within your budget absolutely, but do it thoughtfully and deliberately just the same.
posted by robinpME at 1:56 PM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Not a single female I know who's received a promise ring... actually ended up engaged to the person who gave it to her.

Just sayin'.
posted by HeyAllie at 1:58 PM on July 7, 2008

if a ring is pretty and you know she'd like it on her finger forever and it's within your price range, who cares what it's called? you could get a plastic ring out of a toy capsule machine and ask her to marry you with it, and that would still be an engagement ring—which is to say it should be far far more about the sentiment and the people than it is about cost.

(case in point: i was watching bridezillas last night and a man remarrying his ex-wife gave her an engagement ring that was beautiful and tasteful —she wasn't even expecting another engagement ring, i don't think but she threw a hissy fit because it wasn't totally tackily blinged out with diamonds and stormed out of the restaurant. i'm going to go ahead and predict that they'll be divorced again pretty soon.)

the clay pot is a store in brooklyn that sells conflict-free diamonds mined in canada, and they've got rings of all styles on their site if you'd like to get a good idea of what's out there and how much things are. i've never bought anything there but have only ever heard great things about them. having said that: vintage rings can be gorgeous and often surprisingly great value for money, go that route if you can!
posted by lia at 2:02 PM on July 7, 2008

Metroid Baby wrote:
(This is probably going to be a recurring theme throughout your wedding planning, e.g. I have heard from numerous sources that there are $250 white/ivory bridesmaids' dresses that are just as gorgeous as four-digit bridal gowns, but if the bride heads into a bridal shop looking for a maid's dress and lets slip her true intentions, she's going to catch a lot of flak from the salespeople.)
Not always. I went to a fabulous designer - Reva Mivasagar - and told them I loved their styles but didn't have the budget. They made me up a very plain bridesmaid's pattern in ivory silk satin. I paid $700. The dress was spectacular, they were pleased and I was over the moon.
posted by rdc at 2:19 PM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I never really saw promise rings as anything than a token of commitment/a pretty gift. I mean, it never really seemed like a promise of engagement in my mind. I would think that a promise ring is the sort of thing you keep if you break up, whereas one would, I assume, give back an engagement ring.
posted by sunshinesky at 2:22 PM on July 7, 2008

Response by poster: Ah, follow-up. As robinpME and several others correctly divined, I don't want to buy her a promise ring (that is a - pardon my French - fucking stupid idea) - I'm just interested in figuring out whether there's an actual difference in the rings themselves - some property intrinsic to those rings marketed as "engagement rings" that is not found in other rings.

Unfortunately, I think my ambivalence to the idea of engagement rings (seriously, if you didn't read the Slate article I referenced, here's the link again) might have been misinterpreted as ambivalence towards a commitment. My girlfriend is the moneymaker in our relationship, and I know she'd rather have a beautiful gift I thoughtfully picked out than have something I bankrupted myself for, since she (as an economist) is smart enough to figure out who would eventually pick up that tab. She also likes the idea of a gift - not something she picks out, as (and I agree) that is much less romantic.
posted by scrim at 2:26 PM on July 7, 2008

Best answer: It seems your question has already been answered, but I just thought I would add that my now-husband bought my engagement ring from and it was a great experience. Good price, excellent customer service, and very fast shipping. I also wanted an older-style ring and didn't want diamonds, and ended up with a nice sapphire ring that I love. I'm not very traditional or sentimental, so getting a "vintage" non-diamond ring was the perfect solution.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 2:35 PM on July 7, 2008

Ah, good. Sorry if I was overly harsh, it sounds like you guys are fine. And, no, I don't think there's anything special about an engagement ring. Usually it's refering to a ring with a big central diamond and then whatever else, but an engagement ring is really what you make it.
posted by robinpME at 2:39 PM on July 7, 2008

I just wanted to note that I was really, really touched by the amount of thought and planning and worrying that my now-husband put into the engagement ring that he bought me. He basically learned about the whole ring industry, sent my best friend ring shopping with me under the pretense of ring shopping for her, worried over what style I'd like (mostly trying to divine this from my earring collection, which was really smart), and in general did everything he could to make sure I'd love the ring he picked. And I really did. I know you say you're not really up for all of this, and that's understandable, but I offer this as an anecdote, fwiw, that your fiance will appreciate any effort you put into this choice, since hopefully she will be wearing this ring for the rest of her life. You sound like your heart is in the right place. Good luck!
posted by onlyconnect at 3:21 PM on July 7, 2008

You mention that you want to buy her a ring before, but do you have anything against shopping together? When my husband and I got engaged, we were on vacation at Disney World and the next day we bought a cheap souvenir ring just for the fun of it. When we got home, we both researched stores in town and online. I knew I didn't want a diamond and eventually settled on a trillian cut sapphire. By far the best selection and price(s) were online. Later we bought our wedding rings online as well. We never went through, but a definite thumbs up to internet shopping!
posted by lizjohn at 4:04 PM on July 7, 2008

a couple more data points, not that you need them

i bought my girlfriend an 'anniversary' ring for her engagement ring because we both think diamonds are artificially valuable and not very attractive. we got a wedding band that fits nicely around the sapphire solitaire.

her highschool boyfriend bought her a promise ring and dumped her a week later

promise rings are given by young boys (not necessarily time spent on the planet) to young girls as a pre engagement, or as a purity promise. it's viewed as immature, trying to lock the girl into a commitment without making a commitment to her.

usually seen in the less secular parts of society, i can be a pledge that a youth takes for abstinence till marriage, which are then exchanged after the wedding night, assuming the pledge lasts.
posted by phritosan at 4:16 PM on July 7, 2008

I only ever gave one girl a promise ring. I was 19, she 17. It wasn't an engagement, it wasn't a "zomg we gonna be togetha 4 eva." It was promising her that no matter what happened on the earth, between us, to us, or against us---that I would always be there for her and would make her wellbeing a matter of importance. 10 years later it's still true, and we haven't been together since I was 21. Still, she knows and I know that there's always someone there. I don't see that as especially "young" or "immature."

She's got someone, but she keeps the ring close. I've got someone, and I keep hers close too.
posted by TomMelee at 8:07 PM on July 7, 2008

The one promise ring I looked at on faycullen had 7 diamonds worth about $900 tops set in a white gold setting worth maybe $400. Total price on the site ~$2200. I'm sure they are a better deal than rip-off mall jewelers, but I wouldn't buy a diamond ring from a site that uses terms like 'cumulative carats', you want to know the size of the largest stone, because gem prices don't go up linearly with weight. Also, the inclusions in a lot of their diamonds will be naked eye visible. That may not matter much, but it should be reflected in the price of the rock.

Also, for saphires, definitely buy estate or lab-grown. Lab grown is a lot cheaper than natural for a rock that is aesthetically/structurally identical even under a loupe. (but maybe not a microscope)
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:35 PM on July 7, 2008

"Promise rings" are simply a reworking of an old idea. Back in the 60's, it was called "pearled", and meant "engaged to be engaged". The ring was pearl, obviously.
posted by Goofyy at 3:58 AM on July 8, 2008

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