Unromancing the stone: Is the surprise engagement dead?
With more women now choosing their own rings, Meadhbh McGrath asks if the trend has stolen the magic from an unexpected proposal
Growing up, girls are taught that a marriage proposal will go something like this: their partner will whisk them away to some dreamy locale, get down on one knee and produce that luxurious little box, before popping the all-important question.
In heterosexual relationships, this fantasy has been well-rehearsed through years of Hollywood films, fairy tales and romance novels. But now, the picture is starting to look quite different, as women have more of a say in their own engagements, and the proposal itself comes as less of a surprise.
Last week, research from diamond company, the De Beers Group, revealed that in the US, the number of women buying their own engagement rings doubled from seven to 14pc between 2013 and 2017. And in Ireland, a study this year by WeddingsOnline and Stonechat Jewellers found that only 20pc of women want their partner to choose their engagement ring, as an increasing number prefer to select one themselves.
"It's actually a little bit unusual now that a guy comes in and has zero idea what his girlfriend wants," says Kate Appleby, Marketing Manager of Appleby Jewellers in Dublin.
"Girls like having some sort of influence. A lot of the time, girls have heavily hinted so much throughout their relationship what they want that when guys come in, they have a fair idea. Or what I do see now quite a lot is that couples come in and the girl still doesn't know when they're going to get engaged, but they have a look at rings together and he'll get an idea that way.
"It could be six months down the line that they get engaged, but he knows what she wants. It does take away the surprise element, but sometimes the guy just feels more comfortable doing that, and the girl does as well because she knows she'll be getting exactly what she wants."
In July, Kate married the former Leinster rugby player Dominic Ryan, but ahead of the proposal, she was careful to drop a few hints of her own about the kind of ring she had in mind.
"I'm constantly uploading pictures to the Appleby Instagram, and he loves looking at those. He'll get out his phone and look through them all, and there were a couple of times with the style that I wanted, I'd be like, 'Oh, I really like that one'. It was quite obvious what way inclined I was."
Such hints can range from the subtle, such as pointing something out when passing a jeweller's window, to the rather less subtle, says Martin Commins, Director of Dublin's Bespoke Diamonds.
"Probably half the time, the guy has had some very unsubtle hints, like he'll say, 'this is a ring from your website she said she liked, and her finger size is whatever'. So the surprise is when [the proposal] happens more so than 'what's the ring gonna look like?'. That's growing in popularity because you want to have something you want to wear every day, and a lot of people are thinking, 'let's get this right and propose when you want to propose'."
Celina Murphy, Deputy Editor of OneFabDay.com, points out that as people get married later, it's very rare for a proposal to come completely out of the blue.
"I think it's just the way people's lifestyles are these days - the average age of couples getting married in Ireland is in the mid-30s now. A lot of them tell us they've been together for more than a decade, some of them have kids and a house together, so the conversation around 'when will we get engaged' and 'when will we get married' and the ring just tends to come up," she explains.
"We often hear from the bride-to-be that the proposal was a surprise, but the fact that it happened wasn't a surprise. It's something that's discussed, but the groom still wants to have that proposal moment, so they have chats, and then there are periods of quiet where she's wondering 'maybe it's coming now' and he's plotting the engagement."
However, while people are happy to share their proposal stories over and over again, Celina notes that couples remain tight-lipped about who paid for the ring.
"It's obviously still a taboo thing to discuss. I think, being Irish, it's one of those things we're a bit secretive about. It's just assumed in a heterosexual relationship that the guy is to pay for the ring, even though a lot of couples now split things 50/50 and they have similar salaries. It's a lot to ask one of them to cough up €5,000 suddenly. By not discussing it openly, we're kind of leaving ourselves stuck in the past."
While the trend for women buying their own rings hasn't yet crossed over to our shores, Kate has observed women occasionally contributing to the cost of the ring.
"There have been instances where a guy comes in with a budget and she might like something that happens to be €300 over that. She doesn't want to push him, but she does really want that ring, so she'll pay the extra €300. But I'm not aware of any women buying it themselves. As far as I'm aware, the guy is paying for it and, in the majority of cases, he pays for it alone," she says.
According to Martin, even when women do chip in, they prefer not to let their partners know about it.
"We might get a phone call from a woman saying, 'We're between two stones. Go with the bigger one but I'm gonna pay [the difference] myself, just don't tell my partner'. But it would be rare enough that they would be openly splitting it. Guys still feel there is that obligation to buy the ring. How much longer that lasts, who knows?"
Financial contribution or not, women having a hand in their engagement rings can be to the benefit of both partners, even if it drains the element of surprise.
"There are good surprises and bad surprises," says Martin. "There have been guys that have asked for ridiculous rings - there was a guy who wanted to represent his partner's career as a vet, so it was a heart-shaped diamond turned upside down and three pear-shaped diamonds to be in the shape of a paw. That's risky. It would have been a surprise, but would it have been a romantic one? Quite possibly not."
When women take the reins and pick the ring, it helps to take the pressure off and eliminate that fear of disappointment.
"A lot of women, they know their partners. Some guys take notice of the jewellery they wear, the colour they wear, the size of their hand and, for others, their view is 'a ring is a ring'. A lot of women are smart enough to realise if this is their partner's forte: would they be good at this or not?" Martin notes.
"I don't know if it kills the romance, but the risk element is removed. The romance comes from how it's done. A lot more effort is being put into how they're planning to propose, as opposed to 'down on one knee with a box'. The question mark is when the guy is gonna propose. But they know that when they open that box, what they see, they're gonna love."