10/22/2012 12:10 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Price of Pretty

I couldn't have been happier when I got engaged this summer. My fiancé is generous, smart, good-looking and my best friend. Anticipating the proposal, we agreed I would "shop" for a ring. Couples go about this very differently: some confer, some make a wish list, others submit to (un)pleasant surprise. It runs the gamut. Then there's "Emma" -- a spunky I-know-what-I-want sort -- who pinned a photograph of the exact ring she desired to the fridge before her engagement. As she put it: "men cannot be trusted to get it right."

This investment in "getting it right" tells us something about the "social life of things." We don't measure stuff solely by what the market claims should be paid for it; we also worry about its meaning. Engagement rings are supposed to be symbols of love (yes, I'm perfectly aware of De Beers' role here). This is an old anthropological chestnut, famously expounded in Marcel Mauss' The Gift in which he argued from the ethnography of "primitive" societies that objects given in ritual exchange built relations of reciprocity. In receiving them we are duty-bound to "re-gift" and, in so doing, we build sociality.

Back to ring shopping. A close friend and I set off for New York's Madison Avenue on a Saturday afternoon in April. I was excited but had this niggling sense I was crossing a line--a line doubtless crossed before, but perhaps never so starkly, nor at such a price tag.

We looked at loose stones, small enough we needed a magnifying loupe to see them despite their extortionate prices. And then I started asking uncomfortable questions. "How were the stones mined and by whom," I asked. "We source our gemstones responsibly; they're guaranteed to have been ethically mined," the saleswoman responded. "Really," I said, "so where exactly do they come from?" She had no idea.

She probably knew nothing of the Lonmin platinum mines located in South Africa's North West Province either. The Marikana Massacre there on Aug. 16 -- which left 34 miners dead, many killed at point blank range by police, others run over by riot vehicles -- was utterly shocking.

The 19th century discovery of gold and diamonds in South Africa sparked an industrial revolution and generated wealth for a white minority. But those mines have never offered African workers sufficient pay to support their families; nor have they been safe places to work. Despite the soaring price of precious metals, South African mines remain places of death and absurdly low pay; they are environmentally damaging too.

Such were the grievances the miners were protesting when the full force of the state came down upon them. Dreadful and spectacular as the massacre was, my concern extends to the mundane: the enduring sense of injustice; the problem of the wage relation; the violence of inequality; the refusal of both apartheid and post-apartheid regimes to confront enduring black poverty.

The trouble is that the things we buy implicate us in a flow of goods that runs the length and breadth of the globe; rarely do we really know their origins and circumstances of production. Of course, it's a dilemma that extends beyond diamonds. I always say to my students, "We're implicated, no matter what we buy or consume. Think about those T-shirts you just bought; they were probably made in a sweatshop in Bangladesh."

My fiancé and I eventually came to an uneasy compromise--something old, something blue (neither borrowed, nor new).My circa 1920s bull's eye -- a diamond set in a circle of sapphires -- came from an antique jewelry store in San Francisco. Its age can be determined by the diamond's cut, the outcome of a technique used during one decade in the early 20th century. The stone is a little yellower than the current fashion in blazing white rocks, which suggests it was probably mined in South Africa's Northern Cape where the kimberlite is highly nitrogenated.

So here I am, despite due consideration, back in South Africa -- a place to which I'm both personally and professionally committed as a South African and a researcher. While I take some comfort in having placed no demand on the current market for gemstones, I also know that conditions in the mines early last century were considerably worse than they are today -- more dangerous and exploitative by far. There is no absolution here; the price of pretty is sobering. Perhaps the best I can achieve is a state of consciousness. Our wedding rituals do not make it easy to be in love and love the world at the same time.