“Something simple and elegant”
This is what Andrea had said when I had made tentative enquiries as to what kind of engagement ring she might like if I were, hypothetically speaking of course, to ask her to marry me. “Simple and elegant”. And that made sense. Because Andrea was both modest and elegant. The instructions were clear – but that didn’t make finding the ring any less stressful. I had an idea in my head of buying a ring from one of Oxford’s vintage jewellers. I was working at OUP in Jericho at the time – and on my lunch hour I made several trips to the historic silversmiths and jewellers on Turl Street and the High Street. I was convinced that I would eventually purchase the ring from Payne & Son which had been running jewellers in Oxfordshire since 1790. They had occupied their current location in 131 High Street since 1889. I would visit the shop, ask to see the rings, take photographs of both ring and price tag on my phone, before mulling over what might best suit my love. It became an obsession of sorts. An obsession that took an unhealthy turn when I began researching the jewellery industry and the role of propagandists and slave labour. I also began to think about the transaction in strictly commercial terms, which contaminated my thought process. You see, an engagement ring is really unlike any other purchase that a man will ever make. For if I were buying a house, a guitar, or a car, there would be at least some interest in the potential resale value of the item. But an engagement ring you buy on the assumption of it not being sold. And it seemed bonkers to spend a couple of thousand pounds on something that’s value would be halved or quartered as soon as it left the store. My best man-to-be set me right on that front: ‘It’s not that kind of purchase, mate’ he said. ‘So, you can’t think about it in those terms.’ My heart set on a vintage item, I had avoided the high street jewellery brands. Not the Oxford High Street, but the British High Street. But as my quest for the ring remained fruitless, I cast my net further afield, visiting Beaverbrooks and Ernest Jones. My lunch time mission became a stressful dash as I began to lose all sense of perspective. ‘Something simple and elegant’. I felt I knew what I wanted but had no idea what it looked like. I would have to see it to know. That made sense, I suppose. As I had no idea that I had been looking for my wife until I found her.
In April 2017 I flew to Glasgow to attend the IATEFL Conference for work. At Heathrow Airport I walked into the Tiffany & Co. boutique in terminal five. Again, I had thought ill of these big brands, associating them with crass commercialism and lack of originality, but then again, I knew nothing about jewellery. So, I wandered in to Tiffany’s and almost immediately laid eyes on ‘THE ONE’.
A true design masterpiece, the Tiffany® Setting is the world’s most iconic engagement ring. Flawlessly engineered, the six-prong setting virtually disappears and allows the brilliant diamond to float above the band and into the light, resulting in a ring so beautiful it has been a symbol of the world’s greatest love stories for over 130 years.
There were many beautiful rings but the one that I liked the most had a small diamond and best met the criteria of being ‘simple and elegant’. The price of the item would depend on the quality of the diamond but I was less bothered about that than I was about how the thing looked. I obviously couldn’t afford to buy a very expensive ring. To put things in perspective: if you search for ‘Tiffany Setting engagement ring’ on the Tiffany & Co. website, you arrive on default filter settings of between 1 and 1.5 carat, with prices ranging from £12,400 and £41,600! Currently the most expensive ring of a similar type is £130,500. That’s for a 2.59 carat diamond with VVS1 clarity and an excellent cut. Fortunately, there were beautiful rings available for a fraction of that price.
I had found the ring but was now faced with another dilemma. Should I just go ahead and buy it there in the airport? No, I couldn’t do that. For one thing I’d have to take it to the conference with me and I might lose it. Also, if I had to return it (or get it resized), I wasn’t sure how that would work if I had to go back to the airport. As it turns out, the latter concern was unnecessary as we would later find out that Tiffany’s customer service is second to none, even for ‘low-end’ customers such as myself. I left Heathrow without buying the ring – but I still felt as though my quest was nearing its end. Having not yet bought the ring, I would now be unable to propose to Andrea in Argentina. I did, however, manage to ask for her father’s permission to marry his daughter. Doing so led to a major diplomatic incident, however, with Andrea’s mother hitting the roof at having been excluded from this important rite. Whilst I was out on the balcony of their apartment conversing with my father-in-law to be, Andrea had lured her mother into the bedroom under false pretences. When her mother had realised what was happening, she exclaimed ‘Y YO?!’ The Spanish equivalent of ‘And what about me?’. I had thought she was joking at first, until I realised that she was deadly seriously. Andrea’s mother, usually one of the sweetest women, sulked like a teenager for the rest of the day. Remember that this was my first-time meeting Andrea’s family. Afterwards we went out for a ‘celebration lunch’ which on reflection was a bit weird because I still hadn’t actually proposed at that point! I had simply signalled my intention to do so. Either way, we were heading in the right direction.
We returned to the UK and a week of so passed without me buying a ring and proposing. Having asked Andrea’s father for his daughter’s hand in marriage, I would soon have to shit or get off the pot. I began to overthink things again. Where and when should I propose? Should it be on a romantic weekend away? Should the location have some special significance? I worked myself down into a malaise of indecision and felt like I was back at square one. I wasn’t though – and one Friday night in June I realised that I had to do the next right thing – and buy the ring. I told Andrea that I was planning on meeting AA friends for coffee in Oxford early the next morning. I rose early on Saturday 22 April 2017 and caught the train from Oxford to Paddington. From the station I walked the 1.8 miles to the Tiffany store in New Bond Street. I was a man on a mission. I walked into the store and was greeted by a sales assistant. A friendly veteran called Lal, once he had ascertained that I was looking for an engagement ring, he discreetly enquired as to my budget. He then brought out a number of rings and I chose the one I liked the best. I could have afforded a ring with a slightly bigger diamond – but I genuinely bought the ring that I thought best suited Andrea. I paid for the ring with my debit card. It was the most expensive purchase I had ever made. It still is to this day. Thanking Lal, I left the store, clutching the iconic turquoise box to my chest, frightened that I would be mugged by thieves on my way to the station. As I walked back through Mayfair, I wondered where and when to propose. An idea suddenly flashed into my head. I would do the deed that same day. At Blenheim Palace.
One of our earliest dates had been at Blenheim. The place of Sir Winston Churchill’s birth and his ancestral home, it had also been where the great man had proposed to his beloved Clementine Hozier. Was I rushing things? No! I had to get this bloody thing done. As I mulled things over in my head, I walked past a life-size bronze sculpture of Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt chatting on a bench. Epically inspired, I felt enthused with the spirit of the British Bulldog. A couple of minutes later I strode past Blenheim Street. That was that. This endeavour had been blessed by Churchill himself. Be me a man of valour and this would be my finest hour.
Arriving home in the early afternoon, I found Andrea in the middle of clearing out the shed. I suggested that we cycle to Woodstock. Andrea fortunately agreed with my proposal and we jumped on our bikes and cycled the 6.7 miles to Blenheim. This took about half an hour, and I remember Andrea seeming relaxed and happy as we rode along the A44. I was anything but relaxed. As we entered Blenheim’s grounds, I realised that I had no idea where the Temple of Diana was. This was the small summer house where Winston had proposed to Clementine during a house party on 11 August 1908. Afterwards, Andrea said that this was the first moment that she had suspected that something might be afoot. My agitation at not knowing where exactly we were supposed to be had given the game away. I led Andrea through some bushes and I think we might even have jumped over a ditch or two. We finally arrived at the Temple of Diana and after waiting a moment or two for a couple of passers-by to move on, I brought out the turquoise box, went down on one knee, and proposed to my love. Bizarrely, I remember a drone hovering overhead, which could mean that the proposal was captured for posterity by an unknown photographer. My wife graciously accepted to marry me – and I placed the ring on her finger. It didn’t fit but apparently, they rarely do. A few weeks later we would return to Tiffany’s together to have it resized. My wife and I took a few selfies and then shared the good news with our immediate family via WhatsApp. After leaving Blenheim we cycled to Churchill’s grave at Saint Martin’s church in Bladon. After paying our respects, we enjoyed a celebratory early dinner at the Woodstock Arms, before cycling back to Oxford. We were engaged to be married.