Bailey Morgan was shaking and a little clammy when he reached to the back of his car to get the ring he had bought for his 17-year-old sweetheart.
He had thought for months about this moment, saving and scraping the money together to pay for the $1,500 diamond ring. He prayed for three months about this promise: to one day get engaged and then to one day get married.
“I have something I need to give you,” he told Lauren May.
Morgan, 18, soon will leave McCallie School for college, and he wanted Lauren to wait for him until they were older and marriage made more sense. So, next to the Tennessee River, he recited the speech he had planned.
“I promise that I am never going to hurt you or leave you or put our relationship in jeopardy,” he said, pulling out the ring.
She cried and promised him the same. The rock was bigger than she could ever have dreamed, she said.
“I love you,” he said.
Promise rings — not the kind that connote sexual purity — date all the way back to the 16th century when lovers would exchange the rings because they were either too poor or too young to get engaged. And the teenage boys, and sometimes girls, who buy them now from glossy displays at jewelry stores have similar reasons, jewelers say.
Forty years ago, he sold more than 10 promise rings a week, said Bob Mason at Rone Regency Jewelers in Chattanooga. But the trend withered as the ideal of marriage fell out of vogue and young people became less interested in “going steady.”
But in the last year, the rings have bounced back in popularity among teenagers and first-year college students, he said. Five years ago he would have sold five rings for the whole year, but last year he sold more than 75, he said.
Other jewelers say they are seeing a similar promise-ring comeback.
“Teens are learning more about money earlier and earlier,” said Liz Price, a salesperson with Fred Meyer Jewelers. “And girls are figuring out they wanted diamonds earlier and earlier.”
More teens know now that high school marriages are more rocky than romantic. Their parents tell them: No matter how dreamy the partner, they need to finish college or get a job before signing onto forever.
The schools tell them the hard facts, too. Forty-eight percent of women married before age 18 divorce in 10 years, compared to 24 percent married at age 25 or later, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So the promise ring becomes the work-around — the possibility of marriage for $60 and up without the teeth of an actual engagement.
But while some young couples can go the distance from promise ring to wedding bells, many don’t make it outside the walls of high school.
“It’s really cute that they do it,” said Price, “but usually they get together for six or seven months and they think it’s forever, but it doesn’t always last.”
Ann Humphries said that was her story. The 49-year-old from Cleveland, Tenn., got her promise ring from her high school boyfriend when she was 15 years old in 1977. She was so excited that she picked it out herself at Zales.
But the relationship lasted only 18 more months, she said. She married someone else when she was 20 years old and has been with him ever since.
But she still has the promise ring.
“It’s a little bitty heart-shape with a speck of a diamond in it. I have to wear my glasses to see it now,” she said, laughing.
For many teens, the idea of a promise ring is a tough sell to parents. One jewelry store worker said employees have had to talk down some mothers who marched into the store because someone had sold their 15-year-old a diamond ring.
“At first my parents were speechless,” Morgan said. “They wanted to know why. They said it was a promise and that it was serious. They didn’t want me to jump into anything.”
His parents came around, he said, and so did Lauren’s. But the guys on his soccer team at McCallie School are still giving him trouble.
“Bailey’s getting married. ... Bailey’s engaged,” they yell at him.
But he doesn’t care.
“Yes, I love this girl,” he said. “I knew the minute I saw her.
“I’m not going to break my promise.”
Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...