A tomboy who hates make-up, I have one girly vice: bling. I blame my mother. Chinese women love all that glitters, and she knew she could bribe me with a gold bracelet, even fake, to get straight A’s in the first grade. After that I had a slew of favorites: a jade duck on a string, a red cloisonné bracelet that was too tight, a rhinestone heart ring that I wore till I was 19.
The first piece my husband Joe gave me was a gold and diamond Cartier bracelet. Raised by Korean doctors who were avid collectors, he knew what was real and what was junk. A senior at Barnard College, I did not. I wore the bangle to class with my sweatshirts and torn jeans. It slipped down my skinny wrist when I raised my hand to debate a male chauvinist at an Asian Women’s Coalition meeting. Next Joe gave me a malachite pendant on a silver chain, then a gold heart, and, the year we were broken up, a sapphire star ring set in white gold. After we got back together, a long emerald teardrop that hung below my collarbone.
But what I loved most was my engagement ring. He proposed to me on a hot summer night in a Belgian restaurant on Avenue A. “My mom bought the diamond long ago,” he said. “I had it reset.”
I twisted my hand, as I’d keep doing all that first week till my hand was sore, to catch the light. The stone was a little over a carat, a round cut with baguettes on either side, nestled in platinum.
“You don’t want to know how much I paid for the resetting,” he said.
After that, he and his mother often hinted at the high cost of the ring. I had begun spending more and more time at their Westchester house, stuffed to the brim with other valuables: turn of the century grandfather clocks, vases made out of Depression glass, one-of-a-kind Korean pottery. They loved the Antiques Roadshow, and tried to match up their belongings with the priceless wares.
I wasn’t Joe’s mother first choice for a daughter-in-law. She’d have preferred a Korean MBA grad or lawyer, to keep their superior blood pure, not an American-born Chinese wannabe writer. Still, she had accepted me.
“Be careful with the ring,” she repeated often. “Don’t lose it.”
How much could it possibly be worth? I wondered. Five thousand? Ten? More? On the subway I examined other women’s rings and decided they couldn’t be as nice as mine. I turned the rock in. Once a week I steam-cleaned it in the microwave.
After we married, there was more: a necklace of gold leaves dotted with diamonds, another of blue topaz shaped like a flower, and, my favorite, platinum and diamond earrings in an art deco style.
Joe’s sparkly gifts, however, weren’t without their price. The daughter-in-law in a strict Korean household, I was expected to look after my mother-in-law who, by then, was wracked with Parkinson’s disease. Every Saturday I helped her bathe, walk, and go to the bathroom; I exercised her limbs from a book I bought. I gave her medicine. Later when she got really bad, I cut up her food and fed it to her, like a child.
Joe felt the pressure too. He was there Saturdays and Sundays, running errands, doing repairs, and most of all listening to his mother talk. She mumbled continuously about past grievances – her family who had treated her badly, the coldness of her husband – and more often as the disease progressed, various delusions. Electric shock experiments were being performed on her, her husband was obtaining money from some mysterious woman, people had broken into the house and stolen her jewelry.
“What do you want me to do?” he’d shout at her. “There’s nothing I can do.”
When we went on vacation, we had to check in constantly. “Everything’s fine,” his father would say.
“I’m dying,” his mother would tell us. “I might die tomorrow.”
We started going on separate vacations, me with my girlfriends to Paris and Brussels, Joe with his buddies to Vegas, so that one of us would always be around. When he was gone, I took care of his mother all weekend, and during the week had to drop whatever I was doing and go over if they called. If I didn’t, they’d scold Joe, and Joe would scold me, shaking his head and gritting his teeth as though I had disappointed him in the worst way. And I’d keep disappointing him and my in-laws, because no matter what I did, I couldn’t make up for not being Korean.
In my early 30s, I had no life, and fantasized about being single, living in the city, writing as much as I wanted, and going out with my pals without being interrupted by Joe’s peevish calls.
I stopped wearing the diamond. It was too heavy, I said, and wore it only on special occasions, sticking with my light and simple wedding band instead.
Four years into our marriage, Joe had an affair. It was April, days before my 32nd birthday. Not only that, he knocked the floozy up. An older Japanese single mom, 44 to Joe’s 38, she was going to keep the baby, no matter what.
Although he begged my forgiveness, there were no more presents in velvet boxes. It would have been strange: “Here’s this brooch, that should make up for it.” That Christmas, for the first time, I asked for something: an iPod. Reluctantly he gave it to me. After he moved out that following April, I listened to sad songs as I rode the train back and forth to the city, and cried.
Guilt-ridden, Joe said I could keep the engagement ring. I stashed it in a drawer in my new Upper East Side apartment. What could I do with it? I certainly didn’t want to turn it into a necklace, which I heard some other divorcees did. While not superstitious, I still believed that gems carried energy, and felt that a negative cloud clung to that particular bauble, even if it was all in my head.
Finally one day that summer, nearly a year after our divorce, I got the ring appraised. I felt ready to move on. Maybe I’d sell it, not that I needed the money, but having a little nest egg would be nice.
One of my co-workers recommended a jeweler who didn’t buy, and holding my breath, I watched as he peered at the stone through a magnifying loupe. He jotted some notes down. Peered again. Jotted again. He removed the loupe and looked at me like he was about tell me my Tiffany dragonfly lamp, circa 1902, was a fake.
“$2,500,” he said.
“Twenty-five hundred?” I asked, incredulously. Maybe I hadn’t heard right.
He nodded. Average cut, average clarity, yellowish in color. He shrugged. “It’s not a bad diamond,” he said. “Just not flawless.”
I couldn’t believe it. I stood by with my mouth open as he appraised the pearl set I had also brought. An engagement gift from Joe’s mother, the matching necklace, three-strand bracelet, and gold filigree ring always made a dramatic impression.
“$50,” he said. “And that’s because of the gold.”
“Fifty dollars,” I murmured. “Twenty-five hundred.” One paycheck. A month and a half of rent. That was how much I was worth.
I never sold any of it. What was the point. Instead I handed it all over to my mother, who wasn’t surprised at their cheapness.
“They treated you so bad,” she said, her face quivering. She and my father were so mad, they sent a letter to Joe’s parents accusing them of treating me like a slave.
I didn’t care how much the adornment cost, only that Joe and his family had lied about their real worth. Or maybe they hadn’t; maybe they honestly hadn’t known. Despite all their years of collecting experience, they had no idea what was real and what was junk. They didn’t know a good thing when they had it.
“Just don’t turn the ring into other jewelry,” I told my mother. Sniffling, she laughed. Despite her anger, we both knew she might think, “A diamond’s a diamond!” and show up at the next mah-jongg party with a new choker or bracelet.
Somewhere along the way, I stopped wearing rings altogether. I only wore necklaces to match my business casual outfits. And after three years of dating mishaps, I finally found a new love. Tall, black-haired and blue-eyed, Alex never gave me flowers or chocolates, nor tiny boxes that opened to reveal something shiny. What he gave me, and gives me still, are his directness and joy of life. His long and constant hugs, fine kisses, and good Southern cooking. His kindness to my mother. His reminding me that I’m worth something, not because of what I do but who I am, and now I know that’s all I need.