What a Gem

I told this story in front of a live audience at The Moth. The theme was “schooled,” and oh, the lessons I learned.

 A lot of people learn about diamonds when they get engaged. 

I learned about them when I got divorced. 

It all started like every good love story: I met a guy. We fell in love. I met his parents. His mom tried to control all our life decisions with a waspy, North-Shore-of-Chicago iron fist. 

It was a classic love story, really.  

The first time I met her, she told me that I was (LONG, AWKWARD PAUSE) ….lovely. So spirited! Full of so many opinions! And surprisingly well put together for someone who (at that time) lived in Nashville and grew up in Kentucky. 

That first meeting set the tone for the next five-plus years of my life and how involved my mother-in-law would be in our relationship and our lives. No topic was safe from her opinion. 

So when it became obvious that we were heading down a path of potential matrimony, she expressed very definitive opinions on everything from our wedding to our rehearsal dinner to where we should go on our honeymoon to the style of my dress. And of course, she had opinions on what my engagement ring should look like — a Tiffany cut, if you’re curious —  and where it should come from. 

Their “esteemed” family jeweler was the only choice as far as she was concerned, probably because of how high-quality she believed their diamonds were compared to what would be available in, say, a crappy backwood place like Nashville, Tennessee. And because my ex-husband had always listened to his mother without question, he let her drive that decision. That esteemed family jeweler is where he bought my ring  — no doubt under his mother’s watchful eye.

Which means that my mother-in-law kind of picked out my engagement ring. Creepy, right? 

So, for anyone in the audience who might be shopping for a ring, allow me to humbly share a few lessons I learned from this experience.   

Lesson #1: Do NOT let your mom pick out your future partner’s engagement ring. Just don’t. 

Now let’s fast forward to when my ex-husband and I got divorced. We chose to use a mediator, mainly because we found out how much divorce attorneys cost and realized that with no property, no kids, and no contesting of anything, we could end our marriage for much cheaper that way. 

Part of that mediation was declaring all of our property so we could split it. When I did my portion of this, I included my wedding rings in that list, which meant that I would split whatever I got from selling them 50/50 with my ex. That was really dumb. 


Lesson #2: In the world of divorce, engagement and wedding rings are viewed as gifts and legally belong to the person they were gifted to, unless they’re a family heirloom or have some special family significance.

So if you’ve got some hardware and you’re getting divorced, KEEP IT.  Take 100 percent of the money if you sell and never look back. 

The reason this is important to the story is because it was 2002 when I got divorced and, like everyone else in San Francisco, I’d been laid off from my dotcom job. I was counting on selling my ring to give me some much-needed cash flow. My plan was to shop my ring around San Francisco and hopefully get as close as possible to the full value listed on the paperwork. 

Let’s pause for a moment on that word: PAPERWORK. 

“Paperwork” in relation to diamonds probably conjures up some sort of official diamond certification document that states the dollar value of a ring. This paperwork would likely reveal the four Cs of a diamond: color, cut, clarity, and carat. This paperwork is something that you should ALWAYS GET when you spend a lot of money on a diamond.

What I had, though, was not that kind of paperwork. 

No, this paperwork was a fax cover sheet, Not a fax cover sheet FOLLOWED by official documents. Just a fax cover sheet. Full stop. A fax cover sheet generated by Microsoft Word, circa 1998, with some hastily scrawled handwriting stating my ring’s worth. Back then, I’d never owned a diamond before, and because so much fuss had been made about the fancy jeweler it came from on the hoity-toity North Shore of Chicago, this seemed like perfectly fine paperwork to use as I went out into the world to get the $12,000 that my Microsoft fax cover sheet said my ring was worth. 

Which brings us to Lesson #4:  Fax cover sheets are not official diamond certification documents. 

You probably know this —you look like a diamond-savvy audience — but I didn’t. Because I was young and dumb — actually, let’s call me ”inexperienced” instead. So I confidently went out into the world of gemstones, my fax cover sheet tucked into my Nine West tote and one of my best friends — also unemployed at the time and readily available on a Tuesday morning — along for the ride. 

I went to Shreve & Company in downtown San Francisco and handed over my ring and official documents, AKA the Microsoft fax cover sheet, to the jeweler.

He looked at my diamond under a loupe. He paused. Then he looked again. 

“Have you ever looked at your ring under a loupe before?” he asked me. 

I told him I hadn’t. “My ex-husband and my mother-in-law picked it out.”

Slight eyebrow raise and another pause. “This is a Yehuda diamond,” he said. “Do you know what that is?”

Sincere apologies if you know what this word means. I didn’t, but when he said it my friend bristled. “Yehuda is a pretty derogatory word in the Yiddish language,” she said to him.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know that. But it’s not a good word for your diamond either.”

There was a professional explanation for what was going on with my ring — later I would learn the real terms: inclusions, fracture, resin — but on that day, this is how my brain processed it: broken pieces of a diamond that had essentially been caulked back together. Worthless.

Had anyone bothered to look through a loupe at the ring, they would’ve noticed immediately. But, of course, no one did.

 “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll give you $500 for it.”  

I was stunned. Not because of the money. Okay, partially because of the money. Five hundred dollars was a long way from the $12,000 neighborhood I’d hoped to be in. Mainly I was stunned because of …. 

Lesson #5: Cheesy jewelry commercials. Beware. Every single one ever made has tried to make us believe this: your ring is a glittering symbol of your love and commitment to one another. The strength of your diamond represents the strength of your marriage. The subliminal message: The more you spend, the better the diamond, the stronger the marriage. 

My marriage was like my diamond: shattered in pieces that we’d ignored from the very beginning. Unsalvageable. 

But there WAS a silver lining. A big shiny, uncracked one. 

That’s because there was one thing that was salvageable: my backbone. 

For years, I’d mostly smiled and taken all of my ex mother-in-law’s nasty comments. But divorce had grown me up and helped me grow a pair.

I needed to tell to my ex mother-in-law that her fancy family North Shore jeweler had pulled one over on them and sold them a glued-together, worthless, piece-of-shit diamond. 

I needed to let her know that I’d shopped said piece of crap around and that 500 lousy dollars was all I could get. The other places I’d taken it to had only offered me $250 and $300. 

I desperately wanted to teach her a lesson in karma: Being an asshole ALWAYS comes back to you. And I had an idea that I thought would mark the occasion perfectly. 

I’d send her a fax. 

Just a cover sheet, of course.