High School Class Rings

High school—one of the toughest, most formative periods in an American boy or girl's life. Puberty, standardized testing, dances, dating, learning to drive, asserting one's independence—it is hard to disagree that, love it or hate it, high school (ages 14-18 typically) is one of the most fundamental periods in a child's life. And with high school comes the class ring, a fancy bijou that represents all the turmoils and triumphs of high school life.

Rings have been used as insignia and symbols of group solidarity since long before we invented writing to brag about such things. In the nineteenth century, some university students began wearing rings representing their school and year of graduation—probably a natural consequence of this sort of symbol. But with the rise of public (state-funded) education in the United States, the twentieth century saw the creation of the high school class ring.

The Shape of Them
The class ring is a piece of jewelry purchased by young people in high school or college, as a way of showing their pride in their school, their class, and also as a rite of passage indicating their imminent graduation. University class rings are known in many other parts of the world, but the class ring for school kids seems to be an exclusively United States-ian tradition.

A class ring is typically a wide band set with a single large stone (real, or more commonly, a costume or semi-precious stone), often a faceted one. The school's name is almost always engraved in an oval around the stone (this is probably the single characteristic feature of the class ring). The side panels contain information or designs appropriate to the school or the student to whom the ring belongs. Frequently the rear band (the palm side of the band) is textured or given an engraved embellishment. The owner's name or a personal message may be engraved inside the ring. Class rings are usually made of gold or silver.

More recently, some designers are trying to keep with the times, so to speak, and designing fancier, less traditional class rings. Class rings exist which are rhinestone-encrusted monstrosities in the shape of the high school's initials, or stray so far from the traditional design as to be very hard to distinguish as a high school class ring at all.

The Soul of Them
Class rings symbolize pride in one's high school and also in one's graduating class. High schools are sometimes a matter of community pride, and in areas where high school sports are keenly followed, a class ring can be a visual cue to observers that may afford the wearer special status (but, this can backfire, I am told, when the wearer finds himself in the turf of a rival school).

The high school class ring is also a traditional status symbol. Wealthy families, and families that wanted to pretend toward wealth, or wanted to show their aspirations, may purchase a ring to show that their child went to a good school, and that they could afford to toss away what might amount to two weeks' pay (for most workers) on something showy for their kid.

The high school class ring is a good rite of passage for teenagers in middle class USA. These children don't have a lot of growing up rites, a fact some people lament. A class ring is a tangible (and valuable) symbol of one's high school experience—a hugely formative period for most boys and girls.

The History of Them
Rings have been a popular sort of insignia for military units and societies for many centuries. In the 1830s the cadets at West Point, the United States military college, began wearing class rings and the tradition slowly spread. It did not catch on for high school kids until the early twentieth century, and class rings didn't become a big deal until the 1950s. Their popularity has been declining somewhat in recent years.

In the status-conscious Fifties, a high school class ring was a very important symbol of wealth or of upwardly-mobile family status. High school class rings were a way of flaunting the good life in Eisenhower's America when every red-blooded American family aspired to a couple of gas guzzlers, a white picket fence, and maybe a trip to Hawaii next summer.

Each generation struggles to cast aside some of the old-fashioned things of their parents and grandparents—and so it is that the high school class ring has lost a bit of its popularity in the last decades. Young folks these days have hundreds of things to spend hundreds of dollars on, and the days of Be True to Your School (if indeed such a time ever really existed) are long gone.

And still, Balfour, Jostens, and Artcarved (the three biggest suppliers of high school class rings, creating between them the overwhelming majority of class rings) need hardly worry. While other forms of bling may eclipse these trinkets somewhat, there are still a lot of families who want to invest in a pricey, showy little reminder of their son or daughter's history.

Choosing Them
The man from Balfour looked like a jeweler in some Grimm Brothers fairy tale—short and stocky with a bald pate, bushy eyebrows, and a big smile. Inside the slick pamphlets he handed out were an amazing variety of choices—stones, metals, and inscriptions.

Of course, our school, Lutheran High School of Dallas, required that we put the name of the school encircling the stone, and one face of the ring had the school mascot (the Lions). Also, as a church-school, our rings each had a cross under the stone. The design of the other face was up to the individual student, and those choices took up quite a bit of that glossy pamphlet. There were a lot of options: clubs, sports, initials, zodiac signs (this bothered some of our more religious students, as many of my schoolmates saw astrology as a form of divination—a no-no according to many Christians).

That year, I had decided to run for President of the Student Council. The girl I was running against was a senior (I was a grade behind her), and had served in our Student Councils before. People discounted the candidacy of the kid with the beard as kind of a joke or stunt. No one gave much thought that I might win. Which I did, with the assistance of some very outgoing friends.

I decided that the remaining facet of my class ring should commemorate my year in school politics...grueling, thankless, and often ugly—a good microcosm of real political life, I am given to understand. Balfour's presidential design features a gavel with a lamp behind it. Very stately.

I still have that old ring, its 18 carat gold still shiny, the blue stone shows a few scratches picked up over two and a half decades. It serves as a reminder of some of the most important years of my life. One funny thing about it that astute proofreaders might notice, inside the band the name KEVIN JOHNSON is boldly inscribed. My name isn't Kevin, but I didn't have them change it. That's kind of my high school experience in a nutshell, really.

What Becomes of Them
One of the most important uses for the class ring has traditionally been giving it to your girlfriend as a sign that the two of you are going steady. This custom has been frowned on by parents, who are certain that the girl in question will never return the expensive trinket. The converse, a girl giving her boyfriend her class ring also happens, but the more conventional form is for the boy to give the girl his ring, not necessarily expecting a ring in return. This is almost a practice engagement ring.

Since boys and girls ring styles tend to be very different, as do the sizes of their fingers, it is common for the girl to put her sweetie's ring on a necklace to wear (it is a good idea to use a silk cord or something like that, as a chain may erode soft precious metals). Of course, some sappy old romantics may still enjoy giving their rings to a sweetie, despite high school being a distant memory.

Balfour.com (manufacturer of class rings since 1913)
Also sites for Artcarved and Jostens
Thanks to many people for their input, including my delightful young friend Jeannie and my many overseas correspondents...to whom this must sound like a pretty alien practice...and, well...I guess it is!