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It's Me, Me, Me as School Spirit Slips Off the Ring

Jewelry makers hope to attract seniors with lifestyle symbols instead of mascots.

May 28, 2004|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

A battle for the hearts, minds and fingers of the nation's high school students is being waged in the tiniest of theaters: the side panels of senior class rings.

School mascots and graduation year, the hallmarks of rings in the past, are being bumped aside or minimized to make room for "pride sides" -- minuscule designs that would be hard to link to in-class accomplishment, including zodiac and peace signs, skateboarders, ethnic flags, rock climbers and figure skaters.

And there are thousands more options, an explosion of choice that is part of the industry's efforts to revive interest in a tradition that may have peaked with poodle skirts.

Companies are turning to high-tech sales tools, lower-priced mystery metals and overall fashion trends to compete against the unending similarly priced choices teens have to reward themselves for completing high school. ("Do I want a mini-iPod or a ring that is dangerously close to something my parents wore?")

Although ring companies still employ campus representatives, they have begun pointing students toward the Internet, where "configurators" enable would-be buyers to design rings and view the results before committing. Product developers attend jewelry and accessory trade shows to plug into the latest fads, then incorporate them into designs that often end up looking more like promise rings than military-style salutes to specific schools. (The school ring tradition began at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1835.)

"I joke that our slogan should be, 'Bling-bling, buy a class ring,' " says Deb Gabor, director of retail marketing for ArtCarved, which sells school rings in jewelry stores.

When you throw in the hundreds of ring options -- from color, cut and adornment of the stone to type of metal and style of ring -- it can make flipping through a half-pound ring catalog about as much fun as cramming for the SAT. And although price remains an issue for some students, relevance may be a bigger one, educators and people in the industry say, as being true to one's school increasingly takes a back seat to being true to oneself.

"We are kind of losing touch with the idea of a ring bringing a class together as a unit. With the ring evolving into me-me-me product design, the school is less and less a part of the process," says Kean Chan, product manager for Balfour, based in Austin, Texas, one of the big three companies that sell rings on campuses.

A few schools, especially more traditional private ones, are moving back to the one-ring concept that they see as more unifying, Chan and others say.

Ring companies are also dealing with a backlash over too much choice by streamlining catalogs and pricing structures that can seem as complicated as calculus.

The equation was simpler before the one-design-fits-all approach began losing ground in the mid-1970s, when the first "activity panels" and fashion rings that bore little resemblance to their traditional counterparts were introduced by ArtCarved, which is owned by the same company as Balfour.

"Those designs led to one-upmanship, and it kind of got out of hand," Chan says. "Once the genie is out of the bottle, you can't put it back in. Who doesn't want choice?"

When Jenny Silver, a sophomore at Oak Park High in Ventura County, ordered her $360 white-gold ring this spring from Herff-Jones, another major on-campus retailer, her first instinct was to place a ballet or dance icon on one side. But she had a change of heart.

"I put a Jewish star on the side, because I am always going to be Jewish," the 16-year-old says. "I am not always going to be dancing."

'A Series of Choices'

About half the nation's students purchase a class ring, according to industry estimates. That's down about 15% from a decade ago, says Chan. Given prom bids, grad night, senior portraits and graduation announcements, "the price of being a senior is astronomical," says Jon Lyons, the student body advisor at Pasadena High School. "Some do say, 'I'd rather have a ring than go to the prom.' It's a series of choices students and parents have to make."

With the average cost of a ring about $250 to $275, one of the first expenses to go may be a piece of jewelry whose post-graduation destiny is the sock drawer. Or, in Lyons' case, a closet where he thinks he may have stashed his 1991 ring from San Bernardino High.

Society has changed since the grandparents of today's high school students exchanged school rings to go steady, families stayed put and a gold ring cost less than $50. "I don't know if kids have that 1950s attachment to school that they used to. We have a lot of kids moving in and out of the school. There's just not that fascination with rings anymore," says Lyons. "Besides, $200 is a car payment for these kids."

He estimates fewer than half of Pasadena High's students order rings, and the subject often doesn't even come up until the end of their senior year.

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