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These combat vets want to help you design the perfect engagement ring

These screenshots show deployed service members that <em>Wove</em> worked with to design engagement rings while they are away from home. The rings in the photos are replicas that the service members received so they would have a sense of what the actual ones would be like.
Andrew Wolgemuth
These screenshots show deployed service members that Wove worked with to design engagement rings while they are away from home. The rings in the photos are replicas that the service members received so they would have a sense of what the actual ones would be like.

When Andrew Wolgemuth served in Afghanistan, his comrades in his special operations platoon came to depend on him for a particular skill set and base of knowledge: diamond engagement rings.

"A bunch of Rangers in my platoon were at that point in their life where they wanted to get engaged," says Wolgemuth. "They want this idea of, they're fresh off a combat deployment, and all of the wives, girlfriends, family members are standing there with signs and they get to walk up, drop to a knee and propose."

Only one thing stood between them and that perfect off-the-plane and drop-the-knee moment. They had no idea how to get a decent engagement ring in Afghanistan, even by military mail.

"The odds are not in your favor that that package is going to show up," says Wolgemuth.

Then word got around the platoon — Lt. Wolgemuth's family runs a jewelry business. He started arranging video calls with jewelry makers to design rings. Then the jewelers would make a convincing duplicate with brass and glass to mail over. The real one could be collected later, but these guys would have a sparkly ring as they arrived. And for a few of his fellow Rangers, it worked.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime proposal off the plane — they got the moment," he says.

At the time, Wolgemuth didn't have any idea this would lead to a business career in jewelry. But he knew that even back in the U.S., buying an engagement ring is just as scary for snake-eating Army Rangers as it is for civilians. Most people don't buy that many in their lifetime, so they have no idea how to judge the value of a diamond.

"The jewelry industry as a whole already has this reputation of being a little bit slimy," he says. "It feels like you're going into a pawn shop. It's certainly not consumer-facing whatsoever."

Wolgemuth's future business partner, Brian Elliot, figured that out just in time, when he planned to propose to his girlfriend. He was also an Army Ranger, living on Fort Benning in Georgia.

Andrew Wolgemuth and Brian Elliot, posing in Manhattan's Diamond District.
/ Quit Lawrence/NPR
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Quit Lawrence/NPR
Andrew Wolgemuth and Brian Elliot, posing in Manhattan's Diamond District.

"I was in a mall and I'm talking to the guy. He's hard-selling me, and I smell Auntie Ann's pretzels waft into my nose, right as I'm about to spend $10,000 on this thing that is probably worth, like, a quarter of that. And I realized like, wow, this is probably not the best spot to make this really lifelong purchase in this kind of halogen light mall and this environment. And I just walked away at that point," says Elliot.

When they were both a few years out of the Army, Elliot got a call from Wolgemuth, who was living in Lancaster, Pa., where his parents still had a jewelry shop.

He told Elliot he wanted to become the "Warby Parker of engagement rings."

Warby Parker is the eyeglasses company that lets you order several pairs, try them on at home and then decide which you want.

"We did this thing in Afghanistan with these rings. Well, what if we built this same experience for engagement rings?" Wolgemuth said.

Elliot had been in a few start-ups, and he thought the jewelry industry might be ripe for disruption.

"A couple days later I'm on a flight down to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to see how jewelry is made," says Elliot.

They call their company Wove. They can't send multiple diamond rings in the mail — the insurance bill would be crippling. But with 3D printing, they make inexpensive models people can see, and feel, and then revise, before buying the real thing.

Wove co-founder Andrew Wolgemuth, at his jewelry workshop in Lancaster, Pa.
/ Eric Forberger
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Eric Forberger
Wove co-founder Andrew Wolgemuth, at his jewelry workshop in Lancaster, Pa.

The company has been in business for two years, and since it's all online, the pandemic didn't hurt their business much. Some people make the ring a surprise, the way they did it in Afghanistan. Others come as a couple to design their real ring, together.

"The jewelry industry really has hardly changed in the last hundred years and it's highly patriarchal. And so I love the collaborative approach that we offer kind of equal partners coming together. Keep the proposal a surprise, but they also get to wear a ring they actually want to wear," says Wolgemuth.

They're banking on a cultural shift, says Brian Elliot.

"You know, 'Man surprises woman with rock, now we stay together.' Like, it's 2023 now! The fact that both partners are involved is so much more equitable and so much more meaningful because that represents how they're going to make decisions when they buy the house, get the car, have the child. It's a collaborative decision," he says.

Elliot is part of that trend. His trip to the shopping mall diamond store near Fort Benning — that engagement didn't work out. But this spring he's getting married, and he designed the ring along with his fiancée.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.