A Wedding Ring With a Dirty Little Secret

Chloe Stein, an executive chef and caterer, remembers fondly her fairy tale engagement in early September 2016.

She and her then-boyfriend, Deepak Panjwani, a data analyst at Bloomberg, were vacationing in Sweden. They took a day trip to Drottningholm Palace, the private residence of the Swedish royal family, and toured the vast 16th-century gardens.

At a scenic overlook, Mr. Panjwani surprised Ms. Stein by proposing marriage. But instead of presenting a traditional diamond solitaire, he held out a “smog free ring,” a piece of designer jewelry that has come to symbolize the fight against urban pollution.

The ring is made of hundreds of thousands of gallons of pollution sucked from the air and compressed into a tiny box and covered by a shiny, protective case. (It’s essentially a black mass inside a clear cube.) The particles in the ring are considered so dangerous that if breathed in, they can shorten an adult’s life expectancy by six to eight years, according to the ring’s designer and creator, Daan Roosegaarde, a Dutch artist and technologist.

Some might question the romantic appeal of a smog free ring, but Ms. Stein, 27, a staunch environmentalist, remains delighted. “The normal paradigm is for you to start your marriage by buying something that causes harm to the environment and the people who are working to get out the diamond,” she said. “By not buying into the system, we started our marriage not only with a clean slate, but an environmentally positive state.”

The couple married Sept. 3, 2017 in Frenchtown, N.J., and are now in the process of relocating from Princeton, N.J., to San Diego, where Ms. Stein recently took a job with a wellness retreat.

Many brides today care deeply about the rings they put on their fingers and are opting for pieces of jewelry that considered both sustainable and ethical.

De Beers, the dominant diamond producer, recently began offering a line of synthetic diamonds for brides who don’t want to wear real ones that may not be ethically sourced.

The smog free ring, however, takes this trend a step further by giving brides the opportunity to wear a ring that isn’t just conflict-free and neutral; it actually helps remove negative debris from the world. (There is also a cuff link version, which Prince Charles owns.)

“In the beginning we were joking, who is going to wear pollution?” Mr. Roosegaarde said. “It’s a new meaning of beauty. It’s not beauty like Louis Vuitton or Ferrari or Rolex, but it’s clean air. That’s beautiful.”

Couples around the world are incorporating the ring into their weddings. Studio Roosegaarde, which is based in Rotterdam, Netherlands, declined to provide sales figures, but it said that it has had “requests from several couples across the world.”

The smog ring was created as an after thought.

Four years ago, Mr. Roosegaarde was visiting Beijing for work. Tired of the thick pollution there, when he returned home he designed “the world’s largest smog vacuum cleaner.” Every hour a smog free tower draws in 30,000 cubic meters (or nearly eight million gallons) of polluted air. It cleans the air, and returns it to the environment.

After making a prototype, he couldn’t figure out what to do with the buckets of smog particles left over from the process. He studied the material under a microscope and was shocked to find that half of it was carbon.

“When you put carbon under high pressure, you get diamonds,” he said. “That’s when we said, ‘Let’s make jewelry out of it, let’s make something personal that people can share.’”

Proceeds from the sale of each ring, which costs 250 euros, or around $290, are allocated to building more smog free towers. The first one was in Beijing; they are now located in public parks around the world in cities including Rotterdam; Kraków, Poland; and Tianjin, China. Mexico City is slated to have one this fall. India and Columbia are also in negotiations with Studio Roosegaarde to get some for their countries.

Because the pollution is different in each city (cars might be the biggest offender in one place, while another has a problem with factories) clients can choose which city’s pollution they want in their ring. “If we have a tower there, we can do it,” said Mr. Roosegaarde.

In November 2015, Chris Ketchledge, 35, proposed to his then-girlfriend, Vanessa Hertz, 37, in Museum Park, across the from their home in downtown Miami, with a smog free ring. (Actually, it was with a picture of one placed inside a ring box. The smog free ring he had ordered had not yet arrived.)

Mr. Ketchledge saw the ring online and agreed with the concept. “Instead of that carbon representing someone else’s marketing or some other country’s natural resources, but 1,000 cubic meters of clean air to the people of Beijing is brilliant,” he said. “The idea of using something toxic or broken and turning it into something beautiful is so inspiring.”

Ms. Hertz loved it immediately because it was so different than traditional engagement rings. “It looks like it’s floating on my hand,” she said. “I smile every time I look at it.”

Frank van der Linden, a 54-year-old chief executive of a health care organization in Groningen, Netherlands, selected the ring because he knew it would impress his girlfriend, an architect who loves anything modern and fresh. He wrapped it up in a box and put it under the tree for Christmas Day.

“She cried, said yes immediately,” he said. “I don’t know anyone else who has the ring. For me it was very special to give such an innovative, green, beautiful design to my then future wife.”

Many couples also like the fact that the smog free ring is more affordable than a diamond or other precious gem. “Chloe isn’t very materialistic, neither of us are,” Mr. Panjwani said. “So we thought this was a cool ring to get. It was the fraction of the cost of a traditional engagement ring.”

Its contemporary design and unusual makeup isn’t for everyone, however.

“There were a few people who I could see in their eyes were like, ‘What?’” Ms. Stein said. “Like my mom is probably a bit more traditional. She wanted me to have a family ring.”

As for Mr. Roosegaarde, he can’t imagine a better use for the smog free ring. One day he also hopes to use it as an engagement ring. “I’m not married, I’m single, but I always carry a smog free ring with me,” he said, laughing. “Right now it’s a proposal for a new world, not a person, but you never know when I will meet someone.”