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How two former Army Rangers built an engagement ring business

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This next story has two former Army Ranger combat veterans, a detailed strategic plan and thousands of dollars' worth of diamonds. No, it is not a heist movie. It is the story of veterans turned entrepreneurs, as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: I'm walking through New York's Diamond District with two combat veterans who have started - what else? - an engagement ring company. Andrew Wolgemuth describes the scene here on Jewelers' Row.

ANDREW WOLGEMUTH: Yeah. So it's a very kind of dingy, dirty - it feels as if you're going into a pawnshop. It's certainly not consumer-facing whatsoever.

LAWRENCE: Before Wolgemuth became an Army Ranger, he worked in his family's jewelry shop. So he can say this.

WOLGEMUTH: And the jewelry industry, as a whole, already has this reputation of being kind of, you know, a little bit slimy.

LAWRENCE: That's because most people don't know much about what a good diamond looks like and what it should cost, says Wolgemuth. That was true of his business partner, Brian Elliott.

BRIAN ELLIOTT: I personally had a very bad engagement ring first attempt.

LAWRENCE: Elliott was living on Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga., and he planned to propose to his girlfriend, so he went to the nearest jewelry store.

ELLIOTT: I was in a mall off of Exit 8. And I'm in there. I'm talking to the guy. He's hard selling me, and I smell Auntie Anne's pretzels waft into my nose right as I'm about to spend $10,000 on this thing that I - it was probably worth, like, you know, 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 in this crappy environment. And I just walked away at that point.

LAWRENCE: This is common enough to be a military cliche - the young soldier home from deployment and making really dumb purchases at the mall outside the base. Another cliche is what Andrew Wolgemuth was dealing with on deployment - soldiers who wanted to propose as they stepped off the plane home from Afghanistan.

WOLGEMUTH: A bunch of Rangers in my platoon, they were at that point in their life where they wanted to get engaged, but they want this idea of buying an engagement ring. 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 out, drop to a knee and propose.

LAWRENCE: That perfect moment - except these soldiers had no way to get a decent engagement ring in Afghanistan, even by mail.

WOLGEMUTH: The odds are, you know, not in your favor that that package is going to show up.

LAWRENCE: But then word got around the Ranger regiment about Wolgemuth's family business.

WOLGEMUTH: The Lt. knows how to build engagement rings.

LAWRENCE: Lieutenant, or Lt., Wolgemuth started arranging video calls with jewelry-makers to design rings and then make very convincing duplicates with brass and glass to mail over. The real ring could be collected later. But the guys would have a ring as they got off the plane. And for a few of his fellow Rangers, it worked.

WOLGEMUTH: I mean, yeah, it was a once-in-a-lifetime proposal, off the plane. They got the moment, a beautiful moment, yeah.

LAWRENCE: Wolgemuth came home from Afghanistan and got out of the Army. He was living at home in Lancaster, Pa., but he had zero interest in the family jewelry business. He did a workshop for veterans who want to be entrepreneurs. And then he was listening to a podcast.

WOLGEMUTH: And so I was like - I had just listened to NPR, How I Built This, the - I know, right?

ELLIOTT: What a plug.

LAWRENCE: We're putting that on the air.

WOLGEMUTH: ...With the Neil Blumenthal - Warby Parker.

LAWRENCE: How I Built This tells the story of successful businesses. Warby Parker is an eyeglass company that lets you order five pairs, try them on at home and then decide which one you want.

WOLGEMUTH: Wow. Like, you know, we did this thing in Afghanistan with these rings. Well, what if we built the same experience for engagement rings?

LAWRENCE: Wolgemuth says he knew he couldn't send five diamond rings in the mail. Even back in the States, the insurance bill would be crippling. But with 3D printing, he could make inexpensive models people could see and then revise before they bought the real thing. He called Brian Elliot, who was also out of the Ranger regiment and also trying to get into business.

ELLIOTT: I've been in a couple startups, so he called me. And a couple days later, I'm on a flight down to Lancaster, Pa., to see how jewelry is made.

LAWRENCE: That was two years ago. They're all online, so they weren't much affected by the pandemic. They called their company WOVE. Some people make the ring a surprise, like the way they did it in Afghanistan. But Wolgemuth says more people want to design their real ring together.

WOLGEMUTH: 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 that they actually want to wear.

LAWRENCE: They're banking on this cultural shift, says Brian Elliott.

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

LAWRENCE: Elliott himself 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 with his fiance.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.