Imagine you're Warren Buffett. The year is 1993, and your close friend, Bill Gates, is getting married.
You're about 63, and Gates is 38. His enthusiasm is contagious. He's come to attend the annual shareholder conference, if I have the timing right. (He's also one of your directors.)
Meanwhile, your firm, Berkshire Hathaway, owns Borsheims Fine Jewelry in Omaha. You hold shareholder events there every year. They're kind of a big deal.
It would make sense that Gates might decide to buy his beloved an engagement ring at Borsheims. You certainly think so.
He's worth a cool $6.2 billion. So you suggest a budget that would make most people choke. You're happy to do the math for him: $372 million.
Why so much? Well, when you proposed to your wife, you explain, you spent 6 percent of your net worth on her ring.
Gates should do the same. Of course, you were just starting out when you got engaged. Gates is the righest person in the world.
I downloaded the book to my Kindle and read most of it. It's a bit dense, but filled with insight. I suspect you'll be hearing more about it.
When it comes to the Buffett/Gates/engagement ring anecdote, three points spring to mind. They make me doubt that Buffett could have been serious, but they also reveal something very interesting.
- First, there's the fact that it's basically impossible to spend anywhere near that kind of money on a diamond ring. The world record appraisal is $71.2 million apparently, for a 59.60-carat pink diamond in 2017.
- Second, there's the fact that about 13 years after this anecdote, Buffett's wife passed away, and he married his longtime friend, Astrid Menks. Their wedding was frugal: reception at Bonefish Grill in Omaha, for example. Buffett did buy the ring at Borsheims, but his daughter said she was "sure" he took advantage of the employee discount.
- Finally, there's simply the fact that Buffett is notorious for his sense of humor, and even his corny jokes. (What's your goal now that you're the richest man in the country? he was once asked. "That's easy. It's to be the oldest man in the country.")
Heck, even in recounting this story later, after Gates obviously spent nowhere near that amount on a ring, Buffett quipped: "We didn't have quite as big a day that Sunday as I had hoped."
There's a lot more where those came from, but you get the point.
Plus, how would Melinda French Gates have reacted if Bill Gates had gone to town like that on a ring? I've found an unconfirmed report that her real ring was a 1-carat diamond, which I'm sure is nice but costs a lot less than Buffett wryly suggested.
There's also the fact that during their engagement a few months after this meeting with Buffett, Bill and Melinda Gates made their first trip to Africa, where as she later put it, "what really touched us, actually, were the people, and the extreme poverty."
Anyway, I think that's the lesson here.
It's not just that the notoriously economical Buffett was clearly being humorous when (if) he suggested his friend spend more than anyone in history had ever spent on a diamond ring.
It's that having amassed more wealth than almost anyone in American history, and even having pledged to give it all away, Buffett seems to find the humor in most situations.
As billionaires go, they seem pretty put together. But line up an array of billionaires in front of all of us, and I'll bet that many of them have lives that are a lot more messed up than yours or mine.
As for the ring? Nice little joke. Great friendship between Gates and Buffett.
And a successful relationship, as far as we can tell, between Bill and Melinda Gates. A cool 25 years and counting as of this year, with or without the multimillion dollar ring.