The question of the perfect wedding gift always comes up about this time of year. Do you follow tradition and choose something on the bride and groom's registry? It's convenient, of course, but sometimes it seems too easy, almost impersonal.
Do you choose to send an art object of your choice -- because that toaster they listed seems so unromantic?
Do you send them china in that pattern they chose but you never would?
Yes, no, yes, say the experts. If you're the sort who takes great pleasure in hunting down the "perfect" gift, don't indulge yourself at wedding time.
"What happens when you go off the registry is: It comes back. There are tremendous amounts of returns. So unfortunately, the people who buy beautiful gifts off the registry are taking and wasting time and money, if you will," says Gigi Warren, director of bridal and gifts services for Woodward & Lothrop and John Wanamaker stores, who has 10 years of professional experience in such things.
That's not to say that you can never, ever surprise a couple with the perfect something. But with wedding gifts, remember, familiarity breeds content.
If you know the couple well and you know they've been longing for that marvelous Dali lithograph from the Metropolitan Museum of Art -- go on, indulge them and yourself. Otherwise, wildly surprising, wildly creative wedding gifts may not be your best bet.
For the most part, people stick with "the tradition things," says Ursula Fuger, saleswoman at the Store Ltd. "They stick with nice crystal, flatware. Once in a while, someone will come in and say, 'Oh, I'm going to buy her a bird cage.' But when you talk about wedding gifts, it's not often that kind of thing."
Unspontaneous though they may seem, registries are becoming increasingly helpful to wedding guests. The reason? As the average age -- 26 for the groom, 24 for the bride -- of the couple rises, so do the odds against your choosing a gift they both like.
No longer are you dealing with a couple of kids desperate for dishes. More often than not, they are people with distinct tastes who have been living on their own for a while.
"The bride and groom aren't that young anymore," says Barbara Tober, editor-in-chief of Bride's magazine. "We're dealing with two people who have figured out if their tastes are art deco or modern.
"More than likely she's art nouveau and he's art deco and then along comes Aunt Mathilda with an object that looks like it's from the Renaissance. . . . I think it's kind of unfair."
Indeed, a few decades ago, if you knew the bride's mother, you could guess the bride's taste, says Ms. Warren of Woodward & Lothrop. "A few years ago, it used to be Mom's influence. Now occasionally Mom plays a big part in selecting [household decor] but not often."
Subsequently, wedding registries -- egged on in part by stores that stand to profit by them, but also by the increasingly diverse tastes of older couples -- are assuming greater im- portance . . . and greater lengths.
"The registry started in a jewelry store when people registered for silver, then it went on to stores where they had silver and china. Then silver, china and glassware," explains Ms. Tober.
"Then specialty stores got the idea, and then department stores. . . ."
She has seen registry lists that included "smoke alarms, safes and electronics. Museum reproductions. There are travel agents that have registries for the round-trip air fare for the honeymoon or something." A few even have included gourmet and wine stores, with couples registering for vintages of the year of their marriage.
Nowadays, a wedding registry at some department stores can include as many as 32 categories (up from perhaps two) from crystal glasses to gas grills.
Couples are not as hesitant about registering as they used to be, says Ms. Warren. "They have definite needs and definite wants and they're not too shy to ask."
Some brides register not only for the wedding but also for their shower. "We've even heard of people registering for lingerie. I really believe the registry has expanded to comprise not only items for the wedding gift category but also for shower gifts," says Ms. Tober. To further confuse or expand the issue, many brides register at more than one store, she says. (And 25 percent of Bride's magazine readers register at three!)
Even as the registry has lengthened, so have the types of request changed. Wedding gifts of the '90s are still traditional -- but lean heavily toward functional. Two-career families and the ensuing household time crunch have placed the days of very formal registries by the wayside, points out Elizabeth Post, author of several books on etiquette including "Emily Post's Complete Book of Wedding Etiquette."
"To some extent, silver that was given a long time ago isn't anymore. People do not have the time to polish silver nor do they have the help to spend time polishing. More practical materials have taken over. Generally speaking, the trend is to functional things."