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."

Another trend affecting wedding gifts is that of "cocooning," or -- entertaining frequently at home. "There's very much an at-home trend. People have the tendency to want to be at home. In fact, more [older] couples are buying their homes and are entertaining at home," says Ms. Warren. Consequently, items such as patio furniture and videocassette recorders have found themselves on registries.

At the Store Ltd., gifts that are both functional and beautiful -- and that can be used for easy, informal entertaining, such as an elegant metal dish by Nambe of Santa Fe that can be taken from freezer to oven to table -- are highly popular, says Ms. Fuger. Other favored functional but still-special gifts include tableware, pitchers and salad bowls.

And at Sunnyfield's of Baltimore County, many couples register for things to use about the house, with prints, lamps and mirrors winning the popularity contest, says owner David Schuler. (Although occasionally, pure romance takes over and wedding or shower guests buy the couple a small chairside mahogany table with the wedding invitation set into the wood, he says.)

Bedroom decor is getting more attention these days, as well, says Carol Spellman, Bloomingdale's registry director. "That's not to say that traditional items aren't listed like crystal and china, but we see bedding, sheets and comforters . . . luxury linens: 300-count cotton sheets for $100 that make you feel like you're in silk but it's cotton."

Before, she says, "people didn't look to the bedroom with design in mind, but now that people entertain in their homes more, they look to the home and are putting together ensembles."

But what if the bride and groom are thirtysomething and have all the patio furniture and fine linens or prints they can use? Or if this is the second marriage for one or both?

Ah, at last, pure whimsy becomes apropos, say experts. "You go to a completely different kind of present. It's fun to get something that will last forever, but now you could choose things that, to be sure, aren't lasting," says Ms. Post.

In such circumstances, she has heard of wonderful gifts of dinner for two at the city's finest restaurant, or tickets to the opera or a sporting event. And in these socially conscious days, she says, many couples are suggesting donations to their favorite charity.

But if all this talk of giving and getting and long wish lists on the part of the wedding couple seems to dull the romantic sheen of gift buying, take heart. There are two important things to remember about registries: You know you're getting what they want, and the registry often includes gifts that cover a wide range of costs. "It's a thoughtful bride and groom who realize they should include a range," says Ms. Tober.

And let's face it, says Ms. Fuger, "The perfect gift is what they really want."


IF THE IDEA OF PICKING A china pattern you're supposed to like forever scares you silly, here are a few tips from Bride's magazine about how to register -- and how to be gracious when receiving gifts:

*Register in advance.

*Go to stores during their off hours.

*Don't try to do everything in one day. (You'll go crazy.)

*Listen to the consultant -- she has done this before.

*If the consultant won't help you, go to another store.

*Be descriptive on your registry, don't just say "bowl."

*Register in different price ranges.

*Use imagination: These days everything from sports equipment luggage is showing up on registries.

*Don't register for the same items in two stores.

*Never announce where you are registered on your invitation. (However, the shower hostess can.)

*Keep gift lists. Write a few thank-you notes every day.

*Mention what the gift is in your note.

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