Ever wondered how the diamond engagement ring became the superstar of the jewelry world? The Jewelry Insider offers a brief history for your reading pleasure.
‘Tis the season to pop that fateful question fellas…
Diamond Engagement Rings: A History
Because of their beauty, strength and durability, diamonds for centuries have symbolized the eternal love of two people that have pledged to join together in marriage.
The actual tradition of giving a diamond engagement ring as a promise of marriage is thought to have started in 1477, when Archduke Maximillian of Austria presented Mary of Burgundy with a diamond ring. This practice became a trend among royalty and the wealthy, and the rest of the world’s upper classes began to embrace it over the next few centuries.
But giving a diamond engagement ring as a symbol of betrothal really started to become an established, widespread tradition once the gems became more accessible and affordable to the public. And that all started in 1870 with the discovery of diamond mines in South Africa. These new sources flooded the market and led to the creation of the De Beers conglomerate to control the worldwide diamond supply. During these early decades of the De Beers dynasty, diamond sales flourished in Europe, the United States and other key world markets.
By the late 1930s, however, the United States and much of Europe was in the wake of the Depression, and Europe was bracing for the start of World War II – and demand for diamonds had plummeted to an all-time low. Thus, De Beers diamond mogul Sir Ernest Oppenheimer sent his son Harry to New York to meet with the N.W Ayer advertising agency. The plan was to transform America’s taste for small, low-quality stones into a true luxury market that would absorb the excess production of higher-quality gems no longer selling in Europe. The result of Ayer and young Oppenheimer’s efforts was a campaign – led by the enduring “A Diamond is Forever” slogan – that helped turn the United States into the premier market for the world’s supply of gem-quality diamonds. The successful campaign also cemented the diamond’s status as the engagement ring stone of choice in America.
Here are some other interest historical facts related to the engagement ring:
- The tradition of placing both the engagement ring and wedding band on the fourth finger of the left hand stems from a Greek belief that a certain vein in that finger, the vena amoris, runs directly to the heart.
- In the Middle Ages, men often kept a betrothal ring suspended from the band of their hats, ready to give to their chosen maid.
- Posy rings, which were inscribed with love poems and messages, were popular betrothal rings from the Middle Ages until Victorian times.
- A popular engagement ring style during the Renaissance was called the “Gimmel,” or twin, ring. The ring was typically made of two (or three) interlocking rings: one worn by the bride-to-be, and another by the groom-to-be (and sometimes a third worn by a witness). All three parts were reunited into one to become the wedding ring on the day of marriage. Martin Luther and Catherine Bora were wed with an inscribed gimmel ring in 1525.
- The smallest engagement ring on record was given to two-year-old Prince Mary, daughter of Henry VIII, on the event of her betrothal to the infant Dauphin of France, son of King Francis I, in 1518. Mary’s tiny gold ring was set with a diamond.
- A diamond cluster ring in the shape of a long pointed oval was popular as an engagement ring during the time of Louis XVI (1754-1793), and remained fashionable for 150 years afterward.
- Hearts were popular motifs for engagement and wedding rings during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Such rings often combined rubies (signifying love) and diamonds (signifying eternity).
- Despite the diamond’s growing hold on the bridal market, colored stone rings were still quite popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Often, the first letter of the stones within the setting spelled out the name of the giver or a word (for example, “dearest” would be represented by diamond, emerald, amethyst, ruby, epidote, sapphire and turquoise).
- Queen Victoria’s (1819-1901) engagement ring was in the form of a serpent. The snake motif was believed to be a symbol of good luck.
- The Tiffany, or solitaire, setting was introduced in the late nineteenth century.
- The “princess ring,” a type of English engagement ring sporting three to five large diamonds in a row across the top, was popular in the United States in the early twentieth century. The three-stone style has enjoyed a major comeback recently.
- In the early part of the twentieth century, platinum was the metal of choice for engagement rings because of its strength and durability in holding a diamond. However, platinum was declared a strategic metal during World War II, and its usage was restricted to military purposes. This led to the rise of both yellow and white gold in bridal jewelry.
- The famous “A Diamond is Forever” campaign established many of today’s standards for diamond engagement rings, including the “two months’ salary” guideline – which basically says that a prospective groom should plan to spend two months’ salary on an engagement ring for his bride-to-be.