History of the Diamond Engagement Ring

What do we think about when we hear that someone we know has gotten engaged? We are, of course, happy for the couple. We may hope to be invited to, or even be asked to participate in the upcoming wedding.

Eventually, many of us set our thoughts on what the engagement ring looks like: Is it delicate or large? Are the diamonds set in a solitaire or a halo setting? Is the band white gold? Silver or platinum? Although engagement rings are common today and often have diamonds at their center, this was not always the case. An engagement ring is, by its most simple definition, a piece of jewelry. As we all know, however, it is much more than that. The engagement ring (or betrothal ring as it was once called), unlike most jewelry, is symbolic, and the addition of diamonds have given the ring even more meaning. Over the course of history, its symbolic significance has changed, just as people have.

The Betrothal Ring

It turns out that the giving and wearing of engagement rings goes back thousands of years. It is known that couples in ancient Egypt exchanged rings made of braided reeds or hemp, but these were most likely wedding bands. There is historical evidence, however, that betrothal rings were used during the Roman Empire (27 BCE-476 CE). The rings were worn on the fourth digit of the left hand, as is the custom today throughout much of the world. This finger was chosen as it was believed that a vein, dubbed the vena amoris, ran from the finger to the heart. The Roman bride-to-be was actually given two betrothal rings, one in gold for public use and one in iron for wearing in the home while carrying out domestic duties.

We find the practice of giving engagement rings on and off throughout history, often to secure the engagement “contract.” In the post-Roman era of the mid 7th century, the Visigoth Code required that “when the ceremony of the betrothal has been performed...and the ring shall have been given or accepted as a pledge...the promise shall, under no circumstances, be broken.”  The Roman Catholic Church insisted it’s members used the betrothal ring as proof of a legal church wedding. The ring ensured that the agreement to marry was made public ahead of the actual wedding ceremony, thereby discouraging clandestine, or secret, marriages.

Introducing the Diamond

The Renaissance period gives us the first documented example of a diamond betrothal ring. In 1477, Archduke Maximillian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy with a glittering diamond ring in the Imperial Court of Vienna. Mary’s ring started a trend with the “it crowd,” setting the precedence of engagement rings as a means of projecting status for the betrothed. Only the very wealthy could afford to buy gemstones and the use of them set the nobility and the aristocracy apart from the common folk, who continued to use simple metal bands for their betrothals. 

The wedding ring, mostly due to the Protestant Reformation (1517-1648), replaced the betrothal ring as the main ring associated with marriage throughout Europe for some time. Then, along came gimmel rings, popular in the 1600s and 1700s in Germany, England and other countries. These were rings with 2-3 hoops that could be separated and worn by both the prospective bride and groom. During the wedding ceremony the rings were joined together to form one ring to be worn by the bride. Some of these rings were very ornate, with two hands clasped together once joined, or double hearts that sat side-by-side once the two hoops were brought together. Some gimmel rings were studded with small gemstones, including diamonds, and others included inscriptions to the future spouse on the insides of each ring.

Betrothal rings containing diamonds were almost exclusively bought by the upper classes until the gems were made less rare when they were discovered along the south bank of the Orange River in South Africa in the 1860s. As more diamonds became  available and prices dropped, people of the middle classes were finally able to afford to buy diamond rings. This trend continued until the west was rocked by two events, World War I, 1914-1918, and then the Great Depression, which spanned the years 1929-1939. Most people throughout the U.S. and Europe took significant financial hits, resulting in a decline of not only diamond engagement rings, but engagement rings in general. In the 1930s, the giving and receiving of engagement rings understandably fell out of practice for couples hoping to tie the knot.

Saving the Diamond Industry

With the collapse of diamond prices during the Great Depression, the diamond industry needed a miracle to bring it back to life. That miracle came in the form of a genius marketing strategy and brilliant advertising campaign. In 1938, De Beers Consolidated Mines, Inc. hired the Philadelphia advertising agency N.W. Ayer to transform public perception about the affordability of diamonds and the waning tradition of engagement rings. They conducted intensive market research which found that the average American felt diamonds were a luxury only the very wealthy could afford (much like the common person had felt before the discovery of diamonds in South Africa). They also learned they needed to connect diamonds with something emotional, and that something, they decided, was love and marriage.

According to the N.W. Ayer ad agency, they sought to “create a situation where almost every person pledging marriage feels compelled to acquire a diamond engagement ring.” 

The advertising centered on education, entertainment and emulation. Through articles in magazines they taught the public about the 4 Cs-cut, carat, clarity and color-and how to use them when shopping for a diamond. Through radio and print they linked diamonds with popular fashion and ideas. Hollywood celebrities were photographed in diamond jewelry, providing a trend that, hopefully, the masses would follow. The piece de la resistance was the advertising slogan, “a diamond is forever,” which would later become the #1 slogan of the century in 1999, associating diamonds with durability and eternity. The results of the campaign were amazing: a 55% increase in diamond sales from 1938-1941. De Beers was able to convince young suitors that diamonds were the superior choice for engagement rings and young women that a diamond was a necessary gift of love and commitment.

The Changing Diamond Industry

By 1990, 80% of engagement rings contained diamonds, but that number would soon decrease.  Thanks to the 1999 campaign by the organization Global Witness, the diamond mining industry was reviewed by the United Nations. The report that Global Witness gave to the U.N. highlighted the use of what became known as “blood diamonds” or “ conflict diamonds.” Diamonds from some mines in war zones were being sold to finance warlord activities and insurgencies throughout various countries in Africa. Many of us remember watching the 2006 movie Blood Diamond starring Leonardo DeCapria, which gave the situation a world-wide audience.

Another problem that emerged from the diamond mining industry was the devastation of the ecosystems where mines are located, dangering both the people and wildlife for current and future generations. Although measures have been taken to limit the selling of tainted diamonds and to slow the environmental effects, some diamond companies have emerged that eliminate the need for diamond mining completely. Lab-created diamonds, those grown with the use of a powerful machine from a tiny diamond grain, are the future of the diamond industry. Not only can a buyer be safe in the knowledge that their diamond is free from mining-related problems, they can also be assured that their lab-grown diamond is chemically, physically, and optically the exact same as a traditionally accessed diamond, not to mention less expensive.

Diamond engagement rings continue to grace the left ring fingers of many brides-to-be, as they have at least since 1477! They are symbols of a promise of shared commitment, of security, fidelity, and trust. With the introduction of lab-grown diamonds, an engagement ring can also reflect the values of the owner: those of respect for the environment and for the safety and security of people around the world. Now, when we hear about someone we know getting engaged, we’ll wonder whether or not their engagement ring sparkles with an ethical, conflict-free diamond.