The Surprising History of Engagement Rings

March 01, 2017

The Surprising History of Engagement Rings

What is one of the worlds most recognized symbols of love? An engagement ring. Everyone who sees an engagement ring on a finger knows what it means; it is one of the most universal symbols of love. But what is the history behind this symbol?

It’s a tradition that dates back as far as ancient Egypt. The Egyptians believed that circles were symbols of eternity. Couples who married exchanged rings that were created from braided reeds and were worn on the left hand ring finger, as we do today. It was believed that a vein in this finger ran directly to the heart.

ancient roman ring

photo: ancient origins

By 2nd century B.C., the ancient Romans started a tradition of betrothal rings but their symbolism wasn’t as much about love as it was about ownership.   Grooms were reported to first give a bride a gold ring to wear during the betrothal ceremony and then an iron ring to wear at home, signifying her binding legal agreement to his ownership of her.

photo: pinterest

By the year 1477, the first recorded diamond engagement ring in history appears when Archduke Maximilian of Austria presents to Mary of Burgundy a ring that was set with flat pieces of diamonds and formed the letter “M” when he proposed.  This charming sentiment set off a trend through European nobility, as they were the only ones who could afford these rare stones.

Posey Ring

photo: national jeweler

During the Middle Ages and through Victorian times, Posey rings gained popularity for marriage rings. These sentimental bands were often engraved with romantic poems and sayings. Often crafted or engraved in the shape of flowers, hence the name “Posey”, these romantic bands could sometimes include a mix of diamonds, other gemstones or enamel details.

photo: tiffany

What about the traditional diamond engagement ring as we know it today?   Although diamonds have appeared in engagement rings occasionally throughout history, this was not the norm because diamonds were rare and could only be afforded by nobility or the very wealthy. Only in the last century have diamonds become readily available.

South African Diamond Mine

photo: pinterest

Until the mid-1800s, diamonds were scarce and came from far away mines in India and Brazil. When diamonds were discovered in South Africa during the second half of the 19th century, a diamond rush was created that flooded the market with diamonds. Any good business man knows that too much of a good thing is not a good thing!   Too many diamonds on the market kills demand and lowers prices.    

Cecil Rhodes

photo: pinterest

In 1880 Cecil Rhodes saw an opportunity to control this new market and began to purchase these African mines. He soon founded the De Beers Mining Company and within a few years he was the owner of virtually all South African diamond mines. This created a monopoly on production and distribution of all diamonds coming out of South Africa, now the number one source for diamonds. De Beers was able to control supply & demand and thus prices. By slowing the release of diamonds into the market, they created a scarcity which resulted in higher prices.   By 1902, De Beers owned over 90% of the world’s rough diamond production and distribution.

Early De Beers Diamond Ad

photo: pinterest

By the 1930s a world-wide decline in the purchase of diamonds forced the company to come up with new strategies for marketing diamonds. In 1938 De Beer’s executives came to New York to meet with the N.W. Ayer advertising agency. Focus was put on the United States as the next big market for diamonds and aggressive ad campaigns were created to sell diamonds to Americans. To do this, they planned to convince the public that diamonds equated love. Ads were created to convince men that the size of the diamond in an engagement ring showed how much they loved their fiancée. Their marketing campaign also focused on having their diamonds photographed on glamorous movie stars of the day.

As the population started going to the movies to escape their problems and cheer themselves up after living through the hard economic times of the Great Depression, they started seeing their favorite movie stars dripping in sparkling diamonds. Soon women everywhere wanted diamonds too and within three years, DeBeers saw their sales increase by 50%.

By 1947, De Beers launched their now classic slogan “A Diamond is Forever” and this campaign created even more sales with an increased number of brides receiving diamond engagement rings. Their Diamond is Forever campaign put the notion in the public psyche of what a diamond represents…..that marriage is forever, a diamond’s purity, quality and sparkle were symbols of the depth of a man’s love and commitment to his intended and this sentiment has spread to all corners of the world through their marketing and advertising efforts.

Engaged Couple

photo: getty

After the end of World War II, soldiers returning home were ready to settle down, get married, buy homes and buy engagement rings and thru advertising, men were encouraged to spend 2 months’ salary on those rings. The advertising campaigns had worked and DeBeers owned virtually all the diamonds being purchased and distributed for engagement rings, which became the leading line of jewelry selling in most jewelry and departments stores across the country.diamond engagement rings

photo: pinterest

The classic diamond solitaire ring that one imagines when thinking of an engagement ring did not become popular until well into the late 1940s.   The market for diamond engagement rings was created from an aggressive advertising campaign by the one company who controlled virtually almost all of the diamonds produced in the world.   It’s pretty amazing that in less than 100 years, the diamond ring has become the tradition and standard for which most engagement rings are given and worn, all over the world, and that this “tradition” was started from a marketing invention and not from something that was carried down from generation to generation throughout history, as most traditions are.

For a peek behind the curtain on diamonds and the diamond industry & trade, here is a list of articles for suggested reading:

Hubspot: The Engagement Ring Story: How De Beers Created a Multi-Billion Dollar Industry from the Ground Up by Lindsay Kolowich

The Atlantic Magazine: Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond? by Edward Jay Epstein

The Huffington Post: Diamonds are Bullshit by Rohin Dhar



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