written by JC Blackburn
The expansively popular, age-old tradition of bestowing an engagement ring to another as a commitment of marriage has a deep-rooted history. Romance, legend and perhaps a sprinkle of myth surround the founding and evolution of this ancient tradition.
Considering that estimates put the global engagement ring market value at around $107 billion dollars a year (2017) worldwide, the engagement ring tradition is steadfast and strong. How did it all start?
It is believed that the first people to wear wedding rings were the ancient Egyptians around 6,000 years ago. The circular shape of the ring symbolized eternity, or in this case, eternal love. The circle also represented the sun and moon, two fundamental symbols the Egyptians worshipped, and representing the eyes of the God Horus – the divine child of Osiris and Isis. Symbolism was important among the ancient Egyptians and something as important as declaring one’s eternal love and devotion would have merited an object with significant meaning.
When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC, one of the traditions he brought back to Greece was the “devotion” ring, which was a spinoff of the Egyptian wedding ring, but primarily given to lovers as a sign of romantic devotion.
It was the Romans who made it customary for a man to give his new wife a wedding ring (known as a betrothal ring at the time) on the day of the ceremony. The ring was worn by the woman on what is known today as the wedding ring finger (on the left hand, next to the pinky). The Romans believed the wedding ring finger held the “vena amoris” (vein of love), which was believed at the time to lead directly to the heart. While it is now known this vein does not, in fact, lead directly to the heart, nonetheless it was a romantic and intriguing notion that popularized wearing the ring on that finger.
While the commoners of ancient Rome would have given a wedding ring consisting of a simple band of iron, the gentry class adopted the tradition of giving two wedding rings to their new wife: one of gold to wear out in public and another made of iron to wear at home.
In 7th century Gothic Rome, giving or receiving a ring during a wedding ceremony was considered a legal and binding commitment of marriage, even if nothing was put into writing.
200 years later, in the 9th century, there is written documentation of Pope Nicholas corresponding to Boris I of Bulgaria that western churches were practicing the tradition of the man giving his bride an engagement ring, in advance of the wedding.
It wasn’t until the year 1215 Pope Innocent III declared elopements illegal and made it mandatory to publicly declare one’s intentions of marriage in advance and all weddings must be public affairs in order to be official in the eyes of the Catholic church. Some scholars believe this law started the tradition of bestowing an engagement ring and setting a future date for the wedding, which is still the tradition today among Western cultures, and more recently, Eastern cultures as well.
While diamond rings set with rough diamond were found in Rome as early as the late 100 CEs, the first confirmed, written record of someone giving a diamond ring as an engagement ring was in 1477 by Archduke Maximilian of Austria to Mary of Burgundy at the Imperial court of Vienna. Because of the Duke’s social status and fashionable style, many wealthy socialites wanted to emulate him and his new bride and thus created a trend of giving diamond rings to their wives and lovers.
Even though the Duke’s gift was one for the record books, the diamond engagement ring was customary only among the nobility and aristocracy until the Victorian era (1837 to 1901), where queen Victoria’s love of diamonds would set off a broader trend that began in England and spread throughout Europe and the United States.
In 1839, Prince Albert proposed to Queen Victoria with a yellow gold, multi – colored stone serpent engagement ring. On the head of the snake was an emerald, Victoria’s birth stone. Serpents represented everlasting love as far back as the ancient Roman days.
At the time, diamonds were extremely rare, since there were no major mines excavating them in large quantities. However, queen Victoria’s love of jewels and Prince Albert’s enthusiasm for gifting them to her, created enormous demand from the public for jewelry, including engagement rings. Popular styles were basically anything the queen wore. This included snake motifs, Celtic style rings with a heart between two hands or large, semi-precious stone rings with stones such as amethyst, garnet or quartz, among others.
Diamonds were discovered in South Africa in 1867 by the Debeers Consolidated Mines company. By 1872, the South African mines were producing one million carats per year. The diamond boom had arrived and wealthy women in Europe were wearing the expensive gemstone in droves. It was during this period that the diamond ring really got momentum as the ideal engagement ring for the elite classes that could afford them, especially while queen Victoria began collecting diamonds and wearing them at press-filled social events.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the demand for diamond engagement rings declined after World War I with the onset of the Great Depression and prices for diamonds began to plummet from oversupply.
Debeers knew they had to do something or their investment in the diamond mines would be jeopardized. They launched a well-planned diamond engagement ring marketing campaign in 1939 and introduced their “a diamond is forever” slogan in 1947, suggesting (successfully) that a diamond ring was the only acceptable gemstone for an engagement ring. The campaign was so successful that between 1939 and 1979 sales of diamonds in the United States rose from $23 million to $2.1 billion per year, respectively.
As Debeers’ sales grew, so did their advertising budget and they did not pull any punches on spending. Hiring NW Ayer & Sons, the oldest advertising firms in America, Debeers was able to infiltrate Hollywood in a big way. Diamonds were placed in movies like “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, with Marilyn Monroe singing “diamonds are a girl’s best friend”.
Diamond engagement rings were given to stars that were getting married, with the agreement they would be featured wearing them in fashion magazines, movie premiers and social events. Articles in tabloids and society magazines were well planned to coincide with the photo opportunities describing exactly what type of diamond jewelry was being worn at events.
Some speculate that the abolishment of a law called the “breach of promise” also contributed to cementing the tradition of giving a diamond engagement ring in America. Before 1945, the law stated that a woman could sue if a man broke off an engagement, especially if they had slept together. The thinking was that a broken engagement often tarnished a woman’s reputation and made it more difficult to find a new suitor. Financial compensation could be attained. Once the law was abolished, the engagement ring was seen, to some regard, as a financial deposit, if you will, and would be kept by the woman if the marriage was called off.
By the time the 1950’s and 60’s rolled around, the engagement ring trend was here to stay. In the United States, women getting engaged with the costly diamond hand bauble went from 10% in 1939 to 80% in 1990. Tiffany & Co. had made the “Tiffany Setting” standard issue and designers went to town on putting their own flair on the traditional setting to make it unique. Japan followed suit and now China (as of 2015) has 30% of their engaged or married population wearing one. The engagement ring tradition is here to stay.