History of the Engagement Ring

Across the world, an engagement ring is an unmistakable symbol of love and commitment. However, while most recognize its current meaning, few are aware of the long history associated with the engagement ring and the diamonds that often make its stunning centerpiece. Read on to learn the engagement ring’s fascinating backstory, from its ancient Roman origins to how an advertising agency forever changed our relationship with diamonds.

Husband’s Ownership and Commissioned Diamonds
It is believed by many anthropologists that engagement rings originated from an ancient Roman custom. This custom specified that women would wear rings with small keys attached, which indicated they were owned by their husbands. While this is not a popular idea today, the ring has evolved significantly since that time.

The Archduke Maximilian of Austria may have started the trend of diamond engagement rings in 1477. He commissioned a special engagement ring with diamonds in the shape of an “M” for his future wife, Mary of Burgundy. At that point, diamond rings became very popular among European nobility and aristocracy. The trend continues today, from aristocrats such as Kate Middleton and Prince William, to most couples throughout the world.

Practicality, Poesy Rings and Human Hair
During the 1700s, it became popular in Europe to give a betrothed a silver “poesy ring” in place of an engagement ring. These were typically engraved with some type of flowery saying that was sentimental to the couple.

While in Europe the trend was geared toward beauty and sentimentality, the Puritans were more focused on practicality, and would give their significant other a useful thimble rather than a ring. Many decided to ignore the negative connotation to the “frippery” of an engagement ring and cut the top off the thimble so it could be worn as a ring anyway, proving the endurance and popularity of the concept of a ring as a declaration of love and commitment.

During the 1800s, consumers were a little more creative with their engagement rings, and the Victorians often made jewelry constructed out of human hair. With the hair, they would also include gemstones that represented endearments or names.

South African Diamond Rush

Loose Diamonds
As diamond rings became more popular to symbolize a couple’s engagement, the demand for diamonds began to grow significantly. Filling that demand was difficult until the 1867 discovery of diamonds in the Cape Colony of South Africa.

In February 1867, a 15 year old boy named Erasmus Jacobs discovered what appeared to be a transparent stone on his father’s farm at the banks of the Orange River. The stone was soon identified as a rough diamond. In the 10 years following Jacobs’ discovery, diamond production increased tenfold, with South Africa yielding more diamonds than the country of India had produced in the previous 2,000 years.

By 1880, the DeBeers Mining Company was founded by Cecil Rhodes and several other investors. Over the next decade, this company came to control all but ten percent of the world’s diamonds.

Over the years, the mines in South Africa have had their share of ups and downs, with many exceptional finds throughout the decades. The discovery of diamonds in South Africa has made it possible for thousands of couples to share engagement rings with this most popular stone.

The Tiffany Solitaire

ritani solitaire 6 prong diamond engagement ring
After fifty years of operating as a premier jewelry company, in 1886 Tiffany & Co. designed the first solitaire setting for a diamond engagement ring. This ring was designed to maximize the brilliance of every diamond by setting it up from the band with six prongs, and this general style still remains a popular choice for engagement rings today.

Tiffany’s redesign of the traditional engagement ring marked an important turning point in the industry. The focus of the ring shifted from the actual setting to the diamond itself, thus driving the demand we see today for diamonds that are expertly cut to maximize sparkle.

Diamonds and Marriages Are Forever
You’ve likely heard the slogan “A Diamond is Forever,” which was actually created in 1947 by an advertising agency for the DeBeers company. Having stood the test of time, this saying is credited with helping to create the emotional attachment we feel towards engagement rings today.

During a time when diamonds were viewed negatively and the world was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression and World War II, the ad campaign aimed to do what was almost impossible – create the desire for every engaged woman to purchase and wear a diamond engagement ring to solidify her commitment. The company understood that the sentiment had to be almost as vital as the practicality of an engagement ring, and over the years has proven to be successful.

Shifting Attitudes and Timeless Diamonds

young couple's wedding photo. source: unsplash.com
Even today, in a world where many are focused on their carbon footprint, eating organic and staying single, the diamond is a popular, timeless, classic example of commitment and love that many turn to when it’s time to take the plunge and say their vows. After centuries of development and change, it’s clear that the diamond engagement ring is here to stay.