For centuries, it’s been widely received that diamonds are the universal symbol of adoration, eternal love and lifelong commitment. But how did they achieve such status and become the most popular stone of choice for engagement rings? Not only are diamonds hard to obtain and therefore incredibly precious, but they’re also strong and durable, which makes them the perfect means by which someone can symbolize their devotion and commitment to the sanctity of marriage.The tradition of wearing diamond rings on the left ‘ring finger’ stems from Greece, where it was believed that the vena amoris there provided a direct line to the wearer’s heart.
photo credit: Barbara Ann Studios
While the ‘betrothal ring’ was worn during Roman times, the concept wasn’t adopted by modern Europe until the 13th century. Some historians believe that it was Archduke Maximillian of Austria who first gave his beloved Mary of Burgundy a ring with a diamond centerpiece as a symbol of engagement prior to an official marriage ceremony.
photo credit: Elizabeth Vanderbij
This quickly became a fashionable tradition among the upper classes and nobility around the world, but remained limited to only the very wealthiest figures.Until, that is, several diamond mines were discovered in South Africa, after which diamonds became less scarce and more affordable, elevating diamond sales in Europe and the US alike.
photo credit: Helga Himer
Also popular before the introduction of the diamond engagement ring was the gimmel ring. During the Renaissance period, the parts of this ring would be worn by both parties (and sometimes even by a third), after which they would be united to form the wedding ring.
Interestingly, the tiniest engagement ring ever recorded was that of Princess Mary, daughter of Henry VIII, to Dauphin of France, heir to the French throne. As was the custom at the time, many marriages were agreed upon by the bride and groom’s families, and this particular betrothal took place when the Princess was just two years old, with the baby girl being given a tiny little gold ring with a diamond set into it to seal the deal.
photo credit: Misty Miotto
The reign of Louis XVI during the mid-to-late 18th century saw an increase in popularity of the diamond cluster shaped like a long, pointed oval, after which the trend was to remain for a further 150 years.
Also commonly seen in the engagement rings of the 17th and 18th centuries were (often heart-shaped) rubies, which were also seen as a symbol of deep affection.
Colored stones remained a popular feature of engagement jewellery throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, when suitors would follow the quirky trend of spelling out messages of love with the initial letters of the names of precious stones. The word ‘dearest’, for example, would be spelled out using a diamond, anemerald, an amethyst, a ruby, another emerald, a sapphire and a topaz.
The most popular style of engagement ring, the Solitaire setting didn’t emerge until the 19th century.The ‘princess ring’, which was set with multiple diamonds, became popular in the US and served as the original influence for the now-popular tri-stone style during the 20th-century. This is also when platinum became extremely popular due to its durability, however white and yellow gold soon came back to replace it due to the fact that platinum was to become reserved only for military use during the WWII.
photo credit: Jonathan Ivy
Also just before the war in 1939, diamond sales in Europe slumped to an all-time low, spurring a shift in marketing the precious stone from Europe to the US, where diamond engagement rings were to become an increasingly widespread tradition there.
Diamond market domineers, De Beers, in fact, cleverly came up with and promoted the idea that a man should spend two or three months’ wages on an engagement ring for his girl.
Although both Europe and the US were suffering financially after the Great Depression, Americans really held on to the idea that diamonds and their value would last forever and would be the perfect investment to pass down to any future generations – and so the story continues.
photo credit: Tab McCausland Photography
During the 1960s, De Beers yet again came up with another clever marketing ploy to offload their consignment of tiny Soviet diamonds onto unwitting consumers. This time, their marketing team came up with the idea of the ‘eternity ring‘- aimed at older married women, it was supposed to represent the continuation of marriage vows and, as De Beers clever marketing slogan put it: “She married you for richer or poorer. Let her know how it’s going.”