The History of the Diamond Engagement Ring
by Sasha t on Mar 21, 2023
Today it is considered traditional to propose marriage with a diamond engagement ring, so much so that any other type of engagement ring is considered “non traditional.” But a diamond engagement ring has not always been the status quo. Today in our first of a series about symbolic jewelry, we are going to take a look back at the history of the engagement ring and how we got to the diamond solitaire and three stone we’re all so familiar with today.
Before we get to the good stuff, we have to get through the problematic history. Though the true origins of the engagement ring can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians, those romantics, who would create rings of reed wrapped around their fingers to symbolize everlasting love, the story of engagement rings really starts in ancient Rome. Instead of symbolizing eternal love and commitment, they symbolized a business transaction. They called the ring "annulus pronubus," which means "ring of the bridegroom” and essentially symbolized the transferral of ownership of a bride from her family to her groom. These rings were usually made of iron, flint or ivory and were worn by women as a symbol of their betrothal - a contract of their love and obedience. Over time, the metal of the ring was changed to gold and other precious metals.
As the Romans conquered new territories, they brought the tradition of engagement rings with them, and it spread throughout Europe. In fact, the tradition of giving engagement rings was so widespread by the Middle Ages that it became a part of the Christian wedding ceremony. The ring, at that time made of gold or silver, was blessed by the priest and then given to the bride as a symbol of her commitment to the marriage. Though a simple band of precious metal was most common, stones like rubies or sapphires were sometimes used as well.
It wasn't until the 15th century that diamonds began to be used in engagement rings, when Archduke Maximilian of Austria gave a diamond ring to Mary of Burgundy when he proposed to her. The ring was a simple band of gold with diamonds arranged in the shape of the letter "M" to honor her name, Mary. At the time, diamond engagement rings were not yet a common practice, and the use of diamonds in jewelry was still relatively rare because of limited availability and resources. This all changed with the discovery of diamond mines in South Africa in the late 19th century, which led to an increase in the availability of diamonds and a subsequent rise in their popularity.
The Modern Diamond Solitaire
Though not the first diamond engagement ring, the Tiffany solitaire has probably had more impact on the way we think about diamond engagement rings, specifically diamond solitaires than anything before or since. In 1886, Charles Lewis Tiffany, the founder of Tiffany & Co. developed this six prong setting, changing our idea of what a diamond could look like forever. The Tiffany solitaire was a groundbreaking design that featured a single diamond set in a six-prong setting, which allowed maximum light to enter the diamond and enhance its brilliance. The simple and elegant design of the ring focused all attention on the diamond, making it the star of the show. At the time, the use of a single diamond in an engagement ring was not yet a common practice. The Tiffany Setting helped to popularize use of a single diamond in engagement rings and set a new standard for engagement ring design.
It wasn’t only the design that was groundbreaking, it was the cultural impact as well. This was a time when many fine jewelers were focusing on commissioned pieces for extremely wealthy private clients. Charles Tiffany took a different approach and maintained a variety of designs in a similar variety of prices. The Tiffany solitaire could accommodate most budgets because it wasn’t about the size of the diamond, it was about the way the diamond was set to optimize that particular diamond's brilliance. This more egalitarian approach ensured that no matter the clients budget, they got an experience worthy of the occasion.
The Tiffany Setting quickly became a symbol of sophistication and has remained popular for over a century. Today, it is still one of the most sought-after and iconic engagement ring designs in the world.
Marketing the Diamond Solitaire Engagement Ring
If Tiffany & Co. was responsible for the design that gave the diamond engagement ring momentum, it was absolutely De Beers, a diamond mining and trading company, who was responsible for taking that momentum to the next level. At the turn of the century, diamond demand relied on the wealthy, but when the Great Depression came around, it became much rarer for people of any class to indulge in purchasing gemstones, and thus diamond sales continued to decrease. DeBeers hired N.W. Ayer, an advertising agency to help them compel the American public to buy a ring to solidify their love, as at the time, diamond engagement rings weren’t normal or expected.
In 1947, De Beers introduced the iconic slogan "A Diamond Is Forever" to promote the idea that diamonds were a symbol of eternal love and commitment. The line was written by a young female copywriter named Frances Gerty, of note because female copywriters were very rare at the time. “A Diamond is Forever” and its sub message that a diamond engagement ring should cost two months salary was game changing for the industry. Overall wholesale diamond sales rose nearly 75x over the following thirty years and a diamond went from being a luxury to an expectation.
The Three Stone Engagement Ring
Although three stone rings have been popular since the Edwardian era, the Tiffany solitaire became *the* engagement ring for a long time. In 2001, the marketing team at De Beers introduced a new kind of ring - one perfect for engagement OR anniversary to broaden the target audience - the “past, present and future” ring. Symbolizing the couple's past, present and future, three diamonds of varying weight, but usually similar cut, sat side by side for maximum finger coverage and sparkle. Though not as synonymous with engagement as the solitaire, the three stone ring has managed to stay incredibly popular throughout the years.
The Diamond Engagement Ring Today
Today, a diamond engagement ring is still considered a typical part of the proposal experience. The critical word there being “typical.” Couples today are having a lot of fun determining the right ring to commit to forever together outside of what is the typical choice. From diamonds of varying cuts and colors to gemstones to solid bands, there are few rules anymore outside of ensuring that your commitment to each other is as rock solid as a diamond.
Here at Jack Weir & Sons we’ve spent the last 40 years traveling to Europe and all over the world, curating extraordinary estate jewels. JWS is where the old world meets the new world. Celebrate life, preserve history, discover your own priceless heirloom jewel. We are extremely grateful for our clients and the ability to help people to celebrate their special moments through one of a kind jewelry. To share that gratitude and our strong family values, we chose to partner with Baby2Baby. Since the beginning of the partnership, we've donated $125,000. A portion of every sale goes towards children living in poverty to provide them with diapers, clothing, and all the basic necessities that every child deserves.
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