You’ve been dating someone for a few years now, and the time is right. You’re going to pop the question. But first, you need to drop two months’ salary on a band of metal with a shiny hunk of superheated carbon in it. Why? Because everyone else does. It’s an ancient tradition that goes all the way back to the… late 1930s. Yeah, diamond engagement rings have really only been a thing for just under a century. Sure a few existed, but diamonds weren’t considered a necessary part of the engagement ring until relatively recently. So what were engagement rings like before then? And where did the whole tradition start?
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Some anthropologists say the engagement ring was invented by the ancient Egyptians, who tied wires of silver or gold around the fingers of couples about to be married. However, the concept can only reliably be traced as far back as ancient Rome. Back then, grooms would give their bride-to-be two engagement bands: One made of iron to be worn inside while she did housework, and one made of gold to be worn outside or in public.
The rings were worn on what we now call the ring finger on the left hand, because people at the time believed it to contain a vein that connected directly to the heart. (It doesn’t. At least no more than any other finger. All veins eventually somehow connect to the heart, but there’s no “direct” connection in the left ring finger.) The tradition continues to this day.
In the year 860, Pope Nicholas I described the process of men giving their future wives an engagement ring as a tradition of the Roman Catholic Church. This is when gems started to make their way into the rings, with rubies and sapphires being very popular stones among the nobility. For the lower classes, engagement rings were often made out of rush leaves. They didn’t last long, but neither did the engagements.
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The first documented diamond engagement ring was given to Mary of Burgundy by the Archduke Maximilian of Austria. Other nobles saw it and began buying diamonds for their brides. For the first time in history, diamonds were the engagement stone of choice. At the time, cutting techniques weren’t what they are today and caused gems to look dull, sometimes to the point of turning black. To compensate, the settings were designed to be elaborate and beautiful, incorporating rosettes and fluer-de-lis.
16th and 17th Centuries
Though diamond rings saw a spike in popularity in the late 15th century, diamonds themselves were still prohibitively expensive and seen as something only the very rich could buy. Therefore, most engagement rings in the 16th and 17th centuries were either gimmal or fede rings. The gimmal rings were two separate bands that could interlock with each other. Both the future bride and groom would wear one band each, and join them together during the wedding to form one wedding ring.
The fede is a style that remains somewhat popular today. It’s a simple band featuring a central image of two clasped hands. In the 17th century, the two styles began to merge as goldsmiths started incorporating the clasped hands into gimmal rings.
During the 1700s, two simple, but very different styles of engagement ring emerged. In Europe, silver rings engraved with flowers were exchanged as engagement rings. Across the ocean in what would later become the United States, Puritans came up with something a little different. Because they were against ornaments and jewels, Puritan men gave their betrothed a thimble, which would be cut after the wedding so the wife could wear it as a ring.
Though most couples favored these simple engagement bands, the 18th century was a big one for diamonds. The discovery of large quantities of diamonds in Brazil made the gems more readily available, and cluster diamond engagement rings became popular with those who could afford them. Typically, these featured small rose-cut diamonds arranged around a larger stone in the center.
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The 1800s were when diamonds really came into their own. The Industrial Revolution meant people had a lot more money to spend and the discovery of new diamond mines in South Africa meant diamonds were now more accessible to the general public than they’d ever been before. New diamond cutting and polishing techniques emerged, creating gems that were more brilliant than anything ever seen before. Then in 1886, Charles L. Tiffany introduced the Tiffany setting, a six-pronged mount that makes diamonds sparkle like nothing else.
Despite all this innovation and widespread accessibility, diamond engagement rings didn’t see a huge increase in popularity. Most people still associated diamonds with nobility and aristocracy even if they could now afford them. Moreover, engagement rings were traditionally much simpler bands. Diamonds just weren’t considered a necessary part of the engagement ring. Yet.
In the early part of the 20th century, two styles of engagement rings rose to prominence. The first was the Trinity Ring created by Cartier, consisting of three interlocking bands in white gold, yellow gold and rose gold. The other, made popular in the 1920s, was an Art Deco style with tiny round diamonds, sapphires, emeralds or rubies set in platinum or white gold. During this time, diamond cutters also perfected the round brilliant cut, which remains the most popular cut to this day.
Even so, sales of diamond engagement rings fell after World War I and got even worse during the Great Depression. Add the fact that the previous century’s discovery of African diamond mines meant the stones weren’t even considered rare anymore, and the diamond industry was on its way out. De Beers, the cartel that owned the South African mines, had to make diamonds cool again. In 1938, De Beers created the most successful ad campaign of all time, “Diamonds are Forever,” and convinced everyone that diamonds were an essential part of an engagement ring. They created a tradition of diamond engagement rings where none existed before.
It was a huge success. In 1939, only 10 percent of engagement rings had diamonds in them. By 1990, that figure had grown to 80 percent. Engagement rings became the most popular pieces of jewelry in department stores. By the 1980s and ‘90s, large gold bands with massive pear or marquise cut diamonds were in demand.
21st Century and Beyond
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Today, diamond engagement rings are still going strong and show no signs of slowing down. The popularity of vintage and vintage-style jewelry means the Art Deco engagement rings of the 1920s are making a comeback. Double halo settings have become very popular in the last decade, as have engagement rings featuring fancy colored diamonds and gems like emeralds and sapphires for a more colorful, artistic look. The sensibility is also expanding into the band, with many brides today looking for rings that mix multiple colors of gold.
So what’s next? We’ll just have to wait and see. Maybe you’ll start a new trend with the next engagement ring you buy. Will you keep the decades-old tradition alive and go with the diamond, or will you go with the even older tradition of a simple band? Or will you forego the ring altogether and do something unique and special for your future fiancé? Tell us how you’d prefer to propose.
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