Diamond engagement rings are synonymous with love and commitment. But their rise to popularity isn’t without its more sombre details. In today’s journal entry we take a look at the history of engagement rings as well as current trends and ways to update the tradition for 21st century values.
Engagement rings can be traced all the way back to Ancient Rome. These original betrothal rings were a plain iron hoop worn by women whilst going about their domestic chores, and a gold band which replaced the iron hoop when out in public. Whilst records from this time are somewhat lacking it seems that these rings had less to do with love and were worn more to symbolise a man’s intended ownership and as a sign of obedience
It wasn't until 850 CE that the engagement ring was given an official meaning, with Pope Nicholas I declaring that it represented “a man's intent to marry”. Medieval Europeans women often wore Posey Rings, a gold band with a short poem or expression of love engraved on them. Over time engagement rings became more ornate and eventually stones were added with rubies and sapphires being favoured. Diamond engagement rings were the exception rather than the rule, the first written record of a diamond engagement ring wasn't until 1477. The lack of popularity of diamonds in early engagement rings may have been as a result of early cutting techniques which caused diamonds to look dull and even black.
The discovery of diamond deposits in Brazil in the 18th century and throughout Africa in the 19th century saw a rise in both the availability and popularity of diamond jewellery. These discoveries coincided with developments in cutting and polishing, resulting in diamonds with a brilliance greater than any other gem, the diamond could now, theoretically, take centre stage in engagement rings.
It really wasn’t until 1947 that diamonds became the go-to for engagement rings. DeBeers, a British mining company operating out of South Africa, launched what is largely considered to be the most successful marketing campaign of all time; “a diamond is forever”. Realising that the market was set to become saturated DeBeers developed a twofold strategy to maintain their profits. Phase one involved them stockpiling diamonds and selling them strategically as ‘rare objects’ to control high prices. Phase two was to create a large market where one had not previously existed. By tying diamonds to the idea of love and marriage De Beers convinced western markets that marriages without diamonds were incomplete. This campaign was also the origin of the deeply troubling idea that for a man to prove his love, the ring should cost at least two months’ salary.
Not just a sign of being “taken”, engagement rings came to serve an important societal purpose as well. With women being unable to own bank accounts without authorisation from their husbands until 1974, the ring was collateral in case the man reneged on his promise to marry or in the case of divorce or abandonment. The sale of the ring could soften the financial blow she and her family experienced by losing out on the financial security marriage had to offer. It’s little wonder that women came to value lavish engagement rings.
Towards a contemporary reimagining…
Despite DeBeers self-serving motivations, diamond engagement rings do actually have many advantages and remain the default choice for many couples. Diamonds are the hardest of all precious stones, rated ten on the Mohs scale. This durability makes them ideally suited for daily wear. Many people also value their colourless clarity and radiant sparkle, a ring that goes with everything.
And of course, there has also been a rise in the popularity of lab-grown diamonds in recent years, an affordable and ethically conscious option.
Luckily we have also parted with the problematic idea that an engagement ring should cost two months’ salary, today engagement rings can be any price that makes the couple comfortable.
The millennial generation are also spearheading another small but significant change. Whereas before the man selected the ring for his future bride, perhaps with advice from a close female friend or relative, now it is becoming increasingly common for the couple to select or design the ring together. Also increasingly common is for women to propose to their male partners, with or without a ring and/or for both partners to have an engagement ring. LGBTQIA+ couples are claiming their space within marriage traditions, with either one or both partners electing to wear an engagement ring.
There really are no rules, the most important part of a modern day engagement ring is that it celebrates your love and upcoming union in a way that makes sense to you as a couple.