First comes love, then comes marriage. It’s been the custom for centuries that couples in love will eventually get married. A traditional marriage begins with a proposal, the man down on one knee, a diamond in hand, asking his one true love to spend the rest of her life with him. So much thought usually goes into how a proposal will play out, will it be an extravagant display or a romantic and personal connection between two people? No matter how it happens, not much thought usually goes into the ring, other than it must be a diamond – the bigger, the better.
It’s a beautiful time – a gesture of pure love and commitment. But why a ring?
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Symbolic use of rings can be dated all the way back to prehistoric times. Cavemen would wrap cords they had created from braided grass around their partner’s wrists, ankles, and waist in an effort to bring her spirit under his control. Not the most romantic act of love, but an origin nonetheless.
The tradition of the engagement ring was born thousands of years later when the ancient Egyptians added romance to the symbolic ring. For them, the ring represented eternal love, while the gap portrayed a gateway to the couple’s future together. Wedding bands of braided reeds would be exchanged between husband and wife upon their marriage and would be worn on the ring finger of the left hand. The choice of the finger, which is still the one these rings are worn on today, was due to the vein from this finger running to the heart, this was later called the Vena Amoris in 1686, meaning the ‘vein of love’.
Jumping ahead to the ancient Romans, Pliny the Elder – a Roman author, recalls the start of the tradition of engagement rings. His account suggests that brides were given two rings, one made out of gold, given at the wedding ceremony and worn at special events following, and one made out of iron for wear around the home. Unlike the romantic symbolism of the rings given today, these rings represented ownership, and the rings were the legal binding agreement of said property.
Over a century later, the next step of the evolution began when puzzle rings started appearing in what is now known as Turkey. These rings were given to sultans and sheikhs to present to their wives and would fall apart if removed, as such, reducing the risk of infidelity. It wasn’t until 860AD that the meaning of the ring started to change. Pope Nicolas I stated that it was a requirement for the groom to present his wife with a gold ring and this was a symbol of his wealth and ability to take care of her.
It was centuries later that the first diamond appeared prominently on an engagement ring. In 1477, Archduke Maximillian of Austria gave his betrothed, Mary of Burgundy, a gold engagement band with the letter ‘M’ spelt out in diamonds. This ring received recognition and created a trend among the wealthy to present their loved ones with bejewelled rings.
Inscribed rings became popular in the 1700’s, these were usually very sentimental and called Poesy Rings, derived from the French word ‘poésie’, meaning poem. People were also very romantic in the 1800’s, often attributed to the love Queen Victoria had for Prince Albert. Rings in Victorian times were remarkably ornate, with designs combining different gems and metals and crafted into flowers and other shapes. Named Dearest Rings, the gem-heavy pieces were popular right through to Edwardian times.
In 1867, diamonds become much more available worldwide as they were discovered in South Africa. Almost two decades later, the iconic Tiffany & Co introduced a new design using six prongs to elevate the diamond away from the band and make it the centrepiece of the ring, this is called the ‘Tiffany Setting’.
By the 1930’s, custom diamond engagement rings became the standard symbol of eternal love and represented this promise between two people.
A DIAMOND IS FOREVER
Following the First World War, demand for diamonds declined. Amidst the Great Depression, in 1938, international diamond corporation De Beers started a campaign to reignite interest in the precious gemstone. Ten years later, they released the slogan ‘A Diamond is Forever’ in what would turn out to be one of the most successful marketing campaigns to date. Diamonds were portrayed to be the only true measure of the love and romance of a man and were synonymous with his wealth and success. Young women, on the other hand, were convinced that courtship would inevitably lead to a diamond. The campaign also suggested that one months’ salary should be what a man spends on a ring for his bride to be. However, in the 80’s they repositioned this statement to two months, with taglines such as: ‘Isn’t two months’ salary a small price to pay for something that lasts forever?’.
According to recent reports, China, India, and the US will be the main driving force in the diamond industry over the next decade, with more than 80 percent of brides being proposed to with diamond engagement rings in America. China is currently evolving from generations where a simple band would be worn on the right hand of a bride-to-be and switched to the left hand upon marrying. However, over 30 percent of brides in China are now receiving diamond rings, a custom which was unheard of in the 90’s. Japan also changed their traditions to the diamond back in the 1970’s.
The diamond engagement ring is now a global culture, which could never be replaced. However, the future for this practice could see 3D printed rings and completely customised rings, a service which some jewellers already offer. One thing is for certain, no matter how it is designed, the diamond truly is forever.
Photos courtesy of the author
Guest Author Bio
Kayleigh Stubbs is a writer with a mission to help couples in love live their classic love stories, creating informative and thought-provoking content on the perfect proposal to the all important wedding.