After the initial excitement of your engagement, or as you shop for your ring, you may find yourself wondering when the custom of giving a ring first began. And why? Anthropologists believe the tradition originated from a Roman custom – wives wore rings attached to small keys, indicating their husbands’ ownership.
Others cite a true origin in the 12th century, when Pope Innocent III laid down some new ground rules about weddings. All weddings had to take place in a church, and the bride had to receive a ring. Moreover, couples had to observe a new waiting period between their betrothal and marriage. At that time, European aristocrats began giving engagement rings to their beloveds while they counted down the days until they could actually wed.
In 1477, Archduke Maximilian of Austria commissioned the very first diamond engagement ring on record for his betrothed, Mary of Burgundy. This sparked a trend for diamond rings among European aristocracy and nobility.
The custom of giving Early Victorian engagement rings was not well established until the 1890s. Early-century brides were given “keeper” rings, a custom which began in 1761 with King George III and his intended, Princess Charlotte. George gave Charlotte a gold band encrusted with diamonds prior to their wedding. These keeper (or guard) rings later served to protect the wedding ring from slipping off the finger. This custom continued into the Early Victorian Era, so many of the rings call Early Victorian engagement rings today were originally crafted to be worn as wedding bands set into or behind said guard rings.
The Shift From Keeper Rings to Diamond Engagement Rings
The rock Archduke Maximilian of Austria gave to Mary of Burgundy in 1477 was actually an exception- Diamonds actually a fairly late addition to the traditional engagement ring. There simply weren’t all that many diamonds on the world market, so diamond engagement rings were rare – other gemstones were much more commonly used at that time.
In the 1870’s, miners began discovering huge veins of diamonds in South Africa, and they rapidly flooded world markets. Diamonds quickly went from scarce gem to common commodity, bad news for everyone in the diamond business. Mine owners realized they would have to take action to continue to profit from this increasingly common gem. So, in 1888, several major South African mines merged together to form De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd. The merger created a force that could effectively control the flow of diamonds from South Africa onto world markets. As diamonds became scarcer and more valuable, their popularity as the gem on engagement rings began to rise.
Who Said Diamonds Are Forever Anyway?
Today, we think of the diamond engagement ring as a time-honored tradition. Really though, that tradition is the result of a brilliant marketing plan that started in the late 1930s. Diamond demand and prices were steadily declining. A poor economy led consumers to favor more modest rings that included intricate metalwork rather than gems. DeBeers needed to jumpstart revenues, and so they approached New York ad agency N.W. Ayer for help.
The campaign that the agency created in response was undoubtedly one of the most effective of all time, convincing Americans that they desperately needed diamonds. A multi-pronged attack that completely overhauled Americans’ view of diamonds. The agency got Hollywood’s biggest stars to wear diamonds and encouraged leading fashion designers to talk up diamond rings as an emerging trend. In the first three years of the campaign, American diamond sales shot up by over 50 percent.
In 1947, De Beers launched its now classic slogan, “A Diamond is Forever” a line so elegant and effective De Beers is still using it almost 70 years later. The slogan helped underscore the diamond’s significance as an enduring, unbreakable symbol of love, and the sales of diamond engagement rings shot through the roof. Within 20 years, 80 percent of American brides were sporting rocks. The diamond’s purity and sparkle are now symbols of a man’s commitment to the woman he loves in practically every corner of the world.
Tradition grew as diamond cuts evolved, and today there are many diamond cuts and ring styles to choose from.
Next Week: Famous Engagement Rings: Pictures & Stories
Sources: American Gem Society, Mental Floss
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