History of the Diamond Engagement Ring

In Western culture, an engagement ring is a symbol of betrothal worn by a woman. Of course, in modern times, the most recognizable feature of an engagement ring is a prominent solitaire diamond. However, diamond engagement rings are a relatively new trend. The history of the engagement ring itself harkens back to ancient times, but the diamond engagement ring is a much younger tradition by comparison. In this post, we’ll discuss the history of the diamond engagement ring and explore the reasons for its overwhelming popularity in modern times.

General Background

Before we discuss the diamond engagement ring specifically, it’s important to provide some background information on the engagement ring in general. In most countries, the engagement ring is offered by a man to a woman either during or after the acceptance of his proposal of marriage. The acceptance of the ring signifies an agreement to a future marriage. Usually, the ring is worn on the fourth finger of the left hand, a tradition dating back to ancient times. Ancient tradition held that the fourth finger contained the vena amoris, or vein of love, that purportedly ran directly from the hand to the heart.

Early History of the Diamond Engagement Ring

The earliest record that exists of a diamond engagement ring indicates that Archduke Maximillian of Hamburg gave Mary of Burgundy a diamond betrothal ring in 1477. This act possibly may have officially started the trend, but diamond engagement rings did not become popular until almost 500 years later. Here are some of the highlights of the history of the diamond engagement ring before the 20th century:

  • The 18th Century - diamonds were discovered in Brazil and subsequently became more available. Diamond engagement rings became popular among the wealthy.
  • The 19th Century - the Kimberley diamond region was discovered in South Africa in 1870, and the market soon became saturated with diamonds. The supply exploded, and prices steadily fell. As a result of this diamond explosion, many began to view birthstone engagement rings as more of a precious rarity than diamond engagement rings. A decade after the discovery of this region, De Beers was formed and began trying to control the world’s diamond supply, which would change the landscape of the market forever.
  • The 20th & 21st Century

    De Beers successfully managed to control the world’s diamond supply, but they faced an obstacle in the early 1900’s as the demand for diamonds plummeted. The sales slump continued until 1947 when De Beers created the now famous “A Diamond Is Forever” marketing campaign. This was a seminal moment in the history of the diamond engagement ring. De Beers began educating jewelers to instruct men to spend two to three months’ worth of pay on engagement rings, and even Hollywood jumped on board as Marilyn Monroe sang the unforgettable “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” song. The marketing campaign and glorification of diamonds in popular culture left an indelible impression on the American people, and the sales of diamond engagement rings exploded.

    Now, the demand for platinum diamond engagement rings is stronger than ever and continues to increase. It’s a safe assumption that the tradition has achieved permanency in our culture. In fact, almost 80% of the engagement rings sold every year are diamond. Needless to say, De Beers brilliant marketing campaign had its intended effect, forever changing the future of the diamond engagement ring.

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