The History of the Engagement Ring @ Uma Campbell

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The History of the Engagement Ring

Today’s media circus of seven-figure celebrity and royal weddings would have us believe that current generations have all but invented the pomp of the marriage ceremony, but in many ways we’re simply seeing a very glitzy reinvention of a very old wheel.  Regarding the tradition of engagement rings, the use of circular bands as a symbol of commitment is almost as old as the institution of marriage itself.  While there have been detours and variations – notably the now-quaint custom of the engagement thimble, in Colonial America – humans seem to be married to the idea of this particular form of jewelry.


The earliest known rings were used by the Egyptians, who, not surprisingly, saw the band’s circular quality as symbolic of an eternal cycle of union, and this essentially romantic interpretation has underpinned the ring in all manifestations that followed. (The Egyptians may have also inaugurated the ineffable custom of wearing the ring on the fourth finger, based on the belief that said digit contained the vena amoris, a vein linked directly to the heart.) Equally portentous was the Romans’ custom of appending a small key to the ring, a gesture that may not have been as romantic as it might seem, as some scholars content it was a sign of actual ownership, not simply of one’s heart.

The engagement ring then took a long hiatus through the Dark Ages, only to return anew in the form that most of us know it today.  In the late 15th century, when Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I married Mary of Burgundy, he managed to extend the House of Habsburg and marital customs at the same time when he presented his betrothed with the first diamond engagement ring on record.

Ring2In choosing the all-but-indestructible diamond, Maximilian had hit upon just the material to embody the timeless vows of marriage, and from then on the diamond engagement ring became the preferred choice among the European elite.  As one might imagine, as the Renaissance gave way to the Baroque and Rococo periods, such rings became as ostentatious as grooms’ imaginations – and financial legacies – would allow, resulting in diamonds set in finely cast gold and silver ribbons, bows, and any number of birds decrying undying love.

During the Victorian and Edwardian eras, current fashions would add other gemstones to the mix, but the diamond held its title as the avatar of newly-pledged commitment.  However, by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the diamond engagement ring was no longer cordoned off for the aristocracy.  A number of boom years in South African mine harvests, coupled with sophisticated cutting techniques, made diamonds accessible to beaus of more modest means.  The DeBeers company in particular forever cemented the association of diamonds with engagement:  even in Depression-addled 1930s America, DeBeers managed to boost diamond sales by 50% through a relentlessly glamorous PR campaign.

While the diamond is securely mounted as the preferred symbol of imminent marriage, there has been no shortage of playing with the fine print.  Although Tiffany and Co. set the pace with its classic six-clawed solitaire ring in 1886, in recent years we’ve seen the advent of the so-called “trinity ring,” which features a large stone flanked by two smaller gems, together meant to represent a couple’s past, present, and future.  In the meantime, as it becomes more common for women to pop the question to men, many ring companies are experimenting with the idea of men’s engagement rings (a tradition long accepted in Brazil, Argentina, and many Nordic countries).

Even in these times of general austerity, there is no sign that we’ll stop going overboard when deciding to tie the knot.  While the median price of engagement rings in 1992 was $1500, today that figure has shot to $5000, a significant jump even when factoring for inflation.  While the figures for long-lasting marriages are another story, there’s no arguing that we’re still head over heels in love with falling in love.

Uma Campbell is a freelance writer from Southern California. She loves writing about style and jewelry and is fascinated by the history of modern traditions. To find more of her writing, you can visit the Polished Diamonds blog.

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