July 19, 2017

History of Diamond Engagement Rings

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The tradition (and popularity) of the engagement ring is a modern one. Learn how an ad campaign in the 1940s invented the diamond engagement ring. Find out why it is important.

80 years ago, only 10% of American women received diamond engagement rings. Now, most women get married with one. Blame a brilliant ad campaign.

You fall in love. Decide you want to get married. And buy a diamond ring to show your love.

Many women spend years dreaming of their perfect ring. And many men spend a lot of effort saving up and learning about how to buy the perfect diamond.

But why do we do this? What made diamond rings so popular?

Origin of Engagement Ring

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We'll have to go some 75 years back. Around the 1940s, de Beers launched a brilliant ad campaign that equated a diamond with love. This gave birth to the modern diamond engagement ring phenomenon.

Read on to learn how the diamond engagement ring came to be. The history is actually quite compelling.

Why is an engagement ring so important? A diamond engagement ring is a symbol of your love. It shows that you are committed to the relationship. The ring is a special gift just for her and the expense shows that you're invested in your future together.

The First Engagements and What They Wore

Engagements weren't always as glamorous as they are today.

The tradition of exchanging wedding rings goes back as far as 4,800 years to ancient Egypt. But back then, the rings were made of stuff like braided papyrus and reeds. The endless circle was a symbol of eternity and the hole was a symbol of a doorway to the future. This simple exchange was a true symbol of love.

They believed that the 4th finger had a vein that led straight to the heart. This ancient belief became the main reason why our 4th fingers are known as the "ring finger."

Later on, the Romans followed this tradition. They were the first to exchange jewelry. But the meaning got skewed along the way - instead of a symbol of love, the ring became more of a claim of ownership.

  • The Romans originally started with the exchange of iron rings. This was their sign of devotion to one another.
  • Some Romans did provide their loved ones with gold rings. They were only to be worn on special occasions outside the home, though. The iron rings continued to be worn at home.
  • The engagement ring was a sign of a contract between two people. It was a promise to wed. It also transferred the ownership of the daughter from the father to the new husband.

Many of our traditions are similar to the Roman way. Many men today first ask for permission from the father of the (soon to be) bride. While not the same as "transferring ownership," the sentiment that the woman moves on to a new family is the same.

Where did the tradition of diamond engagement rings come from? The first diamond engagement ring ever used was in 1477, when Archduke Maximilian of Austria asked Mary of Burgundy to marry him. The diamonds were in the shape of an "M" and were very thin and delicate. Back then, diamonds were expensive even for European aristocrats.

Archduke Maximilian got in over his head in debt. At the end of his reign, he owed 10 years' worth of income in debt.

The Popularity of Diamond Rings and When It Started

Diamonds were once very scarce and expensive.

Then in 1870, huge diamond resources were discovered in South Africa. Diamonds were no longer a rarity. Everyone could own a diamond if they wanted. As with anything in business, that's not a good thing.

The British businessmen that operated the mines had a clever idea. They maintained the illusion that diamonds were scarce. This meant they could drive up diamond prices. Here are a few fun facts about that time:

  • The businessmen created the first diamond cartel. It was called De Beers Consolidated Mines, Inc. The cartel was in full control of the diamond supply. They also controlled the prices.
  • It only took them 10 years to control 90% of the world's diamond supply.
  • The cartel managed to influence diamond demand as well.

De Beers is still a large influence in the diamond industry today.

Read on to learn how De Beers became the diamond industry leader.

The Diamonds Are Forever Slogan

With De Beers now in possession of vast resources of diamonds, they needed to find a way to sell the diamonds. To do so, they had to drive up demand.

They had to make every woman want a diamond ring, and every man want to buy one for her. They launched a massive advertising campaign.

The campaign marketed the idea that diamonds are a sign of your devotion. It also made diamonds the ultimate status symbol. De Beers, along with ad agency N.W. Ayers, made men believe:

  • Diamonds were the only way to show your love to a woman.
  • A woman measured a man's love based on the diamond size.
  • Anyone who was anyone in life must have a diamond on their finger, just like the celebrities.

It was around 1940 that they came up with the slogan "Diamonds Are Forever." This slogan began the idea that the gift of a diamond represents everlasting commitment and love.

De Beers played on the fact that celebrities outfitted themselves in diamond rings too. They wanted women to want the diamonds. This would encourage men to outfit their women in them.

Fun fact: De Beers also targeted the Japanese market. In Japan at the time, most marriages were arranged, so there was no need for an engagement ring. Once the couple married, though, De Beers convinced them they needed a ring. They also played on the idea that wearing a diamond ring will make them as trendy as modern Western women.

De Beers helped outfit more than half of the married women in Japan. Today, Japan and the United States are the largest diamond engagement rings markets.

American Women Also Saw Diamond Rings as Insurance

Around the same time in the 1940s, the U.S. started doing away with the "Breach of Promise to Marry" law. It was perfect timing, as this also caused more women to ask for a diamond ring.

This law allowed women to sue a fiancé who broke off the wedding. It was in place in the 1930s. Here are some fun facts about it:

  • Back then, women were expected to remain pure for their man. However, many couples still were intimate before tying the knot. So if the man were to break off the wedding, the woman would be seen as tainted and undesirable to future potential suitors.
  • Most women also didn't work back then, so the loss of an engagement would also leave her financially stranded.
  • Since in the 1930s, engagements were still mostly just verbal promises, this law was created to protect the woman if it was broken off.

Once the Breach of Promise law started dissipating, a verbal promise just wasn't good enough anymore. Now, women needed some other form of insurance.

It just so happens that De Beers launched their massive diamond campaign. A diamond ring made the perfect insurance. Men spent a good deal of money buying it, so it's less likely he'd just break off the engagement. And if he did, she would still have something to make up for it.

The Meaning of the Engagement Ring Today

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Today, the engagement ring is more of a symbol of love and commitment.

  • It's the promise of marriage from a man to a woman.
  • It shows the man is serious enough about the relationship to save up for the ring.
  • It shows others that a woman is no longer available.

Today, women have their own careers and there's no negative stigma about pre-marital sex. So engagement rings are less about insurance now and more about a symbol of love.

It shows he is serious enough to save for it. And that he loves her enough to spend time designing or choosing a ring to fit her unique style.

Traditions Before Diamond Engagement Rings

The Romans gave iron or gold rings during a proposal. Other cultures had other unique ways. Here are a few examples:

  • English couples were considered to be engaged after breaking a piece of metal together (either gold or silver), after which they would drink a glass of wine together. They were then considered engaged.
  • Early in American history, men gave women thimbles as a sign of their devotion. After the wedding, the women would cut the thimble into a ring shape and wear it.

These examples show the similarities of proposals. Even though diamonds weren't exchanged, the idea is the same. There is intent to marry. The object serves as the commitment to fulfill the promise.

How We Handle Broken Engagements Today

Luckily, the days of holding a ring as collateral are behind us. Today, broken engagements can be handled several ways:

  • If the ring was a gift, the woman can keep the ring. If a court of law becomes involved, they must prove the giver meant it as a gift. They must also prove the woman accepted the ring as a gift.

    Tip: This is why it's usually recommended that you don't propose on Christmas, Valentine's Day, or her birthday. Not only should the engagement be a special day all of its own, she also wouldn't be able to say that the ring was a gift.

  • Some courts view the engagement ring as a conditional gift. The man gives the woman the ring on the premise that she will marry him. If the marriage doesn't happen, the condition doesn't exist. This means the gift doesn't exist. The court awards the ring to the man.

  • Sometimes couples think of the ring as compensation for a broken engagement. This usually occurs when there's money involved. Women who help men get ahead financially often feel this way. If a man breaks off the engagement, the woman uses the ring as compensation for her investment.

Of course, these are just examples of what may happen. Every couple handles their engagement and break-up differently.

The Decline in the Diamond Engagement Ring Today

According to IDEX, the attachment to diamond rings as an engagement ring is slowly declining. 75% of American women used to receive a diamond engagement ring. Today, that rate is slowly falling. There are several reasons for it, including:

  • Women are getting married later. The average age used to be around 20½ years old. Today, it's more like 26.2 years old.
  • More women just aren't getting married. 50% of 25- to 29-year-olds remain unmarried today.
  • Women are choosing less expensive options or opt for a family heirloom instead of a new diamond ring.

What are blood diamonds and why are they called that? Blood diamonds (or conflict diamonds) are mined in areas where they're sold to fund rebel groups in civil wars. Rival groups will fight for control of diamond mines. In the past couple of decades, civil wars have erupted in 7 African countries fueled by diamonds.

How Many Women Don't Like Their Engagement Ring?

Diamonds are forever, but what if you don't like your ring? This is the story that a shocking 57% of women have. It might not be that they don't want to wear it, but it might not be what they would pick. After all that men go through to get the diamond ring, you'd hope that they would like it!

The Final Word

So now you know - the "tradition" of a diamond engagement ring is all down to an ad campaign! Along with the woman's need for insurance, the diamond ring's popularity soared. Today, it is seen more as a symbol of love and commitment. The idea that "A Diamond Is Forever" will likely always remain.

More from CreditDonkey:

How to Buy an Engagement Ring

How to Buy an Engagement Ring


Diamond Prices


Best Place to Buy Engagement Ring Online

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