Ask any modern American to describe a classic engagement ring and they will almost surely mention a diamond. Preferably, a big one. But diamonds’ dominance of betrothal is actually a fairly recent development in the world of jewelry and romance.
An engagement ring is a public acknowledgement of the private sentiment, “I’m yours.” But our ancestors took this a bit more literally. Cavemen tied rings of braided grass – okay, more like lassos – around their mate’s ankles, wrists and waist to control her spirit. In the 2nd century BC, Pliny the Elder reported the practice of the groom giving the bride two rings – a gold one for the ceremony, and an iron ring, signifying his ownership, to wear around the house. Fortunately, the beauty of rings and the sentiments attached to them have vastly improved and modernized over the centuries!
In the 13th century, Pope Innocent III grew increasingly worried about young lovers’ rush down the aisle. So he decreed that marriages must be announced publicly and a fixed time set between this announcement and the wedding. Hence, the tradition of engagement was born.
This new idea of engagement sparked the new trend of engagement rings. Since no rules had yet been set, there was an “anything goes” attitude. Some rings in the Middle Ages contained gemstones, while many were simple bands. Eighteenth century Europeans exchanged rings engraved with romantic sentiments. Later, Victorians spelled out endearments in human hair, then adorned these rings with emeralds, rubies, amethysts and diamonds. The American Puritans, those great squashers of romance, tried to get away with giving thimbles instead of rings, but these were often sliced into rings anyway.
Rise of the Diamond
By the end of the nineteenth century, grooms bought the best engagement rings they could. Usually these featured a pearl or gemstone according to their taste and budget. Diamonds appeared in engagement rings since at least the 15th century, but didn’t become a requirement until the DeBeers Mining Company devised a plan to elevate the sparkly stone.
Miners found a huge cache of diamonds in the Cape Colony, now part of South Africa, in 1867. DeBeers was founded in 1880 and controlled 90 percent of the diamond biz within a decade. Soon they hit on their genius message: A diamond is forever.
Those four little words summed up what people were looking for in their marriage, something lasting and valuable. Indeed, even people who feel a bit cynical about marketing campaigns can quickly fall under a diamond’s spell. The way they sparkle, flash and catch the light is truly magical. And from a practical standpoint, you can’t beat the hardness and durability of diamonds.
However, modern couples have endless choices. Whether you go for the newish classic diamond engagement ring or the colored gemstones favored by our ancestors, it’s the symbolism behind the ring that gives it the most value.