Why Do Engagement Rings Exist?

I tend to talk about engagement rings a lot. There’s a lot that goes into an engagement ring – the setting, the cut of the diamond, where it came from – and that’s plenty of room for conversation. But have you ever wondered why engagement rings exist in the first place? What made us decide, as a society, to exchange rings when we decide to get hitched? And when did it all begin? Well, as it turns out, people have been doing it for thousands of years!

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Engagement rings go way back.

Engagement rings have been exchanged throughout history. The story of engagement rings starts out as early as in ancient Egypt, over 5,000 years ago. Egyptians would weave rings together out of reeds, then give them to each other as “rings of love”. Ring were important in their culture, and were a powerful symbol of eternity. However, they weren’t necessarily used to show that a couple was married – the Romans started that tradition! Sadly, the Roman tradition isn’t quite as romantic as the Egyptian one. First, the bride was given a golden ring as part of the dowry, before the marriage. Later, the golden ring was replaced with an iron one – to show that she was legally bound to her husband. Imagine trying to pull a stunt like that with wedding rings today!

The first time we saw diamonds used in an engagement ring was in 1477. Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to his bride-to-be, Mary of Burgundy, with a ring with diamonds set into it that formed the letter “M”.  Although it was common at that time to offer jewelry during a marriage proposal, the jewel-lined band turned into a hot new trend among European royalty.


Does my ring insurance cover that?

Common people didn’t actually buy expensive engagement rings until the 1930s. The reason for this is surprising – they were less of a declaration of love and more of a kind of insurance. Before the 1930s, there was a law called the “Breach of Promise to Marry”. At that time in history, it was very important that a woman was a virgin before she got married. It was also very common for couples to fool around after they were engaged – but before the wedding. This became a big problem if the man decided to leave before tying the knot, leaving the bride-to-be behind as “damaged goods”. The Breach of Promise to Marry allowed women to sue if this happened, giving them some security in the event of a breakup.

That is, until they repealed the law.

Now, with the law was gone, future brides needed something else to keep as collateral in case their man left them. So, wedding rings started to get more and more expensive. But wedding rings weren’t all made of diamonds – emeralds, rubies, and other precious stones were used as well. So what was it that prompted the shift to only using diamond rings? One simple phrase: “A diamond is forever”.


The birth of a business

The world of engagement rings changed for good when De Beers came into the picture. A mining company owned by Cecil Rhodes, De Beers discovered huge diamond deposits in South Africa in the late 1800s. While that sounds like a sure way to make a fortune to us today, times were different then. At the turn of the 20th century, diamonds weren’t worth nearly as much as they are now, and when the Great Depression hit in the 1920s, engagement rings were the last thing on people’s’ shopping lists. Then De Beers launched one of the most successful marketing campaigns of all time with their famous slogan: “A diamond is forever”.

From "The Popular Science Monthly", volume 41 (public domain).

The success of the campaign was unprecedented. De Beers created a new market out of thin air. While diamonds had still been as a valuable gem before, De Beers transformed the diamond into the definitive jewel. They said right on their advertisements that no marriage was complete without a diamond ring – and no diamond ring was worth it unless you spent two months’ salary on it. They crafted a new engagement culture, and every man wanting to get married knew the first thing he had to do: buy the ring.


Where are we now?

Today, the expectations for engagement rings continue to change. Diamonds are still the norm, but other options like synthetic diamonds and non-traditional ring styles are gaining more and more popularity, especially considering the environmental and ethical harm that diamond mining has had on countries like South Africa. With a history dating back to ancient times, it looks like engagement rings are here to stay. So, whatever you choose for your engagement ring, always remember the reason you’re getting it – for the person you love!


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