Put a Ring on It
The History of Engagement Rings.
Words by Natasha Were.
A diamond ring. A marriage proposal. Two halves of one whole, or so we have come to believe. The history of engagement rings.
Although rings have been worn for aeons, sometimes as tokens of betrothal and more often as signs of marital union, the addition of sparkling gemstones is a much more recent embellishment. The custom of presenting one’s sweetheart with a diamond engagement ring only became common practice in the 1950s.
Archaeological evidence indicates that as far back as 5000 BCE Ancient Egyptians were buried wearing primitive rings made from wire loops; centuries later Roman husbands gave their wives rings made of iron, with small keys attached, signalling their ownership. It was the sentiment
they embodied, rather than their intrinsic beauty that was valued.
The endurance of the ring lies in its shape – a circle with no beginning and no end – symbolic of everlasting love and lifelong commitment. The practice of wearing such rings on the fourth finger of the left hand was due to the ancient belief that a vein, the vena amoris, ran directly from this finger to the heart.
The first recorded diamond ring did not appear until 1477 when Archduke Maximilian of Austria presented his wife to be with a gold ring, with narrow diamonds in the shape of an 'M' set into it. His grand gesture sparked a trend for similar rings, but only among the very wealthy elite. Gemstones were so scarce at the time they were far beyond the means of the masses.
For most, plain bands of gold sufficed. Right up to the 19th century, it was fashionable for lovers to exchange such rings, known has Posy rings, inscribed with sentimental poems and declarations of love.
It was the more extravagant Victorians who popularised the colourful, stone-laden Dearest rings. Somewhat lurid by today’s standards, these rings featured a combination of gemstones and enamels of different colours, in settings shaped like clasped hands and flowers.
Diamonds, however, remained a rare commodity right up until the late 1800s, when huge veins of the gems were discovered in South Africa. So many were mined that within decades these scarcest of gemstones were suddenly in danger of becoming run-of-the-mill.
The South African diamond industry reacted by forming De Beers Consolidated, a cartel that controlled the supply of diamonds and thus maintained the illusion of scarcity. It was a move that enabled them to keep prices high, but did little to drive sales.
All that changed when, in 1947, De Beers launched a brilliant advertising campaign that not only made diamonds highly desirable, but that ultimately ensured they would be consistently in demand: In coining that simple, elegant phrase, ‘A Diamond is Forever’, they convinced the world that only a diamond could adequately express the sincerity of a marriage proposal. That one line turned diamond engagement rings into something every man wanted to give, and every woman wanted to receive. By the 1960s 80 percent of American brides were wearing rocks on their ring fingers.
The simple gold band with a solitaire diamond set above it may seem like a timeless tradition, but it’s one that is only a few generations old. Styles, traditions and technologies keep evolving, so quite what the engagement rings of the future will look like, or what they will be made from is hard to predict. What we can be more sure of is that the practice of giving or exchanging of rings is one that is here to stay.
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