Ever wondered how and why diamond engagement rings became the universal symbol of romance and marriage in modern culture? The origins might surprise you! Read on to find out more...
Rings in ancient history
Rings have been used as a symbol of eternal love from at least the times of ancient Egypt. Rings are circular, with no beginning or end, making them a perfect metaphor for everlasting love and devotion.
Alexander the Great and the Greeks conquered Ancient Egypt, who were in turn conquered by the Romans, and the tradition of presenting rings in marriage ceremonies (usually made of copper or iron) became firmly rooted in the precursors to western culture.
Along with the tradition of exchanging rings, the belief that the ring finger contained a vein that led directly to the heart was carried over from Egyptian culture. This isn't anatomically correct unfortunately, but the tradition has endured through the centuries to present day.
Around the 4th-century rings became a means of flaunting the giver's wealth, with gold being used by the upper echelons of society. Complex engravings and gemstones also started to become more common, especially as civilisation progressed into the medieval era.
Diamonds were not a common gemstone to be used during this period, as they were still extremely rare and simply beyond the means of most of society. A variety of gemstones were common, with rubies said to represent passion, sapphires representing the heavens, and diamonds symbolising steadfast strength. Many other less expensive gemstones were used too, including onyx, amethyst, and garnet.
The emergence of wedding rings
Through the ages, the tradition of exchanging rings became a symbol for actual marriage, and not just love and devotion. In fact, the word 'wedding' comes from the ceremonies that had become the norm between the 8th and 12th century, where all that was required to get married was for each party to express their consent to be married by the bride accepting an object referred to as a 'wed'. This object was usually a ring.
At some point in the 12th century the Christian church stepped in and declared marriage a sacred institution (because of shenanigans that emerged where people denied they were married at all because ceremonies had zero formal requirements). Rings were declared as mandatory during the ceremony by the church and it was considered scandalous for a man to put a ring on the finger of a woman they were not intending to marry.
Engagement rings enter popular culture
Engagement rings weren't common place before the 14th century, until the charming fellow below decided to offer a diamond ring to his future wife to secure her hand in marriage.
This man was Maximilian the 1st, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, so naturally his actions caught the attention of high medieval society and the trend of giving engagement rings caught on from this point.
Coincidentally, he offered his wife to be a diamond engagement ring, but this never caught on at the time.
Diamond engagement rings explode in popularity
As we mentioned, diamonds were never a popular choice for engagement rings. They were simply too rare and out of reach, even for most of high society.
That begun to change towards the end of the 1800s. Massive diamond reserves had been discovered in Africa and early businessmen (supported by the British Empire) had quickly begun to circle like sharks. The big winner of this hectic and violent land grab was Cecil Rhodes and his newly formed company, De Beers.
De Beers controlled around 85% of the world's diamond trade and extracted gemstones in massive quantities for around 50 years between 1890 and 1940. The market was flooded with diamonds and because of their dominance, De Beers could decide what price they sold them for.
Unfortunately for them, there simply wasn't enough demand for diamonds. Industrial uses only went so far, and the consumer market just wasn't big enough to satisfy De Beer's greed.
They enlisted the help of Philadelphia ad agency NW Ayer & Son who coined the now famous 'Diamonds are forever' ad campaign which positioned diamonds as the only option for demonstrating your love and devotion to your partner.
They handed out free diamond jewellery to celebrities, advertised at a scale never seen before and also invented the ridiculous 'rule' that you should spend 3 months salary on an engagement ring. Along with this, they also devised numerous new traditions to sell more diamonds. The eternity ring, the trilogy ring (with 3 diamonds representing the past, present and future of love). After a few years, diamonds became the de facto choice for engagement rings, rising from 10% in 1939 to 80% in 1990.
Diamond engagement rings in present day
Diamonds remain the primary choice for engagement rings, however other gemstones such as sapphires, rubies and emeralds are making a comeback. At Nightingale, we're seeing lots of customers mix and match gemstones to create unique and striking aesthetics.
As well as lab grown diamonds we're also able to source other ethical lab grown gemstones, so if you're interested in bucking the trend created by De Beers you can do so in the most ethical way possible.
Get in touch today if you'd like to learn more!