When you propose, you give your partner a diamond engagement ring. At this point, the tradition is so ingrained in our society that we don’t even think twice about engagement rings and their meaning anymore. Where did that tradition come from? And how did it become so common?
The History of Marriage
The word “marriage” comes from around the year 1300, but the institution of marriage — two people making a lifetime commitment to each other — goes back far longer than that. Of course, initially, families arranged marriages for couples in order to secure alliances between different tribes, nations, and factions. Arranged marriage is still a tradition in some cultures, though it has fallen out of favor in the United States.
Wedding rings themselves date back to the ancient Egyptians, who believed that the vena amoris, or “vein of love,” ran directly from the heart to the fourth finger on the left hand. Since that time, wedding rings have been a symbol of the vows that two spouses make to each other. By some interpretations, the circle symbolizes the eternal nature of the marriage, with the hole in the middle of the ring symbolizing a portal to the future they’ll share together.
The Greeks and Romans also embraced the tradition of wedding bands. Gold and silver were extremely difficult to come by in those days, and ring styles made of precious metals were only available to the extremely wealthy.
In the Byzantine Empire, rings were engraved with images of the couple to be married — once Christianity became the official religion of the empire, Jesus or a cross was often added to the engravings to signify that the couple’s marriage was sanctified in the eyes of God.
“Sympathetic marriage,” or the idea of marrying for love, didn’t become commonplace until the 18th century. Over the next several hundred years, women began to obtain more equal rights in society, more financial independence, and more autonomy over their own choices. They weren’t as reliant on a man to provide for them, so the parity in a marriage began to equalize.
The Evolution of Engagement Rings
In the vast majority of cases, an engagement ring is worn by the bride — and only the bride. While cynics view an engagement ring as a sign that the woman is “taken,” the romantic interpretation is that it’s a promise by the ring’s giver to marry their partner and a symbol that the ring’s recipient has accepted their proposal.
According to Susan Waggoner, “Roman law took a surprisingly modern view of the engagement ring, recognizing it not as a sign of ownership but as a kind of security or down payment paid to the bride-to-be.” United States law has supported that view in the past, in fact — a woman used to be able to sue for damages if her fiance broke off the engagement.
Where Do Diamonds Come In?
Diamonds were once exceptionally rare — they were difficult to find and even more difficult to work with, given the extremely hard nature of the material. As a result, the average person could never dream of owning a diamond. Even King George IV of England, crowned in 1821, couldn’t afford to purchase his own diamond-encrusted crown.
But in 1866, diamonds were discovered in relatively large quantities in South Africa. De Beers Consolidated Mines was established soon after, and by the 20th century the South African company controlled almost 90% of the world’s rough diamonds. Suddenly, diamonds were easier to come by — and with modern technology, they were much easier to cut and shape.
De Beers hired New York ad agency N.W. Ayer to boost the image of diamonds in the United States, and promote how wearable they are.
N.W. Ayer decided to persuade young men that a diamond engagement ring — durable, beautiful, pure, and brilliant — was the perfect symbol of his love for his wife to be. A diamond became a promise to love one’s partner forever, and a demonstration of a young man’s willingness to do anything for his fiancée. The tagline for that campaign has gone down as one of the most famous ad campaigns of all time — “Diamonds are Forever.”
The Modern State of Diamond Engagement Rings
You might have heard that today’s young adults aren’t buying diamonds. While there’s some truth to that story — engagement rings are changing, and no trend lasts forever — it turns out that millennials are buying diamonds in much higher numbers than you might expect, especially compared to Gen Xers and Baby Boomers.
According to one report from De Beers, millennials are responsible for 41 percent of diamond sales, despite only making up 27 percent of the population! Most of these purchases come from diamond engagement rings, with the classic solitaire ring with a round-cut center stone being the most popular option.
In addition, women are buying diamonds for themselves. Women have never had more autonomy or financial independence than they do now, and they’re getting married later in life and later in their relationships. As a result, there are lots of independently wealthy young women buying jewelry for themselves — in fact, they’re spending just as much on their own jewels as the amount spent on gifts for them.
Wherever the future of the diamond industry goes, it seems clear that the appeal of diamond engagement rings isn’t going away any time soon, and it’s easy to see why. Whether it’s an unusual diamond shape with multiple accent stones or a simple gold band with a solitaire diamond, a diamond truly is a gift that will last a lifetime.