Have Diamonds Always Meant Forever? A Brief History of Diamond Engagement Rings

There’s a reason why diamond engagement rings are the token gift of love and the symbol of everlasting romance. Considered one of the most valuable gems of our day, geologists have been fascinated with these minerals because of their unparalleled resistance and durability; the hardest natural mineral known. The word “diamond” comes from the ancient Greek word adámas which means “proper”, “unalterable”, “unbreakable” and “untamed”. The indestructible diamond represents the indestructible sanctity of love, ever-lasting purity and devotion (at least for a few years). Though diamonds may not be as rare as many people think- how they became one of the most symbolic gemstones of our time has its own interesting history.  

Before They Were A Girl’s Best Friend…
Certainly not the romantic gesture it is today, it is believed that the first engagement symbol, dating as far back as the prehistoric age, was actually a woven cord of rushes (grasses, reeds) or leather that a caveman would tie around the hands and feet of a female mate so she couldn’t escape. Once the caveman was sure she wouldn’t leave, he would untie her, only keeping a small cord tied around her finger. How nice to have evolved since then… 

Diamonds were first mined an estimated 6, 000 years ago, in India along the rivers of Penner, Krishna and Godavari. Until the 15th century, diamonds were worn by kings as a symbol of strength and courage. The earliest surviving record of a diamond engagement ring offering dates back to 1477, when Archduke Maximillian of Hamburg gave Mary of Burgundy a diamond betrothal ring. A custom inherited from the Romans, betrothal rings were “truth” rings worn on the third finger of the left hand. The practice of wearing the betrothal ring on this particular finger came from the Ancient Egyptians believed that the vena amoris (the vein of love) ran from that finger directly to the heart.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the “gimmal” i.e. “bond” ring was given as an engagement ring. The gimmal had two rectangular gems, traditionally a diamond and ruby, symbolizing commitment and passion; an exchange reserved for royalty and aristocracy. Posy rings were popular betrothal rings in which traditional sayings, love poems or verses were often inscribed. Less wealthy citizens would give a “Fede” i.e. “faith” ring, similar to the modern day claddagh ring, featuring two hands holding a heart adorned with a crown. In 1518, the smallest diamond engagement ring ever made was given to Princess Mary, who was only two years old at the time, by the proxy to the Dauphin of France.

When They Became A Man’s Worst Enemy…
India was the only major source of diamond gemstones until the eventual depletion of its diamond resources. This in turn led to the exploration of diamonds in other parts of the world.

In eighteenth-century Europe, diamond engagement rings were prominent custom. In addition to the engagement ring, a second ring was also given at the time of the ceremony, today’s wedding band.  The market for diamonds was once again ignited when in 1725 diamonds were discovered in Brazil. However, in 1867, Kimberley, South Africa came to be the world’s biggest diamond producer. The newly discovered diamond region had such a vast supply of diamonds that diamond prices took a drastic fall.

A diamond rush was propelled in 1871, at which point Cecil Rhodes, the founder of De Beers, began buying small mining operators, and eventually De Beers Consolidated Mines was formed. By 1888, De Beers was the sole owner of all diamond operations in the country. At one time it was estimated that over 80 percent of the world’s rough diamonds passed through the Diamond Trading Company (a subsidiary of De Beers) in London, but presently the figure is estimated at around 40 percent. 

In the early part of the 20th century platinum became a popular metal for engagement rings. However, platinum was soon declared a strategic metal during World War II, restricted to military purposes, whereby platinum diamond engagement rings practically disappeared from the market. The Great Depression also had a severe impact on diamond engagement ring sales, with sales dropping as much 50 percent. 
Responding to an ailing market, with the help of leading U.S. advertising agency N.W. Ayer & Son, in 1947 De Beers launched one of longest-running and successful campaigns, which linked diamonds with romantic love using the slogan “A diamond is forever”. Coined by Frances Gerety, a copywriter at the advertising agency, in 1999, Advertising Age magazine called this the best advertising slogan of the twentieth century. This slogan also conveyed the idea that an engagement ring should not be resold because of its sentimental value. With its multifaceted marketing campaign, which included advertisements of the diamond itself rather than the De Beers brand; radio programs publicizing diamond trends; product placement on television and in films, as well as stories and photographs of celebrities to associate diamonds with the rich and famous, the campaign set out to add mystique and emotional value to the diamond engagement ring. <a href=>[Source]</a>.

Thanks to this innovative campaign, the American diamond market was revived, setting off new markets all around the world. It also normalized the idea that a man should spend about two to three months wages, if not more, for a diamond engagement ring.  The ‘psychological necessity’ of diamonds had effectively been engrained as the foremost engagement ritual in the Western world.

In the 1960’s De Beers aimed to conquer other international markets such as Germany, Japan and Brazil. Prior to World War II, Japanese women’s jewelry mainly comprised of pearls and coral. Though the importation of diamonds postwar was not permitted in Japan, by 1981, 60 percent of married Japanese women were wearing diamond rings, making Japan the second largest engagement ring market after the United States.

It is now estimated that 78 percent of all engagement rings sold every year are diamond. The diamond continues to be an expression of love embodying virtue and passion. These magnificently crafted gemstones represent a new chapter in a soon to be married couples’ life.
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