The History and Meaning of Engagement Rings
Engagement rings are the iconic symbol of love. Did you ever wonder how the tradition got started and why getting down on one knee with a ring became the standard way to say you want to marry someone? The history of engagement rings stretches back thousands of years, even though diamond engagement rings as we know them today date back only a few hundred years.
The ancient Egyptians were the first to use rings as a symbol of love and commitment. They believed that the circle symbolized eternity. Rings were often made from braided reeds or woven rushes and were worn on the fourth finger of the left hand, because they romantically thought that a vein ran directly from that finger to the heart, what was called the Vena Amoris, or vein of love.
These early rings were not made of precious metals or gemstones, but the sentiment behind them was just as meaningful. Wearing a ring on your left-hand ring finger symbolically connects your heart to the love of your life and shows the world that your partner is the closest person to your heart. That tradition continues today, even though we know that the vein in your ring finger doesn’t actually go straight to the heart.
It wasn't until the ancient Romans that the use of valuable materials like gold and silver became popular. Engagement rings became an official part of the marriage contract. According to the Gemological Institute of America, Romans wore rings to symbolize mutual love and obedience. Gold rings and other jewelry were later found in the ruins of Pompeii, confirming that the tradition of exchanging rings was widespread.
In the year 850, the engagement ring became official. Pope Nicholas I decreed that an engagement ring symbolized a pledge to marry. Gold remained the most popular material for betrothal rings in the Middle Ages.
In the 15th century, engagement rings became even more symbolic of the joining of two lives into one. Gimmel rings, with three connected bands, surged in popularity. Two rings were worn by each of the engaged couple. On their wedding day, the two bands were connected with a third ring and the three joined rings were worn by the new bride as her wedding ring set.
In the Age of Enlightenment, some couples instead chose to wed with posy rings, which had bands that were engraved with love notes. Sometimes a silver posy engagement ring would be exchanged for a gold version of the ring during the wedding ceremony.
Diamonds were set in rings during this time, first as crystals then as crystals with a few facets. It was still very difficult to cut diamonds because of their extreme hardness. Only a diamond can cut a diamond. Eventually cutters realized they could use diamond dust to grind flat facets to make a diamond sparkle more.
The first recorded diamond engagement ring was given by the Archduke Maximillian of Austria to his future Queen, Mary of Burgundy in 1477. She requested the ring in a letter agreeing to marry him: “At the betrothal, your Grace must have a ring set with a diamond and also a gold ring.” The diamond ring was in the shape of her initial, “M.” The irregular diamonds were faceted using the best techniques available at the time.
Diamonds were extremely rare during the Middle Ages and mined only in India. By 1500, artisans developed tools to create facets on diamonds. By the mid-1700s, cuts were much more elaborate and creative. King Louis XV of France commissioned his jeweler to create a diamond cut inspired by the shape of the lips of his beloved, Madame de Pompadour. The resulting shape is now known as the marquise cut.
In the 19th century, engagement rings became more widespread among the general population. However, they were still not considered a necessity. Many couples exchanged other tokens of affection, such as lockets or brooches. Diamonds were popular but birthstones were the most common choice for engagement rings.
Then in 1870, huge diamond mines were discovered in South Africa. Diamonds were no longer a rarity for the aristocracy. Everyone could now own a diamond.
In 1886, Tiffany & Co. introduced the "Tiffany Setting," which elevated a diamond solitaire above the band with six prongs to maximize its brilliance and fire. This innovation made diamonds the preferred gemstone for engagement rings and established Tiffany & Co. as a leading retailer of fine jewelry.
Throughout the 20th century, engagement rings continued to evolve in style and design. During the Art Deco era of the 1920s and 1930s, geometric shapes were in vogue.
Engagement rings became an engagement necessity in the 1940s for two reasons. Because demand for diamonds was down during the Depression, in 1938 De Beers hired an ad agency, N.W. Ayer & Son, to promote diamond engagement rings for the first time. The slogan “A Diamond is Forever” was born. In the year 2000, Advertising Age magazine named this the best advertising slogan of the 20th century.
Around the same time in the 1940s, the U.S. started doing away with the "Breach of Promise to Marry" law, which allowed women to sue men for breaking an engagement. Because women had more to lose in this situation, it became common to give a diamond ring to seal the engagement, almost as collateral on the promise to marry.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the concept of a matching set of engagement and wedding rings became popular. This idea, along with the rise of mass production, made engagement rings more accessible to the general public. In the 1970s, more varied designs became popular. The new square-shape princess cut engagement ring became popular, giving engagement rings a contemporary geometric look.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the influence of celebrities and pop culture had a significant impact on engagement ring trends. Tapered baguettes added lots of sparkle to engagement ring designs. Princess Diana’s famous engagement ring with an oval blue sapphire surrounded by diamonds, inspired many rings. Three-stone rings were also popular. The popularity of platinum engagement rings also surged during this time, as it was seen as a luxurious and exclusive metal.
The biggest trend to emerge in the new millennium was halo engagement rings. This style features radiant or cushion cut stones surrounded by a frame of orbiting pavé diamonds for an extra dose of sparkle.
In 2010, Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton with the late Princess Diana's engagement ring. The same sapphire and diamond halo ring that went viral in the 1980s again caused a resurgence of engagement rings featuring colored gems almost 30 years later.
In the 2020s, the biggest trend became lab-grown diamond engagement rings, as new technology made diamonds created in a laboratory more affordable and available. More and more couples looking for an engagement ring that’s climate neutral started turning to jewelers like Brilliant Carbon who source lab-created diamonds from Sustainability Rated producers, with independent certification from SCS Global Services. Because lab grown diamonds are more affordable than mined diamonds too, many couples are trading up to larger, better quality lab-grown center diamonds for rings that are simply dazzling.
Despite the many changes in style and design over the centuries, the sentiment behind engagement rings remains the same: a symbol of love and commitment between two people. Whether it's a simple small solitaire or a blinding celebrity million-dollar diamond, the meaning behind an engagement ring is priceless.