The earliest known use of engagement rings can be traced back to Ancient Rome. These ancient renditions of our much adored jewellery were traditionally made of less precious metals like ivory, flint, bone, copper and iron. Women would wear these rings to indicate to the world at large that they were claimed as part of a business contract (if the marriage had been negotiated as part of a business enterprise) and, more rarely, as an affirmation of a pending marriage of love and obedience. Not exactly the roses and champagne view that we now associate with engagement rings.
We have Pope Nicholas the First to thank for the modern, official meaning of engagement rings when he declared that a man should present his intended with a ring (usually made from gold) as a representation of his intent and her acceptance of the proposal. This took place in roughly 850 a.d. The rings used in these proposals were typically plain and simple due to the smiting methods available at the time.
It was only in 1477 that an engagement ring was bedecked in diamonds for the first time. The Archduke Maximilian of Austria presented his paramour, Mary of Burgundy, with a ring mounted with long narrow diamonds shaped into an M. This lavish display of wealth was not the one to set the trend, however, as diamond engagement rings were far out of reach for the vast majority of the population at the time.
Only the discovery of underground deposits of diamonds in South Africa but the De Beers mining company made it possible for all but the most wealthy of gentlemen to afford diamond engagement rings. In the early 1940’s, the mining conglomerate launched an advertising campaign to promote the idea that “diamonds are forever” to ensure that their diamond mines in South Africa, opened in the late 19th century, would continue to be profitable for decades to come. They enlisted various Hollywood stars and marketing specialists to ensure that diamond engagement rings were forever imprinted on the minds of people the world over as the best option for declaring your love to your intended.
At the time of the discovery, diamonds were being used in the United States for engagement rings, but they were not the most popular choice by a long way. Not only were the stones that were being sold small and of low quality, they were difficult to come by as well. This scarcity and lack of demand was causing the price of diamonds to fall, world-wide.
The marketing agency De Beers put in charge of their product sales made the ingenious decision to market not a stone, but a mind set or an idea. By subtle use of various Hollywood actors and publishing stories in newspapers and magazines which emphasised the romance involved in the presentation of a diamond engagement ring, they succeeded beyond expectation. Not only did they target the gentlemen doing the proposing, they targeted the ladies as well through a lecture presented at high schools which convinced the young girls that a man who was worth their time would only propose with a diamond engagement ring. The lecture demonstrated that diamonds were now a possibility for even a mechanic’s sweetheart, not just for the wives of political leaders and movie stars.
Even now, with the advent of lab grown diamonds, the gem stone has not seen much reduction in popularity and has only become more accessible and affordable