Brief History of Engagement Rings

The earliest mention of wedding rings is found with the ancient Egyptians, about 4800 years ago.

In ancient Rome, a woman’s acceptance of a wedding ring was a legally binding agreement to be linked to her betrothed. Rings were often made of iron, a sign of strength.

In the 12th century, Pope Innocent the Third ordained weddings take place in a church and be symbolized by a wedding ring.

Gimmel rings, double interlocking bands, were popular during the Renaissance period. One part was given at the engagement, and the husband bestowed the second half during the wedding ceremony.

Ever since 1477, when Archduke Maximilian of Hamburg gifted Mary of Burgundy a diamond ring to celebrate their betrothal, the concept of sealing an engagement with a diamond ring has circulated as the proper thing to do. Before then, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and other gemstones were equally in use by those who could afford them.

Fede rings, named for the Roman word for faith, originated in the early 1600s. These rings are still seen today and are made with two small gold hands encircling either side of the ring and clasping the other at the center of the ring, sometimes holding a small, hidden heart.

The Persian custom of the groom distributing a ring to each wedding guest may have been the basis for the elaborate display at the wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, in 1840. They had 72 rings crafted with the queen’s profile for their guests; the queen’s engagement ring was shaped like a serpent, a good luck symbol.

In 1877, diamonds from the Kimberly region increased the availability of diamonds and brought down diamond prices. As they became less expensive and easier to obtain, the middle class was able to afford diamond engagement rings, and the upper class sought more unusual decorations to show their marriage commitments, usually fancy gemstone rings with diamonds as a side ornament.

Demand slumped during the 1920s and 1930s, as the world faced an economic decline. World War II further hurt the engagement ring market, as metals such as platinum were deemed war necessities. However, as U.S. husbands left for war, they showed their attachment to their homebound brides by wearing wedding bands in whatever metal they could afford. Previously, European men had worn wedding rings, but U.S. men had not. Before the war, approximately 15% of husbands wore wedding rings; during World War II 60% of husbands adopted the custom; and during the Korean War the number increased to 70%.

In 1947, De Beers introduced the slogan, “A diamond is forever,” encouraging families to hold onto their diamond rings as heirlooms—and not resell their rings back into the already full jewelry market.

In 1953, Hollywood released the hit film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. Monroe’s feature song, Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend, may have helped the diamond engagement ring market, as it painted the picture that ladies expected diamonds from their beaus.

Today over 75% of engagement rings are diamond engagement rings.