In today’s society, it is traditional for a couple in love to get engaged, with a goal of getting married, as a way for them to show how committed they are to each other. They vow to spend the rest of their lives with one another, protecting each other, enjoying life together, and being loyal to each other.
However, the chivalrous act of a man down on one knee, creating one of the biggest romantic gestures he will ever likely make for his one true love is a long way from what an engagement, and of course marriage, meant when it first began.
The origin of the ring
Rings were first used as a symbolic gesture within a relationship all the way back in prehistoric times. The men would braid grass and fashion them into cords to tie around the waist, wrists, and ankles of their partner in an attempt to control her spirit. It was more about power rather than love, but there was a definite element of commitment right from the beginning, no matter how unromantic it may be.
It was thousands of years later before the ring evolved to be worn on the finger and this is also when the ancient Egyptians made it a romantic symbol of love as opposed to control. The circular shape portrayed eternal love, with the gap representing a gateway to the future for the couple. At the time of marriage, both man and woman would present each other with a braided reed as a wedding band to be worn on the third finger of the left hand, now known as the ring finger. This finger was chosen due to a vein running from here to the heart, which was thought to be unique and was later named the Vena Amoris, or the ‘vein of love’.
The meaning of the engagement ring was then changed once again, in Roman times. The author, Pliny the Elder, recollects the purpose of engagement and wedding rings. Two rings were given to the bride-to-be, an iron one to be worn around the house for cleaning and housework, and a gold one only to be worn for special events. Rings at this time were a symbol of ownership as opposed to love, and rings were the legally binding contract for ownership of the woman.
Jumping ahead by over a century, sultans and sheikhs presented their partners with puzzle rings which would break if removed and therefore ensured loyalty from the woman to the man in the relationship. The meaning of the engagement ring changed in 860AD when Pope Nicolas I made it the rule for the gold ring, given to a woman by a man, to represent his ability to care for her and provide wealth to their relationship.The first diamond arose prominently on an engagement ring centuries later. The Archduke Maximillian of Austria gave Mary of Burgundy, his-bride-to-be, a gold band in 1477. The iconic ‘M’ spelt out in diamonds was the first of its kind and welcomed a significant amount of attention. This ring was the start of a trend for the most affluent of people to propose with beautiful engagement rings studded with diamonds and other jewels.
Inscription on rings was a popular choice in the 1700’s, where romantic and affectionate poems were often the craze; these were called Poesy Rings, derived from the word ‘poésie’, which is French for poem. The passion and love behind the engagement ring continued well into the 1800’s when Dearest Rings were born. These bands were incredibly ornate, with clusters of different gems, often designed into shapes and floral creations. Heavily ornate engagement rings were also traditional throughout Edwardian times and are still popular choices today for those who prefer a vintage design.
Discovered in South Africa in 1867, diamonds became much more accessible around this period, and about 20 years later, the world-famous Tiffany & Co created a six-prong design, called the ‘Tiffany Setting’, elevating the diamond away from the band to make it an actual focal point.
The engagement ring has represented love and commitment between two people for years now, while custom diamond rings have been popular since the 1930’s.
A diamond is a girl’s best friend
Demand for diamonds declined after the First World War due to the Great Depression. In an effort to rekindle the enthusiasm and love for diamonds, the international corporation De Beers released an advertising campaign. Ten years in, they created the trademark ‘A Diamond is Forever‘, which resulted in their marketing campaign being one the best created. It became customary to expect diamonds as they were the purest representation of love. The size and clarity of the diamond also became synonymous with the wealth and success of the man presenting it, leading to the campaign developing and suggesting that people should spend a month’s’ salary on a ring. This idea evolved in the 80’s where the tagline ‘Isn’t two month’s salary a small price to pay for something that lasts forever?’ was released and so the expected amount spent on an engagement ring was increased.
Looking ahead to the future of the diamond industry, current data indicates that India, China, and the United States will be the key drivers over the next ten years. Over 80 percent of women are presented with a diamond in America, while traditions in China have been evolving since the 90’s too. Traditionally, a simple ring would be worn on the right hand when engaged and moved to the left when married. However, 30 percent of Chinese brides are now wearing diamonds. This change in tradition also occurred in Japan in the 70’s.
As a global industry, the diamond engagement ring will most likely be a tradition worldwide forever. Ethical developments could, however, see 3D printed rings come into play and reduce the black diamond trade. Customised rings will also remain popular as couples attempt to stand out and represent their personalities and love in unique ways.