Why do engagement rings exist? And why do engagement rings have diamonds? It turns out, betrothal rings are much older than diamond engagement rings. Before the late 19th century, diamond engagement rings were uncommon, even though royals sometimes exchanged diamond rings. Instead of diamonds, Victorian engagement rings usually displayed the future bride's birthstone.
But the idea of a man giving his fiancée an engagement ring dates back all the way to the ancient Romans. In fact, Roman law is the reason only women wear engagement rings.
The history of engagement rings shows how a simple iron band evolved into an expensive luxury purchase - and how an advertising slogan placed a diamond on the ring finger of 80% of engaged American women by the mid-20th century. In fact, those celebrity engagement ring pictures are a big reason why diamond engagement rings became popular in the first place. But will diamonds continue to dominate the engagement ring market in the future?
During The Protestant Reformation, Wedding Rings Were Used In Place Of Engagement Rings
Sometimes, men gave women betrothal rings and then the couple exchanged rings at the wedding. But that changed during the Protestant Reformation. Instead of two rings, some couples simply waited to exchange wedding rings.
In other cases, the style of engagement rings changed. Unlike the expensive diamond ring Maximilian gave Mary of Burgundy in the 15th century, couples opted for simpler engagement rings and more elaborate wedding bands.
A plain gold band with no jewels might serve as the betrothal ring, while a more expensive band represented matrimony.
Puritans Worried That Engagement Rings Meant Men Were 'Married Only To A Thumb'
Not everyone liked the tradition of engagement rings. In the 16th and 17th centuries, English Puritans argued against betrothal rings. As 17th-century poet Samuel Butler wrote:
Others were for abolishing
That tool of matrimony, a ring
With which the unsactify'ed bridegroom
Is marry'd only to a thumb.
Butler's poem refers to the common custom of placing an engagement ring on the thumb rather than the ring finger.
Queen Victoria Wore A Serpent Birthstone Engagement Ring
Although engagement rings fell out of favor from around the 16th century to the 19th century, they came back during the Victorian era.
Queen Victoria helped make engagement rings fashionable again when Prince Albert proposed. In 1839, Albert gave Victoria a custom-designed ring shaped like a serpent. The serpent had rubies for eyes and a diamond mouth. The center of the ring displayed Victoria's birthstone, an emerald.
Made from 18-carat gold, the ring's shape borrowed from a classical Roman symbol of love.
Birthstone engagement rings became popular during the Victorian period until South African diamonds flooded the market.
Diamond Rings Became More Accessible In The Victorian Era Due To A Boom In The South African Diamond Industry
In 1867, a teenager discovered diamonds in South Africa. That discovery kicked off a diamond rush that influenced engagement rings for the next century.
Soon, diamonds flooded the world, and even middle-class couples could afford a diamond engagement ring. Indeed, diamond prices dropped so much that a conglomerate stepped in to create a monopoly to limit supply.
In 1889, the De Beers Consolidated Mines took over South Africa's diamond industry. By the 20th century, De Beers controlled the world's diamonds and inflated prices by limiting supply.
According to journalist Edward Jay Epstein, "The diamond invention is far more than a monopoly for fixing diamond prices; it is a mechanism for converting tiny crystals of carbon into universally recognized tokens of wealth, power, and romance."