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selection of engagement rings with different diamond shapes round brilliant, emerald, princess cut, marquise, pear, trillion

The History of the Engagement Ring

Angelica Frey | December 11, 2023

Long before the days of lab-grown diamonds, the idea and evolution of the engagement ring took shape over a long and storied history. Engagement rings are now the most distinguishable pieces of jewelry and the ultimate symbol of the promise of eternal love. They bear a strong association with diamonds, because of the stone’s hardness, durability, and precious nature.

The name “diamond” derives from the Greek adamas, which means “unbreakable.” This word refers to the diamond’s physical property, but it’s also a metaphor for a lifetime commitment.

Diamond engagement rings are, however, a fairly recent development in history. These engagement rings were first limited to royals and aristocrats because of the scarcity of diamonds, which were mostly mined from the Golconda mines in India.

Despite the evolution of the styles and settings, not to mention the degrees of ornamentation, the act of giving the bride-to-be a ring has been around since ancient times across many cultures.

Engagement Rings in Antiquity: Plain Bands

Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece can be credited for inventing the engagement ring, but reliable documentation is only available starting in Ancient Rome. We have documentation that, in Roman times, the bride-to-be was given two rings upon her betrothal: a plain gold band to be worn in public, and an iron band to wear at home.

As far as diamonds are concerned, they had been known in the area around Golconda (now Hyderabad) at least since the 4th century BCE. For around 2000 years, diamonds mostly hailed from the Golconda region.

Engagement Rings During the Middle Ages: Gold and Colorful Gemstones

The mid-seventh-century Visigothic code formalized the costumes surrounding betrothals. “The ring shall have been given or accepted as a pledge, although nothing may have been committed to writing, the promise shall, under no circumstances, be broken,” it reads.

A letter written by Pope Nicholas I to Boris of Bulgaria in 860 revolving around the differences between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox practices contains the description of the usage of men giving their betrothed an engagement ring in Catholic culture, and said betrothal rings featured colored gemstones, mostly rubies, emeralds, and sapphires.

In the Middle Ages, we also see a demarcation between wedding and betrothal rings. In the 12th century, marriage was sanctioned as a holy sacrament in the Christian Church, and rings were part of the ceremony. “It is possible that two different types of rings emerged when the church codified marriage: the more personal engagement ring and the church-sanctioned wedding ring,” GIA reports.

Engagement Rings From the 15th to the 17th Century: Diamonds for the Royals

The first documented usage of diamonds in engagement rings can be dated around 1477, when Archduke Maximilian of Austria’s engagement to Mary of Burgundy featured a diamond ring. The betrothal with the diamond engagement ring at the imperial court of Vienna in 1477 was documented in writing and painting. The ring was, reportedly, “of gold and set with diamonds that form the letter M,” wrote The New York Times in 1977, commemorating the 500th anniversary of diamond engagement rings.

The Peak of the Golconda Diamond Mines

Before the discovery of the Brazilian and the South African diamond mines, the Golconda mines in modern-day India were the place of origin for most diamonds on the market. Cardinal Mazarin, Chief Minister of France during the reign of Louis XIII and Louis XIV, sponsored Jean Baptiste Tavernier’s journey to India, so he could collect diamonds.

Tavernier himself is said to be the pioneer of the modern-day diamond trade. Eventually, 18 of the retrieved diamonds became part of the collection of the Crown of France. Notable diamonds extracted from the Golconda mines include the Koh-i-Noor and the pink-tinted Grand Mazarin.

Engagement Rings in the 18th Century: The Gradual Rise of Diamond Rings

The 18th century saw the rise in popularity of two other styles of rings that could be used as betrothal rings. The Gimmel Rings, also known as joint rings, featured two three hoops or links that fit together to form one complete ring. The betrothed would wear one hoop each, and then rejoin them upon their wedding, when the woman would wear both.

The Posie rings, also known as posey rings, were simple gold rings bearing an inscription on their surface, which usually contained quotes in French, Latin, and English excerpted from courtly romances.

The Discovery of the Brazilian Diamond Mines

In the early 1700s, artisanal miners looking for gold along the banks of the Jequitinhonha River in the state of Mina Gerais discovered diamonds. For the next 150 years, the Minas Gerais mines became the world’s largest supplier of gem diamonds.

Early 20th-century reports indicate that between 1732 and 1771, “at least 1,666,500 carats of diamonds were exported to Europe.” These quantities eclipsed the exports of India’s Golconda region, and indicated a rising popularity of diamond jewelry and diamond rings, not just among royals, but those seeking status symbols.

The increased supplies of rough diamonds also allowed for experimentation in cutting styles by French cutters. The most popular cuts were Rose-cut diamonds and brilliant-cut diamonds. In this case, though, brilliant only referred to the shape (and number) of facets. In his A Treatise on Diamond and Pearls from 1750, David Jeffries illustrated brilliant-cut diamonds in round, teardrop, and oval shapes.

The Brazilian diamonds provided a steady supply of smaller stones. From a geological standpoint, Brazilian diamonds differ from the ones found in other mines because they occur in secondary deposits over large watersheds or sedimentary rock formations.

Engagement Rings in the 19th Century: Diamonds for the Middle Class

The 19th century saw a considerable uptick in the demand for diamonds, which reflected the more widespread wealth brought by the industrial revolution. The most popular engagement ring styles had nature-inspired settings and symbols pertaining to love, like hearts and lovers’ knots.

On the diamond front, flower-inspired cluster rings and five-stone rings were popular styles for those who had a more modest budget, as those stone arrangements created good finger coverage even with smaller diamonds.

Those who favored larger diamonds opted for higher settings, as they allowed the light to shine through the ring from all directions. The best example of this is the six-prong Tiffany mount, introduced in 1886. This begins the modern evolution of engagement rings settings through the modern era.

When it comes to colored gemstones, acrostic rings were a popular choice, as the initials of the chosen gemstones would spell out romantic messages.

The Discovery of African Diamond Mines

The first records of diamond finds in Africa are from the 1860s, with the earliest official finds dating back to 1867. The discovery of African diamond mines marked the beginning of the first large-scale mining and distribution of diamonds. For almost a century, Africa – and especially South Africa — dominated diamond production, representing more than 98% of world output from 1889 to 1959. Read more about the history of popular diamond shapes by decade.

Engagement Rings in the 20th Century: A Universal Cultural Signifier

In the early 20th century, engagement rings were characterized by elaborate metalwork. In the Edwardian era, the settings and the band were nature-inspired, with floral and foliage ornaments encircling the ring’s gemstones.

The Art Deco period, by contrast, saw the rise in geometric patterns in jewelry alongside an emphasis on length or verticality. Engagement rings were no exception and also followed in that general trend. That’s when step-cut diamonds became a mainstay in engagement and cocktail rings, both as center and side stones.

Diamonds were but one option for engagement rings, which also featured other precious gemstones such as sapphires, emeralds, and rubies. This was especially true during the Great Depression in the 1930s, when dire economic conditions made diamonds less covetable, or approachable, for middle-class buyers. In 1939, for example, only 10% of brides received diamond engagement rings.

How De Beers’ “A Diamond Is Forever” Campaign Changed the Industry

In order to boost diamond sales following both the economic downturn of the 1930s and World War II, De Beers orchestrated a marketing campaign that would make diamonds the ultimate symbol of glamor, aspiration, and devotion.

In 1947, copywriter Frances Gerety, working under the Philadelphia agency NW Ayer, coined De Beers’ iconic tagline “A Diamond Is Forever.” This campaign did, to a certain extent, originate the modern concept of an engagement ring, and has been used since 1948. By 1990, 80% of engagement rings featured a diamond.

The Future of Engagement Rings: Lab-Grown Diamonds

Thanks to technological advancement, diamonds can retain their ever-lasting value and appeal without the human toll, while also becoming more accessible. VRAI created lab-grown diamonds are made in a zero-emission foundry located in the Pacific Northwest, and yield diamonds that are physically, chemically, and optically identical to mined diamonds. Having a proprietary foundry allows VRAI to create diamonds in a wide variety of carat weights, cuts, and shape, offering endless possibilities in terms of customization.

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  • Personalized guidance to select your ring
  • In-depth diamond 4C education
  • Exclusive in-store fittings or virtual try-ons
  • Custom design options