The Birth of the Diamond Engagement Ring

History of Engagement Rings - Santillan Jewelers

“A diamond is forever.” This notion is so intertwined with our idea of marriage that it’s hard to believe it came from a highly successful ad campaign. Frances Gerety, a copywriter for the advertising agency N.W. Ayer, invented this turn of phrase back in the 1940s. Needless to say, it stuck.

But unlike the slogan suggests, diamonds haven’t always been a symbol of love. The origin of the diamond engagement ring is actually shockingly recent. However, variations on the modern engagement ring can be traced back to ancient times.

An Early Timeline

Humans have longed to express their feelings to each other from time immemorial. Along the way, our predecessors invented some unique proposal customs, which are not so different from ours now.

  • Ancient Egypt – Partners exchanged rings made of braided reeds. The ring was worn on the ring finger of the left hand because this finger contains a vein that goes to the heart.
  • Middle Ages – Europeans swapped gold poesy rings, which have romantic poems inscribed on the inside. The Archduke Maximillian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy with the first famous diamond engagement ring, with the gems arranged in a personalized “M” shape.
  • Edwardian Era – Engagement rings featured diamonds mixed with other precious stones.

The De Beers Monopoly

The De Beers Monopoly - Santillan JewelersFor a long time, diamonds truly were rare, found only in small quantities in India and Brazil. Everything changed in 1870 when the British discovered unimaginably large quantities of the glittering gem in South Africa. The discovery would change the course of diamond consumption for the next 100 years.

A surplus of diamonds seems like a dream, but in reality, wealth based on gem ownership is tenuous. Unearthing so many diamonds shattered the illusion the stones came few and far between. Without scarcity, there would be no way to make significant money.

In the face of those terrifying prospects, all those involved in the diamond discovery joined forces.  In 1888, Cecil Rhodes started De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd., effectively founding a monopoly that would go on to control diamond mining until other sources were discovered years later.

Creating Demand in the US

Having secured a steady supply of diamonds, which they turned on and off at will to stabilize prices, De Beers now had to convince Americans that diamonds were a need. A psychological longing for diamonds would transcend any individual’s economic situation. De Beers also had to ensure that consumers wouldn’t oversaturate the gem market with used diamonds, so the stones needed to hold sentimental value, which would make them much more difficult to sell.

With the help of N. W. Ayer, De Beers launched what is possibly the most impressive marketing campaign of the last century. They tied diamonds to love – blissful, matrimonial, eternal love – to the point that an engagement seemed void without a diamond ring. Hollywood starlets, and later, television stars, were filmed and photographed with their hands placed strategically to clearly display the testament of their partner’s love, gleaming for all to see. The company even went so far as to sway high schoolers through lectures declaring diamonds synonymous with lifelong commitment.

Before long, the number of proposals involving diamond rings skyrocketed. Men bought diamonds to reaffirm their passion for their fiancées, and women accepted, regardless of how gaudy or boastful they felt the rings to be. The romantic meaning of a diamond engagement ring was officially solidified.

In modern times, De Beers’ stranglehold on the diamond industry has loosened drastically due to extra competition. However, the preference for diamond engagement rings still remains.

Find the Perfect Engagement Ring at Santillan Jewelers

The right ring can personalize a proposal and help you reiterate the depth of your love for your significant other.

At Santillan Jewelers, you can personalize your engagement ring as much as you like to fit your love’s tastes. Choose one of our gorgeous preexisting designs, repurpose a family heirloom or create a custom ring from scratch with our powerful 3D CAD technology. We also offer jewelry repair and appraisals for pieces you already own. Call (916) 788-1002 today for more information.

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