The engagement ring has been a “necessary luxury” for about ninety years. Unlike other items that increase their “sentimental value” for years, this piece causes instant sensual attachment. The average person considers a ring with a diamond as the only jewelry that is necessary. We take this tradition for granted. And it seems to be as old as marriage itself. But is this really true?
The precedent. How did it all start?
In 1477 the future emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, the eighteen-year-old Archduke Maximilian of Austria, made an offer to his beloved Mary of Burgundy. His bride received a ring with the first cut diamond in the world, as a sign of pure feelings and sincere intentions. Nobody knows quite what the piece looked like. But we know that the tradition of giving a diamond ring to signify engagement began here. At least, the advertising agency, N. W. Ayer & Son, told this version while promoting its client, the international corporation, De Beers.
This much was true; the Archduke made a proposal to Mary in 1477. However, he did not do it himself, but through his emissaries. And they presented the ring not to the bride, but to her father Karl the Brave. In addition, by modern standards, the piece was quite modest. Instead of one large diamond, it had many tiny polished stones, laid out in the shape of the letter “M”.
The groom’s intended message remains a mystery. This could mean the name of one of the lovers, or, for example “the monarchy”. For Mazimilian, marriage was primarily a bargain. And the Archduke depended on his future father-in-law’s goodwill. Thus, the ring with cut diamonds was nothing more than a thoughtful political move. The history of Maximilian and Mary is a precedent that N. W. Ayer & Son marketers have successfully modified and submitted as a full romance story. And, it seems, everyone believed it.
The roman roots of the engagement ring
In fact, the engagement ring was invented by the Romans — the same guys who realized concrete and aqueducts. In general, associations between a vicious circle and a promise date back to antiquity. Several distinctive cultures connect in this way. For example, when Vikings swore allegiance during the 8th to 11th centuries, they did it with the help of an iron ring. And in the Far East, for many people, marriages were traditionally fastened with bracelets without clasps. But Roman rings were a novelty.
The Romans believed that the left annular finger was the origin of the vena amoris, or “the vein of love”, which transports blood directly to the heart. Therefore, they wore engagement rings on the fourth finger as a custom. And despite the fact that the theory proved to be erroneous, this ancient pagan tradition has not changed over the past several millennia.
Diamonds never really appeared in Roman rings. Moreover, they were made, as a rule, from iron, as it symbolized strength. In the Ancient City, higher powers banned the use of gold jewelry for most sections of the population, even for senators, if they did not hold the post of ambassador. Often the engagement rings were decorated by a right handshake — a sign of fidelity — as well as marriage. Later works began to show intaglios carved in stones, depicting the lovers’ profiles.
As the Empire grew rich, the right to wear gold jewelry spread to a larger group of citizens, including wealthy freedmen and soldiers. However, this privilege has long been inaccessible to the fair sex. Golden engagement rings only started to appear during the 2nd century AD.
Love vs. Possession
According to the opinion of most historians, the engagement pieces were not so much a sign of love and romance, but of possession. Henceforth the woman belonged to the man, as a slave to the master. Since ancient times, marriage was considered a bargain, and did not always imply a happily married life. It is interesting to note that the Romans in general liked to give each other rings, as they often exchanged them between friends and business partners. Moreover, the decorative parts of said works were richer than those designed for their loved ones.
The perfection of design
The variety of materials from which the engagement rings were made have changed over time and depend on the region. In the earlier days they were made of the simplest things. The iron ring did not show social superiority, it just signaled that the woman was occupied. In the following millennium, the design of this jewelry became more artsy. But after the fall of the Roman Empire, the tradition of oaths was lost for many centuries. This was the case, until the Catholic Church intervened.
Pope Innocent III
Pope Innocent III was one of the most powerful and influential popes of the Middle Ages. At the beginning of the 13th century, his power was almost unlimited. From the beginning of his reign Innocent III was troubled by debauchery and frivolity in regards to the institution of marriage. His predecessor, Nicholas II forbade clerical marriage and cohabitation two centuries prior, but this was not enough. The Catholic Church was to introduce more strict control, and not only in the spiritual sense.
After the reforms of 1215, before getting married, it was necessary to obtain permission from the clergy. At first, wishing to be bonded, the parties officially announced their decision and awaited religious approval for some time. This waiting period was called an “engagement”. And here began the practice of giving rings, often with stones, as a sign of the serious intentions and pure feelings.
Engagement rings were an exclusively public statement. They were worn by both men and women, like a signaling device that a person is occupied, but not yet married. At first, only the higher classes were allowed to wear jewelry with gemstones. For the next five centuries at least, the middle and lower classes considered engagement rings to be an unaffordable luxury.
The De Beers Empire
By the end of the First World War, the De Beers Consolidated Mines controlled more than 90% of the world’s supply of diamonds. South Africa bore a lot of raw materials, and even in the early 1870s, miners extracted more than a million carats per year. Originally the De Beers founder, Cecil Rhodes, followed by his successor, Ernst Oppenheimer, held back their offering of diamonds, as the consequences of the war simply killed the demand. To most people, precious stones became unnecessary. And after the Second World War the corporation almost lost the market.
In the middle of the century, aristocracy dwindled, as did the need for court jewels. The middle class, which became the source of the main economical and cultural influences, replaced pre-war customers. Moreover, they didn’t plan to spend their savings on diamonds. Few people knew about the tradition of giving a ring as a token of engagement, thus no one associated precious stones with romance and marriage. After the war, however, people had completely different priorities.
The origin of modern tradition
The diamond engagement ring as we know it today was the invention of the De Beers and N. W. Ayer & Son advertising agency. It was a carefully planned marketing strategy, which was cultivated for decades. In addition to the rare colorless stones at the disposal of the corporation, there were countless low-quality small raw materials that needed ridding of. Since the middle class did not want to buy diamonds, potential customers needed to be convinced that the engagement ring is not just about temptation and excess, but a necessity. This required a trick.
Enter the romantic love story of Maximilian and Maria. It was slightly modified and colored, and made an excellent poster child. A five-century-old precedent turned into an advertising campaign.
Next followed product placement. Marketers gave diamond rings to actresses and watched well-known women wear jewelry both during filming and in everyday life. They also signed contracts with film companies and bribed journalists, so that the two profiteers turned diamonds into an object of desire. The stone itself was promoted as a material object, which reflected the achievements of the man and his attitude towards the beloved woman. Very soon there came an illusion that the diamond is accepted and recognized everywhere as a symbol of engagement. The middle class swallowed the bait.
De Beers itself did not care where exactly people would buy rings — almost every diamond still came from them. The corporation simply created the most incredible fiction in history and built a multi-billion dollar business.
The consequences of the advertising campaign
Unlike similar symbols of other epochs, the diamond ring as a token of engagement has become a global phenomenon. This symbol of love is recognizable in any country in the world. Until 1967 in Asia, traditionally, there were neither wedding rings nor engagement ones. But by 1978, half of Japanese brides received a treasured piece from their beloved men.
The variety of colors and shapes of engagement rings
Although we traditionally consider diamonds to be the most popular minerals for engagement jewelry, they are by no means the only material used. Sapphires, rubies, less emeralds — due to their increased fragility — constitute a worthy competitor. In modern jewelry, we emphasize the stone. Mainly on its color, shape, cut and, of course, weight. Because most of the rings are laconic in design, jewelers fix the mineral in them either in proud solitude or in the company of two smaller diamonds. However, the modern range of engagement embellishments includes a wide variety of shapes. And, for centuries humans have upheld their fashion
The Fede ring
For the first time the design of this piece appeared in medieval Europe, after which it has seen dramatic change over a thousand years. Its shank represents two hands, closed in a handshake or holding something. The Irish Claddah ring is the most popular Fede today. The classical version depicts two hands holding a crowned heart.
The Gimmel ring
Especially popular, these paired puzzle rings thrived in France in the 15th to 17th centuries. Their name comes from the Latin “gemellus”, which means “twins”. A distinctive feature of Gimmel is that it consists of two or more connected rings. In the modern version, the assembled puzzle may look like the most simple engagement piece. Yet one can find secret inscriptions between the two rings.
The Posy (poisy) ring
The Posy (poisy) ring is a historical prototype of a modern wedding band, only wider. Lovers deduced messages and excerpts from poems on its shank. In the 15th century, jewelers often engraved texts on the front side of the piece. Later on they were hidden inside. And by the 18th century the popularity of stones helped to spread them. The last version of the posy went down in history as acrostic. So, for example, the jeweler could hide the word “dear” in a sequentially fixed diamond, emerald, amethyst, and ruby. The French court especially favoured acrostics.
Toi et Moi ring
The French court preferred the Toi et Moi ring under Napoleon Bonaparte. The future emperor gave this model to Josefine de Beauharnais at the time of their engagement on February 24, 1976. Two face-to-face, similarly sized stones were the distinctive feature of Toi & Moi. The rest is reminiscent of a loving couple, where minerals can be similar or, on the contrary, of contrasting colour and shape. There is one main condition — they must complement each other and together represent a harmonious combination.