The word “bethrothed” comes from the Anglo Saxon word “troweth,” which means truth. In medieval England, a betrothed couple shared a “truth” or “pledge” to marry and a ring served as the outward sign that a woman was promised to another.
Although the ancient Egyptians are sometimes credited with having invented the engagement ring and the ancient Greeks with having adopted the tradition, the history of the engagement ring can be reliably traced as far back as ancient Rome.
A man presents his prospective bride with an engagement ring upon acceptance of his marriage proposal. Anthropologists believe this tradition originated from a Roman custom in which wives wore rings attached to small keys, indicating their husbands’ ownership.
In the second century BC, the Roman bride-to-be was given two rings, a gold one which she wore in public, and one made of iron which she wore at home while attending to household duties. For several centuries it was the custom for Romans to wear iron rings at home and gold rings in public. During this period a girl or woman might receive two engagement rings, one of iron and one of gold.
The majority of the betrothal and wedding rings used in the distant past were composed of simple bands. Although we know that some wedding rings in the Middle Ages contained gemstones, many can’t be positively identified as true betrothal or espousal rings unless they contain an inscription or are otherwise identified as such. Some of these gemstone rings resemble our modern day engagement rings and others do not. Sapphires, rubies, emeralds, and diamonds were all used in these early tokens of love.
Although diamonds were used in rings for many centuries, some experts date the origin of the diamond engagement ring to the 15th century, which also coincides with the time that new techniques for cutting diamonds were developed.
Although it is unlikely the first diamond ring ever used was a love token, the first recorded account of a diamond betrothal ring comes to us from 1477. It was given by Archduke Maximilian of Austria to Mary of Burgundy at the suggestion of a faithful advisor who counseled: “At the betrothal Your Grace must have a ring set with a diamond and also a gold ring.” This then influenced those of higher social class and of significant wealth to give diamond rings to their loved ones.
Portrait of Maximilian I by Albrecht Dürer
Although the marriage in question was based on Mary’s sizable fortune, the couple was apparently happy together until Mary died at age 25, the result of a horseback riding accident.
“They were an influential couple,” said Melvyn Kirtley, chief gemologist for Tiffany & Co., “diamonds were rare then and something only royalty could afford.”
In South Africa, diamonds were first found in 1866, although they were not identified as such until 1867. By 1872, the output of the diamond mines exceeded one million carats per year. As production increased, those of lesser means were able to join in on this movement. The diamond discovery, along with the creation of the Tiffany & Co. six-prong solitaire setting in 1886, catapulted diamonds into the ring of choice among the aristocracy.
In 1938, the diamond cartel De Beers began a marketing campaign that would have a major impact on engagement rings. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the price of diamonds collapsed. At the same time, market research indicated that engagement rings were going out of style with the younger generation. While the first phase of the marketing campaign consisted of market research, the advertising phase began in 1939. One of the first elements of this campaign was to educate the public about the 4 Cs (cut, carat, color, and clarity). De Beers also began an aggressive marketing campaign using photographs of glamorous movie stars swathed in diamonds. Within three years, the sales of diamonds had increased by 50 percent.
In 1947 the slogan “a diamond is forever” was introduced and the campaign was successful for 25 years. Ultimately, the De Beers campaign sought to persuade the consumer that an engagement ring is indispensable, and that a diamond is the only acceptable stone for an engagement ring. The idea that a man should spend a significant fraction of his annual income for an engagement ring originated from De Beers marketing materials in the mid-20th century in an effort to increase the sale of diamonds. In the 1930s, they suggested that a man should spend the equivalent of one month’s income in the engagement ring; later they suggested that he should spend two months’ income on it.
A Forever ad from July 1, 1957.
One reason for the increased popularity of expensive engagement rings was its relationship to human sexuality and the woman’s marriage prospects. In the United States, until the Great Depression, a man who broke off a marriage engagement could be sued for breach of promise. Monetary damages included actual expenses incurred in preparing for the wedding, plus damages for emotional distress and loss of other marriage prospects. Damages were greatly increased if the woman had engaged in sexual intercourse with her fiancé. The diamond engagement ring thus became a source of financial security for the woman.
Not until after World War II did a diamond became the de-facto indicator of love and marriage across all social classes, thanks to an effective ad campaign created by N.W. Ayer & Son for De Beers, the world’s biggest supplier of rough diamonds. The ads cast diamonds as the only true symbol of everlasting love, something every woman aspired to own and every man to bestow. Among its ideas, now accepted as gospel, was the notion a ring should cost two months’ salary. Interesting side note: Neither of the two women involved in the N.W. Ayer & Son campaign ever married.
Interesting right? Next post will be about the advertising end of this phenomena.
What do you think? Is an engagement ring the proper token for a marriage proposal? What does it mean to you?