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Actress Pier Angeli's engagement ring shocks Dean Martin.
Actress Pier Angeli's engagement ring shocks Dean Martin.
Getty Images

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The Surprisingly Recent History of the Diamond Engagement Ring

A diamond hasn't always been forever.

You almost certainly have at least one friend who has a picture on Facebook of their hand gripping a coffee cup with a brand new diamond ring on it. You’ll be able to find that picture really easily because there will be a million likes under it. Which is completely fair! Engagement rings are indicative of a big life change. They’re synonymous with the intent to marry, at least today.

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But diamonds weren’t always forever. Or, at least, not on engagement rings.

Bernhard Striegel

Archduke Maximilan, his wife Mary of Burgundy, and their children. Image: Bernhard Strigel

One of the first recorded instances of someone proposing marriage with a diamond ring is often said to be Archduke Maximilian of Austria. He proposed to Mary of Burgundy with a diamond ring in 1477. Giving your bride-to-be a ring was a custom that went back slightly further in that, though. In the 14th century a man might give his intended a ring engraved with both of their names, and she might offer him a stocking in return — because he was going to get to see her legs soon! Seriously, getting a stocking at the time must have been super sexy. I wish we could come up with a modern day custom to equal it, but I suspect if someone is proposing, they’ve already seen all of the parts of you except your internal organs.

But the fact that Archduke Maximilan’s ring had diamonds on it shouldn’t be construed as Archduke Maximilian upping the ante for everyone else. Nobles often gave their brides-to-be jewelry, so the fact that he happened to propose with what we currently think of as an engagement ring is likely a bit of a fluke. He could have just as easily sent her a necklace or a bracelet with any precious stone.

Indeed, diamonds really weren’t all that popular until they were discovered in British provinces in South Africa in the mid-1800s. Cecil Rhodes, a British Mining Magnate, founded De Beers in 1880 and started mining the hell out of those diamonds, which meant he also had an incentive to make them seem cool.

de beer(d)s 1880s

The final sorting stage at De Beers's Kimberley Mine in South Africa, 1880's. Photo: Getty Images

That was something of a challenge. Up until this period the most popular rings had featured other gemstones, often birthstones. Prince Albert proposed to Queen Victoria in 1840 with a beautiful emerald ring, as that was her birthstone (she gave him two garters in return; cool that that was still a thing that was happening). However, diamonds are often associated with the Queen — the popularity of diamond engagement rings is even sometimes mistakenly attributed to her — because hundreds of pieces of diamond jewelry were made to celebrate her 50 years on the throne in 1887. That meant the demand for diamonds went way up: they showed that you were a good patriot and able to adorn yourself in a Queenly fashion. Diamonds started showing up everywhere, including on engagement rings.

And, for the record, they are actually a great stone for a ring. The best stone, really. The fact that they’re basically (although not technically) indestructible means that they can handle the wear-and-tear of daily life in a way a non-traditional gem like a pearl cannot.

handful of engagement rings

1950's model wearing an entire collection of engagement rings. Photo: Getty Images

Their popularity soon spread to America. With the rise of automobiles and teenage culture, engagement rings became an increasingly important item to have. By the 1910s and 1920s, teenagers would, for the first time, go off and be alone together on drives. Previously, they would have been chaperoned, because if you leave teenagers alone together unchaperoned, there’s a good chance they’ll have sex. Which they did! A lot! There were suddenly a ton of men who could say they were going to marry a woman and then renege once she slept with him. In a time when a woman who had lost her virginity was considered "ruined," this was a really bad thing. When this was a somewhat rarer occurrence in earlier centuries, there had been a "Breach of Promise to Marry" law. This law gave women the right to sue men who defaulted on their promise. However, as reneging became more common, that law began to be seen as out of date, and engagement rings became more important. Investing in a diamond ring — and spending the suggested three months salary on it — meant that a man was actually serious about planning to marry a woman. That explains why affordable diamond engagement rings for every man were being advertised in Sears & Roebuck catalogues.

But by the 1930s, no one could afford automobiles, or engagement rings. Women who were getting married didn’t even particularly want them. A study conducted by N.W. Ayer in the 1930s said that women getting married wished their husband to be would spend money on "a washing machine, or a new car, anything but an engagement ring."

De Beers, which was still mining those diamonds in South Africa, became desperate to make people want engagement rings again, and attempted to appeal to their sentimental side. An insanely over-worded ad from the 1940s reads:

Star of Hope: The engagement diamond on her finger is bright as a tear — but not with sadness. Like her eyes it holds a promise — of cool dawns together, of life grown rich and full and tranquil. Its lovely assurance shines through all the hours of waiting, to kindle with joy and precious meaning at the beginning of their new life to be.

If this fails to make you want to run out and get an engagement ring, you’re not alone. But the slogan that came with it soon took off. The diamond engagement ring’s return to popularity is attributable entirely to the real life Peggy Olson, copywriter Frances Gerety. In 1947, Gerety was assigned to come up with a snappy slogan for De Beers, an assignment she quickly forgot about. Supposedly, she remembered she was supposed to have something ready the night before it was due, and scribbled "A Diamond is Forever" on a piece of paper before going to sleep.

50s engagement ring

An engagement ring circa 1950. Photo: Getty Images

Nobody at the meeting thought it was a particularly impressive line, but, for lack of other ideas, they decided to go with it. Within a year it was De Beers’ official slogan and Ms. Gerety was hired to write all of the company’s ads for the next 25 years.

Today, 80% of proposals involve a diamond engagement ring. There are also lots of people who do it other ways! Queen Victoria, for instance! Her marriage was A-OK, even if her ring didn’t hold the specific promise of "cool dawns together, of life grown rich and full and tranquil."

If you do get a diamond ring, they’re a classic pick and they’re super resilient. If you get something else that is cool, too, because you are like Queen Victoria (or Kate Middleton). And if you do not get engaged or opt for no ring, that is awesome as well — you will not scratch your face with a rock while you sleep. Really, the most important thing is finding the right coffee cup that looks just perfect against your hand.

Jennifer Wright is the author of It Ended Badly: The 13 Worst Break-Ups in History, due out fall 2015. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.


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