The engagement process is a concrete tradition; one buys a diamond ring worth three times their salary or more, gets down on one knee at a meticulously planned or spontaneous event, and proposes to their loved one. Weeks, months, or years later they marry, with gold bands and the one engagement ring to show for it. But how did diamonds cement themselves as the stone that symbolizes a betrothal?
There are a few different theories as to the beginning of this tradition, dating back all the way to the Roman Empire. Some anthropologists believe that the idea of the modern engagement ring sprouts from the Roman tradition of a woman owning a ring, symbolizing the ownership to her husband, attached to a set of keys. Historians give credit to Pope Innocent III for the idea of a betrothal period, as he mandated in the 13th century that lovers who showed intent to marry must have a priest declare said intent in the church for a set amount of time before the marriage. Marriages were not to be kept secret.
But how does this lead to diamonds?
In the early days, jewels were not the staple of the pre-espousal process. Most engagements through the Middle Ages were signified with a simple band, as many cultures still use in marriage today. Some of these bands from the Middle Ages had an attached gemstone, mostly in royalty, but to be classified as an engagement ring most of these bands had to have an inscription declaring such. The first diamond engagement ring ever commissioned was given in 1477 from Archduke Maximilian of Austria to his soon-to-be wife, Mary of Burgundy. This event began a trend for royalty to use these instead of other gems to indicate intent to marry.
How did diamonds expand in popularity?
The real reason we use them for engagement can be attributed to very successful marketing campaigns in the early 1900s. In the early 1800s British businessmen flooded South Africa’s rich mines and sold the gems throughout the world, all while keeping the idea that they were rare and priceless. In the 1930s, advertising campaigns were created in Canada and the Americas that extended traditional ad placement. Young men were targeted with ads equating romantic relationships with precious rocks and the idea of “the bigger the better.” In popular culture, famous movie stars and cultural icons were given these rhinestones to be worn and shown in movies, in photographs in widely circulated magazines, and more. Stories were given to reporters about the size of a celebrity’s ring and what it meant in the eyes of their lover. Fashion designers helped create the trend, and people followed suit.
Since then, the concept of diamonds symbolizing eternal love has remained intact and a part of modern Western culture. Many people choose other gems, but the traditional gem symbolizing engagement is the diamond. Today, there are many ways to show a loved one how much one cares, and the size of the ring does not have to be equated with the size of one’s love. There are many ways to do it, but it remains clear that the diamond is not going anywhere.