Engagement rings are a big deal. But they haven’t always been. They haven’t always been associated with diamonds either. So what made us switch from the notion of emotion to measurement of investment when it comes to professing true love? How much should we really be spending on an engagement ring?
A brief history of engagement rings
Engagement rings in ancient Rome
Not each and every day in history has been documented, so it may be the case that the first ever engagement ring has been gifted much earlier than we think. Some believe that the custom originated in ancient Egypt and seeped into ancient Greece, but physical proof was never found.
According to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), the tradition of rings being worn by women as a sign of engagement originated in ancient Rome, supported by archeological evidence. Gender-equality fighters, look away, the next sentence will physically punch you. The ancient Roman men gifted women rings as a sign of ownership, heightening the male’s prestige. The rings were made of copper, iron, ivory and bone; gold rings were found later in the remains of Pompeii. Archeologists also believe that having two rings was a trend – a basic one to wear at home, for instance made of iron – and a gold band to show off when out and about. Look at me, I am owned!
Engagement rings in the Middle Ages
As we exit BC and enter AD, things move on. The Western Roman Empire collapses in 476 AD and we enter into medieval times. The next mention of engagement rings occurs in a book of law from the mid-seventh century, called the Visigothic Code. It was written to create a single set of rules for all – as previously different laws applied to different folk based on where they were from. Don’t worry, it finally is about to get somewhat romantic. Within the Code, which only survives in fragments, the following remained: “that when the ceremony of betrothal has been performed, (…) and the ring shall have been given or accepted as a pledge, although nothing may have been committed to writing, the promise shall, under no circumstances, be broken.”
But since we have hopped into the medieval ages, you may feel that we’ve forgotten to explore engagement rings in the context of religion, after all – Deus caritas est (it means God is love, by the way). Boris I of Bulgaria was wondering the same thing when he was curious about the differences between Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. He penned a letter to Pope Nicholas I, and in 860 AD he got a reply. Pope Nicholas I, our jewellery champion, among other points underlined to Boris I that in the Western Church a man presented a ring to the one he loved as a form of their engagement. This was mainly to make engagements public, and to prevent secret ceremonies from happening left, right and centre. Crazy times.
Engagement rings during Renaissance
It wasn’t until 1477 that the first ever engagement ring bearing a diamond was solidly documented. As the pious outlook of the Middle Ages morphed into the humanism ideology of the Renaissance, human values started to be just as significant as those that would get us all closer to heaven. To get with the times, totally modern man of his era, the Archduke Maximilian of Austria presented Mary of Burgundy a diamond engagement ring, starting a micro-trend among the elite to opt for diamond rings when it came to gifting engagement rings to their betrothed.
As history progressed though, more value was placed on plain wedding bands rather than engagement rings for the duration of the Reformation period in Europe. That’s understandable. Who has time for fancy engagement rings when one needs to pick which type Christianity resonates with them most?
Engagement rings during Victorian times
Up until the Victorian era jewellery was simply not that important or affordable for most people, and was left for the the aristocrats to enjoy. New styles crept in, gifting jewellery as as sign of affection became fashionable – not only as official engagement or wedding rings, but also just because. And who doesn’t like just because jewellery?
As the Victorian Era progressed, diamonds ended up being democratised, no longer a privilege for the elite, but approachable to the masses. The biggest reason for this was the discovery and abundance (yes, abundance) of diamonds in South Africa in the 1870s. Not feeling special enough, aristocrats started referring to diamonds as the “common” stone – looking at them the same way you look at modern day cubic zirconia – and quickly switching to emeralds, rubies and sapphires as their engagement rings of choice.
The Great Depression: Death to diamonds
To prevent the diamond business from becoming one huge, legendary, monumental, epic fail, the diamond supply had to be minimised and controlled. With this in mind, in 1880 Cecil John Rhodes formed De Beers Consolidated Mines, which did just that. It was a tough gig. By 1919, the value of diamonds plummeted down by 50%. And it only got worse. Enter the Great Depression of the 1930s, when jewellery – forget diamonds – became literally the least important thing in the world.
DeBeers marketing genius: Engagement rings
Diamonds flopped – right before World War II less than 10% of engagement rings in the US contained the gems. No one wanted them. That’s because the general public was yet to find out that “a diamond is forever”. We are of course referring to the eternal campaign by advertising agency N. W. Ayer commissioned by De Beers as an SOS. Initially, the advertising campaign educated consumers about the 4 cs of diamonds (cut, clarity, colour, carat), and the slogan “a diamond is forever” was introduced in 1947. The campaign intended to convince everyone that diamond engagement rings should be the only option for those seeking to profess their love. And convince it did. By the 1990s, almost 80% of all engagement rings were bearing diamonds, cementing De Beers as a true authority when it came to diamonds and engagement rings. After all, now consumers could not imagine an engagement ring without a diamond.
How much should I spend on an engagement ring?
Congratulations, you’ve survived that whole history lesson. But it’s an important one. In a time where you hear about celebrities forking out millions on their engagement rings, it’s hard to ignore the pressure that an engagement ring needs to be an expensive moment in your love story. But just how expensive?
The De Beers’ “a diamond is forever” saga comes in chapters. In the 30s, to get your forever, it was suggested you spend a full month’s salary. In the 80s as demand heightened in the US, so did the expectation of spending more on your forever. An ad from the De Beers’ archives states: “Two months’ salary showed the future Mrs Smith what the future would be like.” See it here through the BBC. Meanwhile, the calculation of how much a diamond engagement ring should cost in ads aimed at the Japanese consumer stated that it should go up to three month’s salary.
The genius of this advertising campaign is that not only you mentally picture a diamond ring when someone talks about engagement bands, even if you are a coloured gem kind of person, but you also remember about the salary rule. You might not remember if it’s one month’s worth, or two or three – but the guide price is clear; it should not be a cheap gesture.
As we’ve been squeezing Mother Earth for diamonds, they have become more rare. The majority of the diamonds that are mined today are for industrial scale machinery (diamonds are the hardest substance on Mohs scale!), and under 20% are of gem quality.
Of course, lab grown diamonds have also now become an option for engagement rings, while the advancements in growing moissanites in laboratories made moissanite engagement rings worthy opponents to diamonds as well. These developments not only add to the variety of products on the engagement ring market, but also drive down the prices. Theoretically, now absolutely anyone can have something sparklier than a cubic zirconia on their finger at a price that can be cheaper than a month’s salary.
But of course, we can’t ignore the prestige pressure. If you opt for a cheap engagement ring, do you even love her? Do you not feel shame? Is she not worth it to you? It’s an unpleasant moment for many, as other people tend to get involved outside the of the couple – mum, dad, family, friends. Realistically, the value of an engagement ring should be something that a couple discusses openly between themselves. After all, it’s them who will have to share their forever. The moment when the emphasis pivots towards the engagement ring above the gesture of the engagement itself may be a sign to hit pause and re-evaluate: what is really important, your together-forever, or the fact that your diamond is forever?
In case you need a wakeup call: It’s not De Beers you’ll be sharing your bed with… But then again diamonds don’t snore. Therein lies the dilemma as eternal as diamonds.