The History of Engagement Rings

From the Ancient Romans to the imperial court of Vienna, discover how the engagement ring became the symbol of love and marriage that it is today...

According to historians, the first records of engagement rings being given as gifts of betrothal date back to the ancient Egyptians, who believed circles were symbols of eternity. Wedded couples would exchange rings made out of reeds and place them on the same left-hand ring finger we use today, as according to the Egyptians it contained the vein leading direct to the heart (hence why it was later to become known as the Vena Amoris).

However, it was the ancient Romans in 150 BC who began to formalise the modern tradition of betrothal rings. According to records of the time, a groom gave his bride a gold ring during the wedding ceremony for her to wear at special events and outside of the home… she was also given an iron ring to wear at home while doing the housework.

Engagement rings were mentioned again in 860AD in a letter from Pope Nicholas I to Boris I of Bulgaria describing the practice of a man giving his betrothed an engagement ring with the Catholic Church believing a couple should declare their intent to marry openly before their wedding ceremony.

The Sparkle Starts Here

But it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that engagement rings – and more specifically, diamonds and jewelled engagement rings – became popular across Europe when Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy in the imperial court in Vienna in 1477. The engagement ring was set with flat diamonds in the shape of an M and this betrothal gift was the beginning of a new trend amongst European nobility who started to wear opulent jewellery to show off their wealth and love for each other.

After an increase in ornate diamond and gemstone engagement rings during the Victorian era that was mostly fuelled by the unique engagement ring Queen Victoria received from Prince Albert in 1839 (the ring was in the shape of a serpent with rubies for eyes, diamonds for the mouth and a large emerald) – it was only in the 1940s that the tradition of giving an engagement ring (specifically a diamond ring) became locked into our culture thanks to a clever marketing campaign and a slogan we still use today...

The Greatest Show

After WWI and the Great Depression of the 1930s, diamond engagement rings were going out of style with the younger generation and the price of diamonds had collapsed. In a marketing campaign that would change the way we look at marriage proposals forever more, the DeBeers Mining Company engaged their advertising company N.W.Ayer & Son to create a campaign and launched the famous “A Diamond Is Forever” slogan in 1947. Created by the company’s copywriter Frances Gerety, that simple line saw sales of diamonds in the United States rise from $23 million to $2.1 billion between 1939 and 1979. And the rest - as they say - is history.

Today, engagement rings are continuing to evolve both in design and style as well as meaning. Solitaire diamonds have been replaced with coloured gemstones, and we have also had a request for rough diamonds rather than polished. Sustainability, ethical and traceable stones are essential. Engagement rings and wedding bands have been combined into one statement wedding band design and couples are looking for designs and style that can be adapted and built on as their marriage goes on.

Thankfully as bespoke jewellers based in the international home of diamonds, we can answer all of the above challenges to create engagement rings and wedding bands that are as unique and loved and memorable as all the ones that came before it (well, maybe not the iron one the Romans had to wear… you’ll be pleased to hear we only work in 18k gold).

To start planning and designing your own engagement ring with our team, get in touch on or call us on +32 497 239 403.

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