The History of the Engagement Ring

Wedding bands go way back in history. One example of this is the Ancient Egyptians who were buried wearing rings made of a single silver or gold wire on the fourth finger of their left hands. The wedding band as a ring has no beginning or end and is seen as an ancient symbol of eternal love.

The diamond engagement ring has become the archetypal, universal symbol of love.

The fourth finger of the left hand has symbolism of its own. Ancient peoples believed it to be connected directly to the heart by the “Vena amoris,” which translates to “Vein of Love.”

The first recorded uses of a diamond engagement ring happened in 1477. Archduke Maximilian of the Hapsburg Dynasty proposes to Mary of Burgundy with a diamond engagement ring. It was at the suggestion of one of his faithful advisers who counseled: “At the betrothal Your Grace [Archduke Maximilian] must have a ring set with a diamond and also a gold ring.”

The diamond engagement ring has become the archetypal, universal symbol of love. The romantic Constanzo Sforza presented his bride in 1475, Camilla d’Aragona, with a diamond ring on their wedding day. A poem, in an illuminated manuscript, documented the ceremony: “Two torches in one ring of burning fire two wills, two hearts, two passions, all bonded in marriage by a diamond.” The fire in the diamond was likened to the constant flame of love.

Vivienne Becker writes, “Of all its many roles, the diamond as messenger of romantic love – beginning with the belief that Cupid’s arrows were tipped with diamonds – has resonated through the centuries to emerge today as powerful as ever.”

Medieval England contributed the concept of engagement with the word “betrothed.” Betrothed comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “troweth,” which means truth. In this way, the betrothed couple shared a “truth” or “pledge” to marry. The ring served as the outward sign that a woman was promised to another.

Likewise, the concept of a period of engagement began in the middle ages. Pope Innocent III instituted a mandatory waiting period between betrothal and marriage. The 51st Canon of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) stated:

Whence, following in the footsteps of our predecessors, we absolutely forbid clandestine marriages; and we forbid also that a priest presume to witness such. Wherefore, extending to other localities generally the particular custom that prevails in some, we decree that when marriages are to be contracted they must be announced publicly in the churches by the priests during a suitable and fixed time, so that if legitimate impediments exist, they may be made known.

The engagement ring took on its familiar form in 1886, when Tiffany & Co. introduced the “Tiffany setting” a six-prong ring designed to maximize a diamond’s brilliance by raising it up from the band.

De Beers’ role in the diamond engagement ring story is twofold. First, they modernized diamond mining making diamonds available to everyone. Next, they marketed diamonds as the key symbol of love. One campaign in the 1930’s stated: “Every American bride deserved a diamond ring.” This and other De Beers campaigns (e.g. “Diamonds are forever”) have helped to embed in our culture the giving of diamond engagement rings.

It was also De Beers that came up with the initial guidelines on how much men should spend on a diamond ring. Today, it is generally two month’s salary.

Diamond engagement rings are a part of our culture and indeed cultures around the world. It is not clever marketing by De Beers or anyone else that makes this tradition so powerful. It is the desire we all share to physical and publicly show our love. Couples want to show the foreverness of their love. Diamonds and rings both declare this commitment of eternal love.