The Real History Of The Engagement Ring

by Kaitlyn Wylde

A common misconception of the diamond engagement ring is that it's a deeply rooted historical tradition. Most lovers in the 21st century believe diamonds to be a culturally significant symbol of commitment and financial prestige. And that's just the way the diamond industry wants to keep it. But engagements and diamonds were not always synonymous. In fact, there is evidence to believe that as far back as the cave days, men were giving women accessories to wear as property markers. Be it a loop of braided grass in 10,000 BC, a gemstone encrusted posey ring in the Victorian era, or a gold band in the 20th century, the gesture of proposing marriage with a ring is surly deep-rooted. The diamond however, did not make its appearance until the late 1800s.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a little common law known as the Heart Balm, or Breach of Promise to Marry, gave engaged women legal security. It breathed social and judicial significance into engagement and made engagement rings not only property markers, but business deals. Women had a lot to lose if their engagement fell through. If a man promised to marry her, took her virginity, and then failed to follow through with a proper legal marriage, he would be leaving the woman socially damaged and romantically depreciated. So in the days leading up to the early 20th century when Breach of Promise to Marry was still recognized by most jurisdictions, the engagement ring acted as both a promise and an image protector.

As the law phased out of the legal system in the 20th century, the significance of the engagement ring evolved again. Now that women were not backed by the legal system, they had everything to lose if their fiancée decided to call off the marriage. Now, women wanted a piece of jewelry that held a higher value to ensure their security and fate. So when a wealth of diamonds was discovered in South Africa in 1867, the potential value of diamonds decreased but the potential value of engagement rings as we knew them, increased.

So if diamond rings are not historically significant and they're not rare or indestructible, why are they still twinkling on your friend's fingers across from you at the brunch table? Because in the early 1900s, De Beers monopolized the diamond mining industry, and in 1948 created one of the most powerful and influential ad campaigns of all time: "A Diamond is Forever".

To make use of their control over the world's diamond supply, De Beers put forth an ad campaign that went far beyond magazines and billboards. The company recruited movie stars, musicians, politicians and royalty to wear their diamonds, brainwashing middle class women to aspire to own them and middle class men to aspire to afford them. But what De Beers doesn't want you to know is that diamonds lose value after initial purchase, not dissimilar to their idea of women!

Now that we know how non-congruous diamonds and engagements are, will we stop buying them? The answer is no. Not because we don't know better, but because it's too late. Though diamonds are not historically linked to everlasting love, they're now so far ingrained into social conceptions of everlasting love, they've actually become as valuable as De Beers pretended they were. But the value of today's diamonds is not financial, it's psychological. In the infamous words of Beyoncé: "If you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it."

Image: Pixabay; Giphy