Engagement rings are nearly as old as humanity itself.
In fact, some historians believe that early versions of the practice originated with cavemen, who tied cords of braided grass around his mate’s wrists, ankles, and waist to symbolically bind her to him.
Of course, this tradition had to go through many variations throughout the centuries to become the modern ritual that it has become today.
In this brief history of engagement rings, we’ll look at how our ancestors went from grass ankle bracelets to the diamond-studded affairs we currently enjoy.
The ancient cultures of Egypt and Greece are believed to have created and popularized the practice of giving engagement rings.
Egyptians have also been discovered buried with rings made of silver or gold on the third finger of their left hand, which is where engagement rings are still worn today.
At the time, they believed that this finger contained a special vein that led directly to the heart.
The use of engagement rings can be confirmed definitively as far back as ancient Rome. In the second century BC, Roman brides-to-be were given two rings – one gold, to wear in public, and one made of iron, to be worn at home.
The church endorsed the importance of rings in the 11th century, and about 500 years later, wedding rings were incorporated in the wedding ceremony, enhancing their importance and the symbolism of commitment.
Rings were used continually as a common sign of engagement in Western civilizations through the centuries. The first well-known example of diamonds appearing in an engagement ring belonged to Mary of Burgundy in the year 1477, who was betrothed to the Archduke Maximilian of Austria in the imperial court of Vienna. (As far as we know, the ring itself was not colored burgundy.)
Diamonds remained a luxury until the late 1800s, when mines in South Africa began producing enough of the precious stones for the rest of the population to have access to them.
Despite this surge in popularity, however, diamond engagement rings started to fall out of favor in America during World War I and the Great Depression, leading to a decline in diamond prices.
“Diamonds Are Forever”
De Beers, the world’s leading diamond producer at the time, launched a marketing campaign that reestablished diamonds as the preferred symbol of love and commitment among young couples, culminating with the introduction of the “Diamonds Are Forever” slogan in 1947 that the company still uses today.
Large, opulent diamonds remain a symbol of both commitment and wealth, though no one has yet topped actress Elizabeth Taylor’s legendary engagement ring, a 33.19-carat Asscher-cut Krupp diamond worth an estimated $8.8 million from actor Richard Burton in 1964. (Even Beyoncé’s ring from Jay Z wasn’t that expensive.)
Today, diamonds are still the engagement ring stone of choice, though many couples opt for other gems or choices that suit their style and budget.