Diamond Myths – that De Beers Invented the Engagement Ring

People who say De Beers’ advertising agency is responsible for the tradition of giving a diamond ring to secure a promise of marriage are giving De Beers far too much credit. They point to a famous advertising campaign which started in 1947 by De Beers’ advertising company N. W. Ayer as the source of the diamond engagement ring. But in fact the identification of diamonds with love and the finest female qualities stretches far back in history. Long before the post World War Two era, when the ‘invention’ is said to have taken place.

The identification of rings with love dates back to ancient Rome and the play Curculio (the weevil) written by Plautus in the second century BC. In the play, Phaedromus loves the slave girl Planesium, but he needs money to buy her from her owner, Cappadox. He sends Curculio to borrow the money but Curculio happens to meet a soldier who also wants to buy Planesium. Curculio steals the soldier’s signet ring and he and Phaedromus use it to seal a fake letter to the soldier’s banker to get the money. And so Phaedromus ‘gets the girl’.

Soon the banker and the soldier realise they’ve been swindled and confront Phaedromus. But Planesium recognises the ring and she uses it to prove that she is actually the soldier’s sister. As she is freeborn, Cappadox has to return the money and Planesium marries Phaedromus.

That might not sound very romantic to you, but things were different back then. The Romans used to mercilessly mock Pompey (a great general and politician) when they discovered he was actually in love with his wife, a ridiculous notion in their opinion.

Apart from literature, there is also evidence in the form of inscriptions concerning marriage contracts. By the fourth century AD, Saint Augustine was begging priests to allow marriages for poor people who could not afford rings.

Much was lost to Europe during the early Middle Ages, including a love of diamonds. Ancient peoples rated diamond as the best of all gemstones. But lapidaries written during the Middle Ages rate diamonds seventh or eighth. Scholars have puzzled over this loss in prestige and nobody has a satisfactory reason for it. Some say it was the Christian influence which sought austerity. That may be so, but wouldn’t all gemstones suffer equally from this, not only diamonds? Others say it was the poor quality of the diamonds that were available and the lack of supply due to the wars and social upheavals of the times. But if supply was restricted, wouldn’t that make diamonds even more desirable?

Whether they used diamonds or not, we don’t know for sure, but wedding rings were still an essential part of the Western marriage tradition. In 860, Pope Nicholas I wrote a letter to answer some questions about Western marriages from Boris I of Bulgaria. Importantly the ring is given at the betrothal:

“…our men and women do not wear upon their heads a band of gold, silver, or some other metal when they contract a marriage pact. Instead, after the betrothal is celebrated — which is the promised pact of future marriage made with the consent of both those who contract the pact and those under whose power they are — the betrothed man joins the bride to himself with vows through the finger marked by him with the ring of faith.”

Betrothals were not an essential part of the marriage process, though, they were mostly used when one or both of the partners were underage, or if they were living in different courts while the marriage was being negotiated (we’re still talking about the aristocracy). This was the case until 1215 when Pope Innocent III introduced reforms which included a compulsory cooling off period between the time the marriage was agreed and when it actually took place.

By the Renaissance, wedding rings were being worn set with gemstones, and diamonds were back in fashion. This is noted by Dante in The Divine Comedy in the early fourteenth century. A fifteenth century set of miniatures, painted to celebrate the wedding of Costanzo Sforza and Camilla d’Aragona include one showing the god of marriage, Hymen, wearing a coat decorated with diamond rings standing next to a huge diamond ring holding two torches. There is a verse: 

Two torches in one ring of burning fire,

Two wills, two hearts, two passions,

Are bonded in marriage by a diamond.

The first well recorded engagement ring was given in 1477 by the Archduke Maximillian of Austria to Mary of Burgundy. A letter from her father, Charles the Bold, specified “at the betrothal, your Grace must have a ring set with a diamond and also a gold ring.” In securing Mary’s hand, he also gained the important market city of Bruges in Belgium, which was probably also the location of the invention of faceted diamonds. Previously, diamonds were set in jewellery in their original crystal forms. The diamonds that were set in the ring probably came from Bruges. Numerous other diamond-set wedding rings have survived from those times.

The Protestant Reformation, which started in the early sixteenth century, did not reform the diamond wedding ring tradition. Martin Luther himself, the man who initiated the Reformation, gave his bride one of the fashionable new gemmel (twin) rings. A gemmel ring can be separated into two but can also be combined into one during the wedding ceremony. Sometimes they paired a ruby (representing love) with a diamond (for endurance).

By the seventeenth century, some middle class citizens were able to afford diamonds. The diarist Samuel Pepys wrote in 1668 that his aunt was “mighty proud of her wedding ring lately set with diamonds.” This reflected a greater availability of diamonds to Europe as ships started to sail around Africa to buy luxury items directly from India and other Eastern places.

Since those times styles changed but the basic pairing of a gold ring with one or more diamonds has remained the same. As diamonds became cheaper and more available with the opening up of Brazilian and South African mines, the engagement ring tradition spread to include people from most walks of life. By the 1880’s jewellery trade catalogues showcased solitaire rings from as little as £2 each.

In 1926, Ethel Cushing wrote in ‘Culture and Good Manners’: “An engagement ring is a matter for serious thought on the part of the young man. The best that his pocket can afford is what he desires and a ring that will please his fiancee’s taste is even more important. Either by asking her directly or from someone who knows her preferences he finds out her desire and tries in every way to fulfill it. The solitarie diamond as large and perfect as he could afford has for many years been the standard engagement ring.”

Critics of De Beers say the company invented the diamond engagement ring sometime during the Great Depression or in the years leading to the Second World War, when diamond sales were low. The Great Depression started in 1929, a few years after Cushing wrote the above paragraph. We might not agree with Cushing that young men should spend all their money on a diamond rings. But there is no doubt that the association between marriage, engagement, love, and diamond rings stretches back to ancient times in an unbroken chain.

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