If you get engaged, the chances are that you will choose a diamond ring to celebrate the occasion; it is regarded as the classic style and for most of us there is no alternative. This ‘tradition’ is only a recent invention however, and before the twentieth century it would have been unusual to see an engagement ring featuring only diamonds.
Rings have been given to mark a betrothal since at least the Middle Ages. From the 12th Century a tightening of church rules meant that couples had to declare their intention to marry and then observe a waiting period before the marriage could take place. It became common amongst the wealthy families of Europe to give an engagement ring to be worn during the period before the wedding could take place.
The first record of a diamond engagement ring is in 1477 when Archduke Maximilian of Austria gave his betrothed, Mary of Burgundy, a gold band set with flat pieces of diamond that formed the shape of an ‘M’. Although this sparked a trend amongst the very wealthiest in Europe diamonds were a rare and expensive gemstone, unavailable to most.
By the nineteenth century engagement rings had become ornate pieces, often combining coloured gemstones, small diamonds, enamel work and precious metals. Different coloured gemstones were worn together, with their names spelling out terms of endearment, such as ‘dearest’. Diamonds and seed pearls were popular accent stones with settings crafted in classic yellow or rose gold.
The discovery of large diamond deposits in South Africa in the late nineteenth century meant that diamonds were suddenly far more available than they ever had been before and prices decreased as supply flooded the market. This would eventually lead to a huge transformation in the market as diamonds were no longer the preserve of the very wealthy.
In the early decades of the twentieth century economic circumstance stood in the way of this diamond revolution; two world wars and an economic crash meant people did not have money to spend on luxuries. Following the end of the Second World War though, De Beers stepped in with their huge, and hugely successful, advertising campaign that made a diamond ring seem indispensable when proposing. Their slogan, ‘A Diamond is Forever’, is still used to this day. The campaign allied diamond’s purity and durability to the idea that marriage is forever, promoted the concept that a diamond ring could be passed down through the generations, and educated the public about the range of sizes and qualities available. It utilised the new concept of ‘celebrity’, with film stars photographed dripping in diamonds. The campaign was probably one of the most successful of all time: it transformed the way the public thought about diamonds. In America, only 10% of women had a diamond engagement ring in the 1930s; by the 1970s this had increased to 80%.
Diamonds have always been valued for their incomparable hardness, brilliance and lustre. For centuries people believed them to be indestructible, and although we now know that it is possible to break or chip a diamond, its ability to resist the normal wear and scratching seen on other gems means it is rightly regarded as an incredibly durable material. Its adamantine lustre is brighter than any other gem, and its combination of bright brilliance and dazzling fire make it an exceptionally beautiful stone. Regardless of the success of De Beers marketing campaign, these truths reflect just how special diamonds are. In the eighty years since the campaign began diamonds have maintained their popularity.
Over the decades fashions have changed and trends have come and gone, influenced by celebrity engagements, changes in culture, and developments in cutting and setting. In the 1970s the new princess cut caused a stir while in the 1980s the marriage of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer made sapphire and diamond cluster designs fashionable.. Changes in the way we shop mean there is now more choice available than ever before, and many couples like to have something a little different, with the addition of coloured gemstones, antique styling or an unusual setting. Throughout all this the round brilliant cut solitaire has maintained its popularity; its simplicity means it is perfect for everyday wear and never goes out of fashion, exemplifying the idea that a diamond is forever.
If you are planning your own proposal then why not come and chat to one of our experienced gemmologists and jewellers? We are always happy to answer your questions and help you navigate the huge range of options available, assisting you to find the perfect ring to propose with.