CHAPTER 6 | A BRIEF HISTORY OF ENGAGEMENT RINGS

There is an assumption, in many Western cultures anyway, that if a couple gets engaged, there has to be a ring. But have you ever stopped to think about how we got to where we are now? A bit of background may give you some food for thought about your own symbol of commitment.

Read on - or Download Chapter 6 as a pdf to read at your leisure.

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SUMMARY

• Rings have been used for millennia as significant cultural symbols, but the popular concept of an engagement ring is a relatively recent invention

• The idea of spending 15 of your annual income on a diamond ring is a marketing construct, but it became the ‘safe bet’ for many men

• In the twenty-first century the ‘rules’ have changed – there aren’t any. Many people choose more personal symbols of their commitment.

• The ‘easy’ option (for some) of a diamond ring is not the safe bet it once was

• If a ring is the thing, men need to think more creatively when choosing it.

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WHEN DID IT START?

The engagement or betrothal ring has been around a very long time. To the Egyptians, the circle was the symbol of eternity. The hole in the centre represented a gateway to the future, so a ring was an expression of everlasting love. The Romans used two plain bands – iron for wearing at home and engraved gold for public appearances.

The first documented diamond engagement ring was Archduke Maximillian’s betrothal to Mary of Burgundy in 1477. In the sixteenth century the wedding ring was the primary symbol associated with marriage, and betrothal rings were uncommon until the nineteenth century. Even then, the ring presented to Queen Victoria by Prince Albert was a simple affair in the form of a snake with emerald eyes – snakes being a symbol of eternal love, and emerald being Victoria’s birthstone.

DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER? - Only since 1947

The modern idea that a proposal of marriage is not a proper proposal without a diamond engagement ring, on which you may have spent more than 15 of your net annual income, doesn’t go back any further than the mid-twentieth century, and was entirely the creation of one company’s ad agency.

It’s sobering to consider how many young men could otherwise have been spared so much grief and expense. But there are signs that that is changing.

WHY DIAMONDS?

In the 1860s, South African diamond mines owned by the De Beers cartel began producing over one million carats of diamonds a year. The market was flooded, prices came down, then in the 1920s firms like Cartier became household names with lavish diamond and precious stone rings (only for the rich, obviously).

With Art Deco (1920s–40s), diamonds went out of fashion with the younger generation who saw them as uninteresting and old fashioned, and this decline was sealed by the economic catastrophe of the Great Depression (1929–39) when prices collapsed.

The disengagement of the young was bad news for De Beers (with their near-monopoly on diamond production) as these were the consumers of the future. So in 1939, with the world recovering from its economic disaster, the cartel began their now famous advertising campaign with a programme to ‘educate’ the public about the ‘4Cs’ of diamonds – ‘colour, clarity, cut and carat weight’.

In 1947 they invented the slogan ‘A Diamond is Forever’, cleverly bringing together the physical properties of the mineral with the idea of a strong permanent marriage. Further campaigns included lines like ‘Isn’t two months’ salary a small price to pay for something that lasts forever?’ These were so successful that, to this day, the public is persuaded that (a) an engagement ring is indispensable for any proposal of marriage, (b) a diamond is the only acceptable stone for that ring and (3) a man must spend a very large chunk of his annual salary on an engagement ring.

CURRENT TRENDS

At the time of writing (2015) diamond prices are falling again, and coloured gemstones are becoming more fashionable and sought after. Women want something different and unique, and are beginning to see the diamond solitaire as somewhat old fashioned, rather mirroring the Art Deco revolt of the 1920s and 30s.

In the USA there is a movement away from engagement rings with stones altogether in favour of a series of plain or decorated bands for both men and women marking significant stages in a relationship. This reflects existing traditions in other countries, like Brazil for example.

All of this simply underlines that an engagement ring is a very individual purchase. And in my view, the more it becomes a decision about personal preference and style rather than a follow-the-herd purchase, the better.

CONCLUSION

While rings have been used for millennia as significant symbols in human relationships, the engagement ring is a fairly recent phenomenon, and diamond engagement rings in particular wax and wane in fashion and desirability.

The twentieth century preoccupation with diamonds was almost exclusively the creation of marketing campaigns. In the twenty-first century fashions are changing again – diamonds are losing their pre-eminence and coloured stones are in favour. Women are rejecting standard mass produced models, seeking unique individuality as a statement of their own personality to distinguish themselves from the herd.

This means that men who wish to use a ring as a token of their proposal can no longer rely on the standard diamond model to create a ring she will love forever. They have to get more inventive, and that means there is a lot more to know and take into account when designing and choosing the ring for a surprise proposal.

Read On – Chapter 7 discusses the ethical, environmental and sustainability issues relating to the diamond supply chain, and looks critically at the responses to these from global jewellery industry interests.

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