The History of the Diamond Engagement Ring
Sometimes rituals are so entrenched in a culture that people hardly question where the traditions come from. This is not the case with the diamond engagement ring. Many people think it is a custom imposed upon us by DeBeers, the giant diamond monopoly. This powerful empire devised a marketing scheme that was so compelling, it bent our minds into believing that the diamond engagement ring is the only possible way for two people in love to begin a life together. There may be some truth in that. But I believe the custom is much more complex.
The earliest record of a diamond engagement ring being given is a letter dated July 30, 1477. On that date, Dr. Wilhelm Moroltinger wrote a letter to Archduke (later Emperor) Maximilian, just before his betrothal to Mary of Burgundy, daughter of Charles the Bold. In that letter he states, “At the betrothal your Grace must have a ring set with a diamond and also a gold ring. Moreover, in the morning your Grace must bestow upon the bride some costly jewels.”
I am certain that DeBeers did not exist in 1477. Therefore, the giant company held no sway over those people. The wealthy of that time devised the notion of a diamond engagement ring because of the beauty of the diamond itself.
Let’s examine more recent diamond engagement ring history. Before 1870, diamonds were found scattered throughout the world, but mostly in Brazil and India. In 1870, diamonds were discovered in South Africa and the quantities were like nothing before. The early diamond rush included thousands of diggers and thousands of connected plots of land. As the plots got deeper and became more dangerous or unprofitable, individual lots were sold off. Several people vied for control of the diamond rich land by buying up these lots. Finally, in 1880, Cecil Rhodes triumphed and established the DeBeers Mining Company in South Africa.
Now there was a large supply of diamonds. Happily, diamond engagement rings became commonplace at the start of the new century here in the United States and in many parts of Europe.
As we entered the 1930’s, there was a world economic depression. Then, much of Europe was at war. Diamond sales were down. Diamond prices were down. In 1939, DeBeers launched an advertising campaign designed to strengthen the association of diamonds with romance and the engagement ring. By 1941, the sales trend was reversed.
In 1947, DeBeers launched what is considered to be one of the most successful ad campaigns in our history: “A Diamond is Forever.” Many people inside and outside of the jewelry industry believe that this campaign is the reason why 80% of engaged women in the US receive a diamond ring. I think we give DeBeers too much credit.
A diamond is a beautiful thing. They are so hard that they shine almost like metal. They are earth made, tiny miracles of brightness. You can tilt them and visit all the colors of the rainbow. Faceted diamonds hold our attention with patterns of light and dark. I believe we want diamonds because they are beautiful. I point to the long human history of desiring diamonds as proof of this statement.
Many people believe that the appreciation of beauty, including diamonds, is an inherent human quality. For more information on this subject, Dennis Dutton gives a fascinating talk on the internet. Just go to: http://www.ted.com/talks/denis_dutton_a_darwinian_theory_of_beauty.html
The case he puts forward is convincing and entertaining.
The diamond engagement ring was being given long before the DeBeers iconic marketing campaign. The tradition existed long before DeBeers, at least among the wealthy. Moreover, it is an easy tradition to continue and build upon, because we as humans appreciate and desire diamonds, and many other beautiful things.