Engagement RingsFrom Grass to Glitz

by : M J Plaster

Diamonds are a girl's best friend, but it hasn't always been so. The practice of giving a ring for the promise before the 'I do' dates back to prehistoric times, since cavemen and cavewomen walked the earth. The engagement ring predates the discovery of diamonds by eons, winding through ancient civilizations, traversing along the spice route, and eventually gaining popularity during the industrial revolution, fueled by guess what—the most successful advertising campaign of the twentieth century.

The first engagement rings were thought to belong to the cavewomen—simple, practical, maintenance free, easy to replace—hand-crafted from heavy grasses and reeds and later replaced by cord. Some accounts claim that the cavewoman was 'tied' to the caveman by the cord. Oh, those lucky brides-to-be!

The history of the engagement ring is shrouded in the same mystery that surrounds the intrigue of love; much of it seemingly calculated after-the-fact to explain the designs and customs that evolved over time. Accounts differ, and there are contradicting reports on which civilization deserves credit for any given ritual, but all accounts offer a fascinating glimpse into society's attempt to quantify, define and codify love. Among the differing accounts, two consistent facts emerge—the promise of eternity and the symbolism of the eternal loop, the continuous, unbroken circle symbolizing eternal love, devotion and commitment.

The ancient Roman and Greek civilizations replaced cord rings with crude metal rings crafted of iron. Several centuries later, iron was scrapped in favor of gold. It was the shape from which the ring received its significance, not the material from which it was crafted. The ancient Greeks called it a betrothal ring, borrowed from the Anglo-Saxon 'troweth,' which meant truth—in this case, true love.

The ring first evolved from a mere circular loop to hold simple embellishments. Some ancient Roman rings sported a key on the ring, which allegedly symbolized the key to the heart or the key to 50% of the riches, a less romantic notion. The Fede ring, predecessor to the Irish Claddagh ring, appeared around the same time, but its origin remains in question, originating in either the ancient Greek or Roman civilization—maybe both. The Fede ring, short for 'Mani in Fede' in Italian, means the hands of love. It held two clasped hands intertwined, almost identical to the Claddagh ring.

The ancient Romans first placed the ring on the third finger. The 'vena amoris,' Latin for vein of love, was thought to be the vein that led from the third finger directly to the heart, a theory derived from the ancient Egyptians.

It wasn't until the 15th century that diamonds first adorned the eternal circular band. History records the first diamond engagement ring in the 15th century when Archduke Maximillian of Hamburg presented the ring to Mary of Burgandy. At that time, diamonds were scarce, traveling via the spice route from India to Europe, and diamond engagement rings were prohibitive to all but royalty and the very wealthy. It would be centuries until diamonds would be discovered in Brazil and Africa. DeBeers would not open its doors until 1888, and there was no Antwerp Diamond Exchange.

It was not until the industrial revolution that life took a quantum leap. Advances in transportation brought goods and services that were once the province of the rich and famous to the masses. Diamond mines opened in South Africa, and while diamonds were still precious, they were at least accessible.

It was in 1939 that a concerted effort to popularize the diamond engagement began in earnest with an advertising campaign in New York City. The sale of diamond engagement rings had been on the decline since 1919, decreasing by as much as 50%, due in part to the Great Depression. Harry Oppenheimer of De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd, the famed South African diamond mine, took action and with the help of N.W. Ayer & Son, a New York advertising agency, launched an all-out assault with an ad campaign. It was in 1947 that the slogan 'A Diamond is Forever,' was born and launched the most successful advertising campaign of the twentieth century, moving the diamond engagement ring from a luxury to THE most important element of a proper engagement. And little has changed since then.