Mankind’s symbolic use of rings can be traced all the way back to prehistoric times when cavemen would craft cords out of braided grass and wrap them around their mate’s wrists, ankles and waist. Rather than an act of romance, anthropologists believe this act was carried out by the male in order to bring the female’s spirit under his control.
The Ancient Egyptians, often credited with giving birth to the engagement ring, were responsible for bringing romance to the rings symbolism. For them a ring represented a couple’s endless circle of love, whilst the empty space at its centre represented a gateway to their future together.
Pliny the Elder, philosopher, naturalist, author, naval commander and all round polymath, gave accounts of the bride-to-be being given two different rings by the groom. One, made out of gold, was worn during the equivalent of the wedding ceremony – as well as at any special public events. The second was crafted out of iron, and was worn at home whilst the bride would perform the household duties.
Puzzle rings first began appearing in Asian Minor around the 1st Century BC. It is believed that these cleverly designed rings, which fell apart into a number of interconnected smaller bands if the ring was removed from the finger, were given out by sultans and sheiks to each of their wives. Because the ring would fall apart if removed, it was hoped that they would prevent acts of infidelity.
One of the earliest official statements of a ring being used to enter into a formal contract can be found in the Visigothic Code. It states: “when the ceremony of betrothal has been performed... and the ring shall have been given or accepted as a pledge, although nothing may have been committed to writing, the promise shall, under no circumstances, be broken.”
In 860AD, in a letter describing the differences between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox practice, Pope Nicolas I commented that it was a requirement that a groom should present his betrothed with a ring fashioned out of gold. This exchange was intended to represent the groom’s wealth as well as his ability to take care of his wife once married.
The first well-documented instance of diamonds featuring prominently on an engagement ring is by Archduke Maximillian of Austria, after he presented his betrothed, Mary of Burgundy, a gold ring with the letter ‘M’ spelled out in diamonds. This in turn popularised the use of bejewelled engagement rings amongst those of wealth and social status.
The tradition of the fourth finger as ‘ring finger’ had existed since ancient times but it was lawyer Henry Swinburne who first coined the phrase vena amoris in his 1686 text A Treatise of Espousals or Matrimonial Contracts. Meaning ‘vein of love’ it alluded to the erroneous belief that the fourth finger had a special connection directly to the heart.
During the Enlightenment the posie ring came to prominence. These rings contained short, but often incredibly romantic inscriptions that could usually be found on the inside surface of the band, mirroring the wave of individualism sweeping through the continent. Whilst they were not used exclusively as engagement rings, they were incredibly popular as gifts sent from one lover to another
Whilst posie rings were the fashion in Europe, amongst the Puritan communities across the Atlantic they were viewed as frivolous and ostentatious. Instead they would give their betrothed a thimble; much less romantic, but far more practical. They were clearly not as well received as they might have wished as the practice of wives slicing off the end to convert them into makeshift rings seems to have been commonplace!
The Victorians were a rather romantic and sentimental bunch, attitudes often accredited to the popularity of Queen Victoria and her deep love for Prince Albert. During this period, a new trend emerged in the form of eye-catching Dearest rings – rings featuring Diamond, Emerald, Amethyst, Ruby, Emerald, Sapphire and Topaz. A creation which would satisfy even the most Bling hungry of modern tastes!
In 1867 diamonds were discovered in South Africa and by 1872 global output had increased to over one million carats per year – making diamonds more accessible than ever before. In 1886, world famous jewellers Tiffany & Co. introduced the ‘Tiffany Setting’, a six-pronged ring design that elevates the diamond above the ring band, bringing the gems to the forefront of the design.
In 1918, Cartier introduced the Trinity Ring, a design featuring three intertwining bands made up of pink, white and yellow gold. Each of these precious metals represent different traits: pink gold representing love, white gold representing friendship and yellow gold representing fidelity. Trinity rings remain popular to this day, especially in France where they are often used as wedding rings.
Public demand for diamonds understandably declined during the First World War, and even more so during the Great Depression. In 1938, global diamond giant DeBeers kicked off a campaign to reignite public interest in the rare gem. In 1948, they created the slogan “a diamond is forever” in what became one of the most successful marketing campaigns of all time.
During their campaigns DeBeers also promoted the notion that men should spend the equivalent of one month’s salary on an engagement ring. In the 1980s, perhaps somewhat cynically, they decided to reconfigure that sum to two months, with advertising slogans such as: “Isn't two months' salary a small price to pay for something that lasts forever?”
The ring now worn by Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge is arguably the most well-known engagement ring in the world. Before it was worn by Kate, it belonged to the late Princess Diana. The ring consists of a 12-carat sapphire which is surrounded by 14 solitaire diamonds. The ring is currently valued at around £300,000.
Born in 1978, Vashi Dominguez began his career in diamonds in 1999, studying gemmology before trading diamonds wholesale. In 2007 he decided to move his business online and Vashi.com was born. Today, Vashi is one of the world’s leading diamond experts, and a who’s who of the rich and famous can be seen adorned in his award winning jewellery.
The title of ‘most valuable celebrity engagement ring’ has to go to the monster diamond engagement ring that rapper Jay-Z presented to superstar Beyonce upon their engagement in 2007. The 24-carat, emerald cut ring features one of the world’s most expensive diamonds, and Jay-Z paid a reported figure of £2.65 million. It is now valued at a stratospheric £5.8 million.
With the on-set of 3D printing, a new era of uber-personalised rings could soon be upon us, indeed some companies are already offering a design your own service. But no matter how quickly the technology advances there will never be a substitute for the romance of a diamond engagement ring. Some things really are forever!