Iron, Gold, and Diamond: Engagement Rings Through the Ages

by Kat Paulick

Today, the diamond ring is synonymous with engagement. It’s the official way to tell the world you’re off the market, the first thing everyone wants to see after your announcement, and the star of countless Instagram posts. Some of the most beautiful pieces of jewelry in the world are engagement rings, and while their styles vary widely, most people would find an engagement without a ring a little bit lacking.

Though styles and materials have changed through the ages, presenting a potential fiancee with a ring is an old tradition. As far back as the 2nd century BC, Roman brides-to-be would receive two rings: a gold one to wear in public, and an iron band to wear while performing household duties (how romantic). The designated “ring finger”, which is home to a vein that goes straight to the heart, is also a product of ancient Roman society. In the 7th century, Visigoths accepted the ring as the marriage pledge itself, even if no written marriage contract had been signed.

    Archduke Maximilian I (1459-1519)

The first well-known diamond ring was an engagement gift to Mary of Burgundy from Archduke Maximilian of Austria in the late 15th century. Mary, also known as Mary the Rich, was a woman with many suitors. This was in no small part due to the fact that she was heir to the throne of Burgundy, a beautiful and prosperous region of Eastern France. Today, in the Western world, we’re lucky enough to marry for love, but many marriages in those days were strategic rather than romantic. Mary’s first proposal came when she was just five years old, and many more would follow.

Maximilian set himself apart from the crowd with a diamond ring, the stones arranged in the shape of an “M”, for Mary. It’s rumored that the cost of the ring was a huge financial setback for his family, so luckily for them, she accepted. This created a powerful alliance between the families.

Though Maximilian’s diamond ring got a lot of press, it was still hundreds of years before diamond rings gained the popularity they hold today. During the Enlightenment Age, gimmel and posy rings were in fashion as engagement jewelry. Gimmel rings are notched rings that fit together to create one ring – a romantic notion for people who want to symbolically join their lives into one. Posy rings, also quite romantic, are engraved with inscriptions, often personalized.

The diamond ring ultimately exploded in popularity thanks to what was arguably the most successful marketing campaign of all time. Diamond sales were suffering in the 1930s due to the Great Depression, and diamond company De Beers needed a way to make potential buyers feel a connection to the beautiful stone. In a stroke of genius, copywriter Mary Francis Gerety created the slogan “A Diamond Is Forever” to make the connection between a diamond and eternal love. Between the eternal diamond and the endless circle of a ring, there is no more symbolic way to propose a life-long commitment.

While the diamond is still the most popular choice of stone for an engagement ring, recently many alternatives have risen in popularity. Couples are choosing colorful stones, or wooden or silicone bands, or even tattooed rings to fit their lifestyles and personalities. Given its longevity throughout the ages, it seems likely the engagement ring, in whatever form it takes, is here to stay.