History of the Engagement Ring

The presentation of an engagement ring at the time of a marriage proposal is a tradition that that has been observed for centuries. Engagement rings were certainly worn by the Romans and appear to have been customary in ancient Egypt and Greece. In some cultures, both the man and the woman wear rings to show that they are planning to marry.

Mary of Burgundy and Archduke Maximillian

                       Mary of Burgundy and Archduke Maximillian

Over the centuries, there has been significant change in what constitutes a “typical” engagement ring. Roman men gave engagement rings that had a small key attached, or engraved on it: a symbol of possession and protection of the heart and other assets.

Historians tell us that the first diamond engagement ring was given to Mary of Burgundy by the Archduke Maximilian of Austria in the year 1477. It had small flat diamonds that formed the letter “M”. This betrothal gift set off a trend among upper class Europeans of giving engagement rings set with diamonds and other precious gems among the upper classes of European society.

During Victorian times, affection was expressed by presenting a “posie” rings. These rings were often in the shape of flowers. Bands engraved with verses, initials or sentimental phrases were popular. Also fashionable were rings with secret messages spelled out in a code of small gemstones.

Posie Ring

               Posie Ring

In Colonial America, women were given thimbles by their fiancée when they accepted his proposal of marriage. This practical gift aligned with the Puritan value of simplicity. Flouting the cultural prohibitions against jewelry, some women removed the top of the thimble leaving only the base, which could be worn as a ring on the finger.

Claddagh Ring

             Claddagh Ring

The claddagh is a traditional Irish design which functions as both engagement and wedding ring. The design of the claddagh has two hands joined, holding a heart with a crown on top of it. A look at the way the ring is worn reveals the status of the wearer: if the point of the heart was towards the fingertips, she is engaged, and if the point of the heart was towards the wrist, she is married.

Prior to the discovery of diamonds in South Africa in 1866, Brazil and India were the most important sources, and their output of diamonds was relatively small. The abundance of South African diamonds,ultimately fostered the widespread custom of presenting a diamond solitaire at the time marriage was proposed. During the 1930’s widespread marketing of diamonds in the US began to influence middle class men to propose with a diamond ring. Through sophisticated and visually alluring advertising, diamonds were introduced to the mass market. In 1947, “A Diamond is Forever” became the tagline for the mass marketing of the diamond engagement ring. This phrase, coined by Frances Gerety, a copy writer at NW Ayer in New York City has been called the most widely recognized advertising slogan of the twentieth century. By the 1950’s, the diamond engagement ring came to be expected by most women at the time of the wedding proposal. Today in the US about 75% of all brides to be receive a diamond engagement ring.

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