It's something a woman cherishes forever. It's something a man can take months to decide to purchase. It's become both a tradition and an expectation in most western cultures: the diamond engagement ring. Universally accepted as a pre-marriage custom, the engagement ring is as popular as ever—but the type of ring, the price, and who chooses it have all been evolving.
Though the giving of a ring, bracelet or trinket to a woman at the time of her betrothal goes back centuries, the tradition of presenting a diamond engagement ring is hardly a long-standing one. Popularised only around the 1930s, the practice was the result of a sprawling marketing campaign that presented diamonds as the newest, most sincere way to express your love and commitment.
A diamond is forever—at least, that's what the world believes when it comes to engagement rings. Ever since diamond cartel superpower DeBeers marketed their famous slogan in 1947, diamond ring became synonymous with engagement in the eyes of the public. Before World War II, only 10% of engagement rings had diamonds. By 1990, 80% did.
At the forefront of the diamond rush was Tiffany & Co. Back in 1886 it introduced the Tiffany setting, a mount that uses prongs to hold a gemstone above the band of a ring. This maximizes the radiance and sparkle of the stone by increasing visibility. Since then, the luxury jeweller has been a major player in creating design styles and traditions when it comes to diamond rings. Today, the classic Tiffany setting is still the most famous choice for engagement rings.
As of 2013, the most popular engagement ring consists of a brilliant cut diamond and a white gold band, with an average cost of around €3,700. White gold is the top choice for bands because of it's relatively low cost, but platinum, titanium and silver are also popular options that provide a similar colour to white gold. When DeBeers inextricably linked diamond rings and engagement, it did not neglect to provide some guidance on how much a man should be spending on his fiancée. According to the original campaign, one month's salary was the right sum to offer up for an engagement ring. After decades though, this no longer holds exactly.
Instead of following a trend one way or the other, what men are spending on an engagement ring has diversified both ways. Some men are spending about 3 weeks pay; others, three months. There is no set formula to determine the right cost for a ring, but rather a number of factors that contribute to cost that should be carefully considered. The size, cut and colour of the stone influence a ring's cost, along with the type of stone and material of the band.
Though the traditional practice of a man presenting a diamond ring is still the norm, in many cases, modern women have been changing the way it goes. Some women have elected to choose their own ring, allowing them to choose a piece that reflects their personal style. The need for more expression has led to the design of options that go beyond a simple diamond set on a silver-coloured band.
The popularity of rings with gemstones other than diamond has been on the rise—Kate Middleton's sapphire sparkler has inspired many lookalikes, and stones such as emerald, garnet and topaz are being used as both centre stones and accents. The use of bands other than the white gold is becoming more popular as well.
French jeweller Boucheron, for example, offers many engagement rings that typify the diversification characteristic of 21st century rings. With bands that include rose gold, yellow gold and platinum, the collections range from elegant simplicity to intricate creations that explore different cuts and designs.
It's true that a beautiful engagement ring is still a dream of many women. The luxury of a diamond is irrefutable—classic and stunning, it's unlikely the diamond will lose its allure any time soon. When it comes to choosing the perfect engagement ring though, the options are quickly expanding to include everything a 21st century woman could ever wish for.
A Brief History of the Engagement Ring
Ancient Rome: Brides were commonly presented with a gold and iron ring before being married.
860: Pope Nicholas I writes a letter to Boris I of Bulgaria describing how men of the Roman Catholic faith give their betrothed an engagement ring.
1477: Archduke Maximilion of Austria proposes to Mary of Burgundy with a ring bearing an "M" set in diamond. This was the first documented use of a diamond ring to signify an engagement.
1500s: "Posey rings" begin to rise in popularity across Europe. The rings were often exchanged between lovers, and held inscriptions of flowery courtship language.
17th Century: New England Puritans reject the ornamental nature of an engagement ring—couples sometimes exchanged thimbles instead, and women were known to cut them and wear them as rings anyway.
1686: The first written mention of the vena amoris, or "vein of love." Beliefs of the time cited the left middle finger as the only one directly linked to the heart: hence, the finger on which an engagement ring should be worn.
1867: Diamonds are discovered in South Africa, massively increasing the world's supply.
1886: Tiffany & Co. introduces the "Tiffany setting," which raised a diamond off the ring's band to increase shine.
1888: Cecil Rhodes founds De Beers, what would become the cartel that dominated the world's diamond mining and trade.
1947: De Beers introduces its now definitive slogan, "A diamond is forever."
1955: Prince Rainier III proposes to Grace Kelly with a 10.47-carat diamond ring by Cartier.
1960s: De Beers launches the idea of an "eternity ring," a ring of diamonds given to a wife on the occasion of an important anniversary.
1981: Princess Diana is engaged, receiving a 12-carat sapphire oval surrounded by 14 solitaire diamonds. 29 years later, Kate Middleton receives the ring for her engagement to Prince William.
2013: Bulgari sells a 5.30-carat blue diamond engagement ring for $9.49 million (about €70 million), the most expensive ring in the world.