The Real History Of The Engagement Ring

By Damien B. on Thursday, February 26, 2015
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“The diamond invention is far more than a monopoly for fixing diamond prices; it is a mechanism for converting tiny crystals of carbon into universally recognized tokens of wealth, power, and romance.” —Edward Jay Epstein, “Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?”

In A Nutshell

Ever wonder why a man has to buy not one, but two rings to marry a woman? Wouldn’t one ring for one girl make sense? For the longest time, it did make sense. Until corporations decided to take advantage of an obscure law and change tradition itself. In today’s day and age, the real reason men buy engagement rings for their future wives is because of a marketing ploy, conceived to double sales and nothing more.

The Whole Bushel

According to the De Beers website, the history of the engagement ring is a tradition that has been around since the Middle Ages, involving kings and queens, love poems penned by hand, and a long history of craftsmanship and expertise. Upon further reflection however, one can notice that the “history” of the ring as told by De Beers is suspiciously vague, with only two couples being mentioned in the article, only one of which actually presenting an example of the engagement ring itself. Not a lot of evidence for a “tradition” that has supposedly existed for hundreds of years.

De Beers is leaving out some important details.

The real “history” of the engagement ring begins with the striking down of an obscure American law in the early 20th century. Since medieval times, a man’s promise of engagement to marry a woman was considered, in many jurisdictions, a legally binding contract. As such, a man could even be taken to court and sued by his estranged should he decide to call off the engagement. This was known in legal terms as a “breach of promise to marry” and stood as a form of insurance for a woman if she was jilted. (A broken engagement would make it harder for her to find a future husband, as it would be known she was previously “promised” to another.)

Beginning in the 1930s, however, state after state began to strike down this law, until in 1945, 16 states had written it off the books permanently. The wave continued, and De Beers, seeing an opportunity, began an advertising campaign to promote the engagement ring as a symbol of love and the pledge of a promise. The ring in essence, replaced the “insurance” the law had previously provided a woman in case she was left out in the cold so to speak, as the man in question still had to fork over a sizable sum as an “investment” in the future marriage to his fiance. Now things were even again when it came to marriage, albeit more expensive than ever, which suited De Beers just fine.

In case you are wondering, one other thing was changed through this marketing campaign, although this effect only caught on later. Back then, it was customary for the bride-to-be to keep her ring should the groom-to-be walk away from the commitment. (This would help serve as insurance.) Most people expect to have a ring returned nowadays. Progress comes at a price for both sexes, but at the end of the day the only real winner is big business.

Show Me The Proof

The Atlantic: The Strange (and Formerly Sexist) Economics of Engagement Rings
The Guardian: A man’s perspective on why engagement rings are a joke
De Beers: The History Of Engagement Rings
The Law Relating to Breach of Promise of Marriage (Ireland)

  • Azeael

    I have nothing to say.

  • Jimmy

    I couldn’t read the article on mobile so I don’t know if this was mentioned, but I thought the tradition was supposed to come from knights errant who would give rings to ladies as a sign of their devotion/servitude and it grew out from there.

    • Azeael

      Really, what mobile do you have?

      • Jimmy

        It’s a Nokia with the Windows Phone OS. I can open the page but it won’t zoom in so it’s too small to read.

        • Azeael

          Yeah, I’ve got a Nokia too.

        • DanielSanCarter

          And I can’t of a good joke about Nokias right now….

  • DanielSanCarter

    I always thought the idea of rings was stupid. I mean why spend a couple thousand on a fancy ring when you could get a down payment on a house or something. I mean, isn’t that more meaningful?

    • Azeael

      No! Shiny and goldy stuff is much more important!!!!

      • DanielSanCarter

        What about a simple band?

        • Azeael

          No! Need biig jewel!!!

          • DanielSanCarter

            I wonder if it varies from person to person…

          • Exiled Phoenix

            You seem kind of cheap. I am thinking this is why you aren’t married.

          • DanielSanCarter

            Nah. I think it’s probably cause I’m 16.

          • Azeael

            HI5- sixteen too!!

          • DanielSanCarter

            Awesome! We’re awesome! We’re awesome teens!

          • Hillyard

            Don’t listen to that nonsense. If she really loves you no ring is necessary. (Wedding ring however is different) My wife and I got some cheap rings when we got married, later I surprised her with a nice set of rings but it wasn’t necessary.

          • DanielSanCarter

            Yeah I think that’s what I’ll do.

          • Exiled Phoenix

            That makes sense as well. Still, don’t cheap out on an engagement ring. 3 months salary is best.

          • DanielSanCarter

            Haha. If I got the right girl I’m sure she wouldn’t mind. Lol

          • Navy

            Why is three months salary best?

    • Helvin

      Dont worry kiddo there are plenty of unmaterialistic girls out there who would think a down payment on a house is a much better idea.

      • DanielSanCarter

        Well I’ll just have to find one

    • Navy

      Im married and I feel the same. My engagement ring and wedding band are one in the same. My husband attempted to buy me a diamond, he was shocked when I told him I hated them and diamonds were a successful marketing campaign.

      • https://twitter.com/DanielSanCarter DanielSanCarter

        not to mention they’re worthless.

  • LILA

    The idea that jewelry is the simbol of eternal love always sounded stupid to me. I get it that diamonds are forever just like the love two people share but putting a price tag on love is the worst thing you can do in a relationship: ”My love for you is worth my two months salary, do you want to start our cohabitation with living in debt because society says I have to buy you a ‘Big rock’? ” And I find it stupid because I have a tendency to loose rings, earrings and bracelets whether is is at home in my room or when I’m going out – that shiny stuff is tiny!

  • Hillyard

    The largest diamond company in the world, the one that basically controls all the diamonds (no where near as rare or precious as De Beers would have you think) makes up some BS to sell overpriced pieces of carbon to people. No surprise there.

  • oouchan

    If I’m correct, Japan still allows a jilted partner to sue.
    I’m a nerd at heart. My engagement ring is the One Ring from “Lord of the Rings”. My wedding band will replace it and it was very inexpensive. I don’t have any jewelery with sparklies. Can’t stand diamonds and such.