The Real History Of The Engagement Ring

“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.)

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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)