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The glittering history of the engagement ring

Long’s diamond halo rings.handout

Many, many couples are likely to get engaged Sunday — Valentine’s Day — the annual celebration of love. As some of you anticipate a small box containing a glittering bauble, have you considered how the practice of presenting a diamond ring with a marriage proposal came to be?

It dates back to 1477, says Melvyn Kirtley, chief gemologist of Tiffany & Co., when Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy with a ring set with thin, flat pieces of diamonds.

“For centuries, diamonds were so rare that diamond engagement rings were used only by royalty and the extremely wealthy,” Kirtley explains. By the 1880s, the stones were more widely available and the diamond engagement ring became a more universal symbol of love and devotion.


It wasn’t until 1886 that Charles Tiffany, owner of the prominent New York “stationery and fancy goods” store, Tiffany & Co., introduced the engagement ring as we know it.

“Up until then, diamonds were set very low in bezels,” explains Kirtley. “The crown pushed the diamond down so low that it almost obliterated it.” Charles Tiffany worked with round brilliant cut diamonds and created the six-prong “Tiffany Setting” which lifts the stone off the band.

“Moving the stone away from the finger allows it to catch the light and glow,” Kirtley says.

By the turn of the 20th century, diamond engagement rings were available from a range of vendors in the United States. Yet in 1938, diamond prices were tumbling, due to the Great Depression and rumblings of war. The DeBeers Mining Company, owners of massive diamond mines in South Africa, controlled 90 percent of the world’s diamond production. To save their business, De Beers — also a prominent diamond merchandiser — recruited New York-based ad agency N.W. Ayer & Son to roll out a multi-year campaign to promote the diamond engagement ring.


The Ayer plan focused on the romance of diamonds to convey the message that diamonds were a gift of love: the larger and finer the diamond, the message implied, the greater the expression of love. Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, the company gave movie stars diamonds and lectures were arranged at high schools that revolved around the diamond engagement ring.

Ayer offered a regular service, providing newspapers with descriptions of the diamonds worn by socialites. The engagement ring that John F. Kennedy presented Jacqueline Bouvier at the Parker House certainly made headlines: Created by Van Cleef & Arpels, it boasted a 2.84-carat emerald beside a 2.88-carat diamond with tapered baguettes.

De Beers unveiled the slogan “A diamond is forever” and the line has appeared in every engagement ad produced by the company since 1948. (In the late 1990s Ad Age named it the “greatest advertising slogan of the 20th century.”) The ad campaign was an astounding success; almost 70 years later, the diamond’s popularity is unwavering. In 2012 alone, Americans spent nearly $11 billion on diamond engagement and wedding jewelry, says Olya Linde, lead author of Bain & Company’s 2013 Global Diamond Industry Report.

Beth Reed, assistant merchandising director at Long’s Jewelers says that these days, the store sells plenty of solitaires in the six-prong Tiffany setting. “However, the market is ever-evolving and today’s engagement rings come in countless styles.”

Brides are combing Pinterest for ideas, examining jewels worn by celebrities, and each considers unique touches that will make her engagement ring one-of-a-kind. While platinum and white gold are the most common metals, says Reed, rose gold settings are also popular now. Cuts come in an array of shapes: Asscher, oval, cushion, radiant, princess, and even heart-shaped, which has risen in popularity since Taylor Kinney presented Lady Gaga with a 6-carat heart-shape sparkler last year.


“Unique center stones like sapphires or rubies are also a trend,” says Reed. “But hands down, the most sought engagement ring is the diamond.”

Jaci Conry can be reached at jaci@jaciconry.com.