Vivienne Becker on the History of Engagement Rings

Vivienne Becker on the History of Engagement Rings

Vintage De Beers Poster Vintage De Beers Poster The diamond is the quintessential, universal symbol of love. Of all its many roles, the diamond as messenger of romantic love – beginning with the belief that Cupid’s arrows were tipped with diamonds – has resonated through the centuries to emerge today as powerful as ever.

While the ring itself, with no beginning or end, is an ancient symbol of eternal love, the story of the diamond engagement ring reaches back to the Middle Ages, when the invincible diamond, symbolising ”unquenchable” love, was considered ideal to seal a betrothal or marriage pledge, By the fifteenth century, the diamond ring was a feature of royal and noble weddings.

When, in 1475, Constanzo Sforza presented his bride, Camilla d’Aragona, with a diamond ring on their wedding day, a poem, in an illuminated manuscript, documented the ceremony: ‘Two torches in one ring of burning fire / Two wills, two hearts, two passions, all bonded in marriage by a diamond.’ The fire in the diamond was likened to the constant flame of love. Then, in 1477, Archduke Maximilian gave a diamond ring – generally held to be the first recorded engagement ring – to his betrothed, Mary of Burgundy, daughter of Charles the Bold.

Gradually, during the Renaissance, these rings became elaborately decorated, richly chased with flourishes of enamel. The ‘gimmel’, or twin ring, composed of two hoops that slid open to reveal love emblems and an inscription (Whom God has joined together, let no man put asunder) evolved into the fede, or faith ring, in which two clasped hands, representing the unity of love, often hold a diamond heart.

“Of all its many roles, the diamond as messenger of romantic love has resonated through the centuries to emerge today as powerful as ever. ”

After the seventeenth century, when emphasis shifted onto the gemstone itself and onto lighter, naturalistic designs, the eighteenth century ushered in a great age of the diamond; with newly discovered deposits in Brazil, and improved cutting techniques, the fire and light of diamonds dazzled in candlelight.

Betrothal rings, in rococo spirit, became romantically inclined: twin hearts topped by crowns, bows and love knots, love birds, or messages spelled out in diamonds.

The diamond’s association with love, now well entrenched, was fuelled by the Romantic mood of the early nineteenth century, influenced by the young Queen Victoria and her passion for sentimental jewels.

Before their marriage, her beloved Albert had given her an enamel band set with a single diamond as a gift of love, and her engagement ring was a serpent, ancient symbol of protection and eternity. While popular betrothal rings were laden with hearts, hands and love knots, as nineteenth-century prosperity gathered pace, the diamond element became more substantial and modern traditions took root: the half-hoop of diamonds, the three-diamond ring, the ‘gypsy’ setting, in which the diamonds are set into the gold band.

The Belle Époque, a time of enormous wealth and leisured luxury, bred the next great age of the diamond. New deposits had been discovered in South Africa, cutting had advanced in huge strides, and the engagement ring, an important status symbol, focused on the significant single diamond, now in its classic open-prong setting, showing its new brilliance to perfection.

Today, perhaps more than ever, the diamond engagement ring remains the most powerful universal expression of true and everlasting love, and an essential part of the marriage ritual, across the globe. The divine diamond and the power of love.