It’s an accepted tradition now-a-days, especially here in the United States where I’m from, that an engagement ring should be given to a woman when she’s being proposed to. It’s a physical representation of the promise of a couple’s future life together and is trés romantic. In fact, many girls dream of the day when her beloved will surprise her with a beautiful diamond, the bigger the better, and she may have the ring picked out in her mind before she’s even met her beau. But why is this a tradition and where does it come from? Why do only women wear engagement rings? Why do they almost always contain diamonds? Is it really necessary to spend several months’ salary on a ring? And why are they worn on the left hand and not the right? We’ll answer all these questions and more in this episode of Facts to Relax.
I’m Yvonne Page Illustrates and on this channel I research topics that I find interesting and want to learn more about and then report back what I’ve learned to you in a soothing and calm manner so that we can both learn something new while relaxing or falling asleep. Tonight’s episode of Facts to Relax is all about the history of engagement rings and before we get started, let’s start our relaxation by settling into a comfy spot and taking a deep breath in and then letting it out slowly again as we fill our pretty little heads with sparkling images of diamonds and gold.
Engagement rings can be traced back at least to ancient Rome, though archeological remains hint that the tradition may go back even further than that. Hieroglyphics from ancient Egypt show that wedding rings were being used, though not necessarily engagement rings. It wasn’t until ancient Rome, when written accounts and archaeological finds actually show rings being used specifically for the purpose of signifying the intention to marry. At first, average citizens were only allowed to wear iron rings and gold was reserved for public officials but eventually, everyone began being allowed to wear gold, though it wasn’t necessary. Ivory, bone, copper, flint, and iron were also used. In fact, it’s believed that iron rings may have been worn at home while gold rings were worn out in public. The rings may have been plain bands or carved with symbols like two clasping hands, or may even have had gemstones embedded in them. By the 5th century, it became common to wear the engagement ring on the fourth finger of the left hand because it was believed that there was a thin vein called the “vena amori” inside that particular finger which ran directly to a person’s heart. We now know that all ten fingers have veins that run to the heart but it’s still common practice in many places to wear both engagement and wedding rings on that particular finger because of this mis held belief from almost two thousand years ago. It’s crazy how traditions can really take hold like that, isn’t it? Don’t worry, it’s gonna get even crazier soon.
Now, it may sound like the Ancient Romans were all sorts of lovey and romantic but when it comes to marriage, that’s not exactly the case. Here’s why: in ancient Rome and really, in much of the ancient world in general, marriage wasn’t so much an act of love as it was a business arrangement meant to upgrade wealth and social statuses and, of course, to procreate and further bloodlines. These marriages were frequently arranged by the parents with love having no bearing on the agreement. In fact, a young man only needed to be fourteen to get married and a girl, only twelve. Do you remember being that age? I mean, yeah, I was in love with tons of boys in my early teen years but making the decision to marry one? Ehhhhhhh…probably not a great idea. But I digress…The engagement rings ancient Roman men were giving their betrothed were essentially seen as the husband putting a down payment on his new bride, showing that he would financially purchase and support her. And when I say purchase her, that’s exactly what I mean because in these marriages the woman either came to be legally under the control of her new husband or stayed under the legal control of her father, depending on the agreement between the families, but hey, at least she got a ring or two in the deal, right?
Even after the fall of the Roman empire, engagement rings remained popular. Through the middle ages and into the 19th century silver, gold, and even copper were common materials to make rings from and in the 1800s, jewels and other semiprecious stones began to be more commonly added to engagement rings in Europe. The stones might have stood alone or spelled out words like “love” and “forever.” The first diamond added to any ring is recorded way back in 1477 when Austrian Monarch Maximillian I gave his future wife, Mary of Burgundy, an engagement ring set with a diamond, but despite that, diamond engagement rings remained pretty uncommon through the mid-1940s. In fact, in 1940, only 10% of brides in the United States had diamond engagement rings. But by that time, a genius advertising strategy by the diamond industry was beginning to take hold and would change everything. But hey, let’s start at the beginning.
It’s a common misconception today that diamonds are very rare and precious and therefore worth a ton of money. Before 1870, this was, in fact, the case. Diamonds were found only in India and Brazil and really if you weren’t royalty, you probably had no chance of scoring one. However, in 1869, diamond mines were found in South Africa near the Orange River. And these mines contained a LOT of diamonds. Now, along came a British man named Cecil Rhodes. You may have heard of him, he’s a pretty controversial guy and I don’t really want to talk about him so for the purposes of this video, we’re just going to focus on his relationship to the diamonds of South Africa. In 1871, when he was just 18 years old, he began buying and consolidating diamond mines and over the next two decades, basically formed a monopoly on diamonds. In 1888, he formed De Beers Consolidated Mines, LTD, a diamond cartel which is still active today though it has lost its monopoly. Now, since at this point, diamonds weren’t rare at all they should have been incredibly cheap but, of course, that wasn’t ideal for business. Since De Beers controlled almost all of the world’s diamonds, they were able to work with diamond claim holders and distributors in a plan to keep prices high. They only allowed a small number of diamonds to be released at a time, fluctuating with the supply and demand, and therefore have been able to keep the scarcity factor in place even today and this allows them to continue charging exorbitant prices for what is essentially a highly compressed piece of carbon. To further promote this scarcity factor, they’ve made it so that a diamond has very little resale value as used diamonds would oversaturate the pool and cause new diamond prices to plummet. Now-a-days De Beers claims to no longer have a stockpile of diamonds but really, if your entire business plan is hinged on scarcity, you might lie about that so basically no one really believes them and in 1999, the New York Times estimated the value of De Beer’s diamonds to be $5.2 billion.
Anyways, there’s more to the story to it than just supply. There needs to be a demand as well. By the Great Depression of the 1930s, nobody in the United States was buying diamonds because no one had the extra money for that. So De Beers hired an ad agency, N.W Ayer and Son, to come up with what is possibly the most successful advertising campaign in history. They started with the slogan “a diamond is forever” and built off that. This was a clever way of making everyday people see the value of spending their hard earned money on something completely unnecessary to their lives because at least it would be something that could be passed on down through the family for generations. If you watched my All About Money episode then you might start to see some similarities here in the way that we humans can be pretty easily convinced that something has value just by being told enough times by enough people that it does. To further drive home the point of diamonds being precious, De Beers then began running print ads in magazines featuring the artwork of prominent and influential artists of the time like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, likening their diamonds to priceless works of art. With this in our collective brains, they then niched down even further and started promoting diamond engagement rings as the only way to prove your love for a woman. Other gemstones be damned, only a diamond would do when promising forever! Even more impressively, they convinced us all, men and women alike that women really, really love diamonds. Can you imagine being a gal in the 1950s like “huh, well honestly I prefer colorful rubies…” and then media and society tells you “actually, diamonds are a girl’s best friend” and you’re like “ugh fine, if you say so then I guess I really do love diamonds the best then.” That’s basically what happened. Not only did they start pushing the idea of buying a diamond engagement ring, they also found clever and subtle ways to encourage men to spend a hefty amount of money on these rings. They’d slip slogans into their advertising like “how else could two months’ salary last forever?” Clever, right? It really is, because of course, no one knew how much a man should be spending on an engagement ring and here they were, being given a distinct guideline…in fact, we still use the two-month salary rule as a guideline for buying an engagement ring now, not even realizing that it was an arbitrary number put into our minds decades ago by the very people who would benefit from the purchase as a way to squeeze us for as much as they could. And if you don’t want to believe that, let me tell you, that at first their advertisements only pushed the idea that an engagement ring should cost one month’s salary but they quickly realized that they could bump that number even higher and men would still buy them. In Japan, they even convinced everyone that an engagement ring should cost a man three months’ salary.
By the 1980s, the diamond engagement ring industry was booming in the United States. The advertising campaign had worked so well that forty plus years later, 80% of brides were receiving a diamond in their engagement ring. Like the notion of the ring needing to be on the left-ring finger to represent love, the idea that a pricey diamond was necessary to show someone you want to spend forever with them was easily and permanently embedded in our social consciousness. And it wasn’t just Americans who fell for it. Similar campaigns ran in Japan and China with the same results. Even now, the number has only slightly dropped with a 2019 report by De Beers stating that 72% of American brides still are being gifted with diamond rings.
Now that’s not to say the trend is world-wide. In many European countries they either don’t do engagement rings at all or they chose other gemstones for their rings. In Africa there are many different traditions depending on the country, region, religion, and group but as is the case in Kenya, couples may exchange elaborate jewelry for their engagements but not necessarily rings or gemstones. In some Hindu cultures, women wear toe rings to signify their engagement and in many Indian cultures, they wear bangle bracelets instead of rings. Ireland may have the most fun tradition however, with their claddagh rings. The rings which feature hands clasping a crown may be worn on the right hand facing in if you’re single, out if you’re in a relationship, and then switched over to the left hand with the crown facing in when you’re engaged and out when you’re married.
But how come only women wear engagement rings? Obviously the patriarchy, right? Yeah, I mean, yeah, that’s about it. Kind of hard to argue that one when it’s historically accepted knowledge that marriage and engagement was a business transaction in which the wife was the commodity for so much of human history and wearing a ring was an easily visible way to show everyone that the woman now belonged to a man. But never fear! With times a-changing and cultural differences abound, that’s increasingly not the case now-a-days! In fact, Ed Sheeran and Michael Buble both wore engagement rings before their respective marriages, opening the door to that becoming a more accepted norm among men and now that same-sex marriage is legal in many places, it’s become commonplace for gay couples to exchange engagement rings which they both may wear. And in Chile, it’s actually the tradition for both men and women to wear engagement rings on their right hands and then move them over to the left hand when they get married.
In the United States couples are spending less and less on engagement rings, which is actually a great thing because really, why should anyone go broke for a diamond that has very little resale value right when they’re beginning their lives together? We have plenty of student loans, medical bills, and rising housing prices to put us firmly in debt without the help of a ring, thank you very much! According to the Knot’s 2019 Jewelry and Engagement Study, the national average for an engagement ring is $5,900. I said that’s down right? It is…by 7-9% from previous years. Other studies show that number to be lower, between $3,200-3,400 which seems slightly more reasonable and less anxiety provoking if you lose or damage your ring.
So there we have it, the history and traditions of engagement rings in a nutshell. Hopefully you found this interesting and at least slightly relaxing. If so, please give this video a thumbs up. I thank you so much for taking time out of your day to color and chill with me while we learned something new and I hope to see you here again soon. Bye.
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