The concept of diamonds meaning a love symbol wasn’t just a marketing scheme invented in the mid twentieth century. The discovery and use of diamonds goes back thousands of centuries, to as early as 500 B.C. The earliest ring was found in a gravesite from approximately 160 A.D. containing a teenage girl a few miles south of Rome; someone found it important for her to take it with her and wear in the afterlife. Was it an act of love or for protection? The Greek name for diamond is “adamantas,” which translated means invincible, because of its hardness.
In Roman times diamonds were coveted and an expensive commodity symbolizing wealth and power. I may have mentioned in the past, a slave caught with a simple gold ring could face execution. Imagine being found with even one diamond piece on their person!
There are documented pieces of jewelry set with diamonds that date back to 300 B.C., found in what today is Afghanistan. One of the earliest diamond rings on display was found in what is now Syria. The ring dates from 300 A.D. and is nearly seven carats, slightly brown in color in its natural crystal state, and in a beautifully handcrafted ring mounting. It is the largest diamond surviving from the ancient world!
The advent of learning to cut and polish a rough crystal occurred in later medieval years, improving a gem’s shape and brilliance, and making it much more appealing and popular with the different classes. In the 1200s, goldsmiths were putting diamonds in all kinds of jewelry. By the 1400s, rings were engraved with inscriptions professing love and devotions.
An early example of a romantic or wedding ring was in the 1417 will of Joanna Fastolf. It was a ruby and diamond ring listed as a “marrying ring,” which evolved into the now popular engagement ring, and was inscribed in French: “Love you with all my heart.”
Another fact of romantic diamond history was the diamond marrying ring that emperor Maximillian of Austria presented to Mary of Burgundy in 1477 to seal their marriage; he placed it on the third finger of her left hand that the ancients claimed to connect directly to the heart by the “vein of love.” This ring is said to be the first diamond engagement ring.
By 1725 diamond rings or marrying rings were pretty much the norm. It was not unusual for a woman to present a man a diamond, but normally it was the other way around like it is today. There is documentation in France that many weddings were delayed or postponed because the groom to be could not afford a diamond ring for his bride to be.
I have seen and restored many diamond engagement rings from the 1800s during my career. I had the esteemed pleasure to restore at my workshop the three stone diamond ring that Union Army General William T. Sherman presented to his wife in 1850.
Both from here and abroad the practice of presenting an engagement ring was especially popular during the Civil War and Victorian age.
Fast forward to the 1930s. The U.S. is slowly clawing out of the worst depression in its history. In 1938, De Beers, the largest diamond conglomerate in the world, hires an advertising agency and the slogan “A diamond is forever” is born, along with the outrageous suggestion that gentlemen save two month’s pay to buy the perfect engagement ring for their brides to be. Did it work? Well, slowly at first (WWII being a negative contributing factor, until after the war’s conclusion). By the middle to late 1940s, diamond engagement rings were jewelry stores’ leading sales item, and apparently the practice is now carved in stone.
Today the suggestion is that a gentleman should save three hard earned month’s pay to purchase that diamond ring. Currently 80% of all American brides get a “rock” on their finger.
To my amazement, the average engagement ring here in the U.S. is one carat in size and the average amount spent is five thousand dollars (Yes, $5,000!). So the experts are telling me a dude making $80K a year is spending $20,000 on an engagement ring? Maybe in a fantasy world! What are these experts smoking? Last time I checked that statistic, the average diamond was a quarter of a carat and about one thousand dollars for the whole ring. I’m sure the national average is up some but not anywhere near $20K, at least not where I’m sitting.
The most popular diamond cut presently is the cushion cut, radiant and remarkably for the past ten years, the princess cut, the round brilliant cut is always a staple that never goes out of style. The least popular in many jewelers’ opinion would be the heart shape, a bit corny and expensive in their heyday. Ovals and marquis cuts are in demand occasionally.
I am putting together engagement rings in platinum and 18kt. or 14kt. white gold, yellow gold not so much. The halo design where the center is surrounded by small diamonds is still in demand, but lately a simple four or six prong solitaire in any white metal has had a rebirth.
I remember years ago a young man lamenting on the cost of a one carat engagement ring, saying, “Why can’t women just like a piece of cut granite instead?” I told him I would be happy to put that combination together for him, just don’t expect her to say YES! And sorry, final sale, no refund or return. The diamond engagement ring; It’s all about the love… and apparently a healthy bank account!
Richard Alan is a designer/goldsmith and Marco’s Island jeweler for over 25 years. He is a purveyor of fine diamonds and precious stones and is the owner of The Harbor Goldsmith of Marco Island located at the newly renovated Island Plaza. He welcomes your questions and comments. Call 239.394.9275 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the website at: www.harborgldsmith.com.