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The engagement ring as we know it is a fairly recent global phenomenon, but does it actually mean anything? Emmanuella Ngimbi wonders whether we ought to be thinking outside the cliché in a velvet box

I was talking to a friend the other day whose boyfriend of a decade refused her hand in marriage. She was far from happy. He had given her multiple reasons why she shouldn’t want to marry. 'You’re meant to be a feminist, why the sudden affection for patriarchal systems? We’ve got a shared mortgage, isn’t that marriage by another name?' And so on. 'Then, as if it couldn't get any less romantic, he says to me, "Look, if you want a ring, you can have one." '

While engagement rings have been around in Western culture for millennia, a diamond hasn’t always been a girl’s best friend. In fact, the familiar flash of a twinkling rock on the proudly wiggled ring finger didn’t appear until 1887 when Tiffany & Co. of New York released their single-stone diamond engagement ring. Every woman wanted one. It was an absolute wow. So much so that, like hip-hop and TikTok, it was even considered something of a menace to society.

"When Tiffany & Co. of New York released their single stone diamond engagement ring. Every woman wanted one. It was an absolute wow."

In 1910, society’s favourite magazine, Queen, stated rather haughtily that the engagement ring had lost its noble meaning and now semaphored only cash. The 'pre-eminent symbol of love, friendship and marriage [is] no longer designed in the significance of the gift', the writer wailed. Instead, the engagement ring had become all about 'intrinsic worth and the exchange value'.

Diamonds did sometimes crop up on rings, but the point about the Tiffany & Co. ring was the setting, which allowed more light under the stone and gave it that familiar disco-ball sparkle. It was a ring that said, 'Look at what I’ve got.'

The first recorded appearance of diamonds on an engagement ring was in 1477, when Maximilian, Archduke of Austria, gave Duchess Mary of Burgundy a gold ring with 'hogback' diamonds – the antecedent to today’s baguette – arranged in a gothic-looking 'M'.

The original diamond engagement ring, given to Mary of Burgundy in 1477, an early jewellery influencer

Before this, engagement rings might sometimes have included diamonds, but were usually rather more wholemeal affairs, drawing on a tradition that dated back to Roman times, or possibly earlier, which saw rings exchanged to close business deals (because so few people could write). In proposals of marriage, however, rings were given not to seal the deal, but as a sign of a promise to go through with it – much like modern engagement rings. Back then only the very rich had gold rings; humbler folk put up with cheaper materials like ivory, bone, tin or wood. Can you imagine eight-times-married Elizabeth Taylor, the violet-eyed spirit animal of all big diamond lovers putting up with a wooden ring?

"Can you imagine eight-times-married Elizabeth Taylor, the violet-eyed spirit animal of all big diamond lovers putting up with a wooden ring?"

By the 20th century, this ancient promissory note had segued into a display of wealth – or of canny marketing. As Omnēque’s fine jewellery expert, Joanna Hardy, notes, before World War II only 10 per cent of the world would have had a diamond engagement ring. By 1951, over 80 per cent of American brides alone owned them.

For Hardy, the dominance of diamond engagement rings in the past 80 years is nothing to celebrate. 'A demand for diamond rings is exactly what the British mining group De Beers needed. With a diamond mining business in South Africa, the company launched an advertising campaign in 1947 with the slogan "A diamond is forever". It was the best marketing ploy ever because they convinced everyone that they needed to have diamonds to seal an engagement.'

I can't think what was wrong with wood, or bone. Or tin.

The De Beers push was a roaring success, even in countries with no engagement ring tradition at all, as Hardy explains: 'Japan became one of the biggest diamond engagement ring buyers in the world in the '70s, so De Beers also successfully converted a culture where having a diamond engagement ring was completely foreign.'

By the 1970s, 78 per cent of British women wore diamond engagement rings, as well as 48 per cent of French women. Interestingly, however, among Brazilians the number was still only six per cent – perhaps because Brazil has some of the most beautiful gemstones in the world, and not even aggressive marketing of white diamonds could put Brazilian brides off the other approximately 3,000 gemstones the planet has to offer.

'It was all just a little bit more open before the De Beers campaign,' says the jewellery historian Georgina Izzard. 'This huge emphasis on engagement rings is a relatively recent idea. Even 50 years ago, plenty of people would only have had a wedding ring.'

"This huge emphasis on engagement rings is a relatively recent idea. Even 50 years ago, plenty of people would only have had a wedding ring." 

More than half a century after that big marketing push, and at a time when many old traditions are being swiftly despatched, why are we still so wedded to engagement rings?

One possibility is that engagements now last longer than ever before. Gone are the days of taking seriously Debrett’s Etiquette & Modern Manners, and its advice for those wishing to announce an engagement: 'Silence, until a firm decision on future plans has been made, is always preferable to a hasty announcement followed by a sad retraction. Long engagements are trying,' it pronounces. But the average engagement now lasts for two years – not at all the brief affair Debrett’s recommends – and, according to American data, 13 per cent don’t result in marriage anyway. Izzard wonders if, in these times of incredibly long engagements, 'Perhaps having a ring is everything.'

When Josephine said yes to Napoleon, on receiving this pear cut, or teardrop, diamond and sapphire ring she set a trend for two stone engagement rings - another early influencer

And if the traditional engagement ring isn’t really much of a tradition at all, what should we be choosing instead? Rather than revert to a not-especially-old tradition, and one boosted by cynical corporate marketing at that, why not follow the Indian tradition? Izzard says, 'In India you can have a wedding bracelet, necklace, ankle chain ... whatever you want.'

"Why not follow the Indian tradition? In India you can have a wedding bracelet, necklace, ankle chain ... whatever you want."

My family is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where tradition demands that the engagement process starts with the groom and his family giving the potential wife an envelope of money, which is symbolic of interest – kind of like those old promissory rings from Roman times. Then the woman’s family will send a formal letter confirming they have accepted the envelope and agreeing to meet. This old African tradition of an envelope full of cash, commonly known as 'bridewealth', is no different from this more recent one of an expensive-looking stone in a boring setting that symbolises possession and a sort of dowry – oops, sorry, I mean love.

Nonetheless, as in Japan, engagement rings have taken off in the DRC, and most modern women who have adopted western habits tend to get the old tradition and the new western Eurocentric ring too. Feminism has a long way to go, and for all that engagement rings might be a bit iffy, I don’t know any woman who would shun something of beauty. (For the record, I’d take both, as long as the ring featured a Congolese tourmaline that was ethically sourced and mined by women – or, failing that, a purple sapphire.)

Whatever you choose, at least make sure that emblem of togetherness is a ring you truly treasure and, dare I add, is not completely dull – however sparkly it might be.

My friend did finally find herself a ring – vintage, Art Deco, platinum, with a cushion-cut pink sapphire surrounded by baguette diamonds – and she let her boyfriend pay for it. She briefly wore it on her ring finger and then moved it to her middle finger, the one the Ancient Romans called the digitus impudicus. "It feels more right there," she tells me, with more than a hint of a snigger.

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