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Sapphires as Heirlooms

The History of Engagement Rings

The word “bethrothed” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “troweth,” which means truth.  In medieval England, a betrothed couple shared a “truth” or “pledge” to marry, and a ring served as the outward sign that a woman was promised to another.

The idea of a “period of engagement” arose in the Middle Ages, when, Pope Innocent III instituted a mandatory waiting period between betrothal and marriage.  In the 51st Canon of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) it is stated:

Whence, following in the footsteps of our predecessors, we absolutely forbid clandestine marriages; and we forbid also that a priest presume to witness such. Wherefore, extending to other localities generally the particular custom that prevails in some, we decree that when marriages are to be contracted they must be announced publicly in the churches by the priests during a suitable and fixed time, so that if legitimate impediments exist, they may be made known.”

Portrait of Archduke Maximilian of Austria by Albrecht Dürer (1519)

The majority of the betrothal and wedding rings used in the distant past were composed of simple bands.  Although we know that some wedding rings in the Middle Ages contained gemstones, many can’t be positively identified as true betrothal or espousal rings unless they contain an inscription or are otherwise identified as such.  Some of these gemstone rings resemble our modern day engagement rings and others do not.  Sapphires, rubies, emeralds, and diamonds were all used in these early tokens of love.

Although diamonds were used in rings for many centuries, some experts date the origin of the diamond engagement ring to the 15th century, which also coincides with the time that new techniques for cutting diamonds were developed.

Although it is unlikely the first diamond ring ever used was a love token, the first recorded account of a diamond betrothal ring comes to us from 1477.  It was given by Archduke Maximilian of Austria to Mary of Burgundy at the suggestion of a faithful advisor who counseled: “At the betrothal Your Grace must have a ring set with a diamond and also a gold ring.”  Although the marriage in question was based on Mary’s sizeable fortune, the couple was apparently happy together until Mary died at age 25 as the result of a horseback riding accident.

Engagement rings very similar to those we know today were common by the end of the 19th century.  Set with a pearl or the best stone the groom could afford, they signaled the couple’s intent to marry after a period of engagement.  At the wedding, the couple frequently substituted simple bands inscribed with their initials and the date of the ceremony.

Diana Spencer and Prince Charles

Although the discovery of large diamond deposits in Brazil and South Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries helped fuel the ascendancy of diamond engagement rings, many of the most affluent actually preferred colored gemstones such as rubies and sapphires.  The diamond engagement ring did not become the standard until after an extensive marketing campaign by De Beers in the middle of the 20th century, which gave us the phrase, “A Diamond is Forever.”  The De Beers campaign was required to bolster the price and public interest in large quantities of diamonds that were suddenly flooding the market.

Because the 20th century was overwhelmingly dominated by the diamond, many of today’s couples have decided that the diamond solitaire is old news.  Instead, many couples are selecting engagement rings with sapphires and other colored gemstones.