The A-Z of Jewelry: E is for… Engagement Ring

By Sarah Jordan
Continuing Sotheby's series exploring the history of jewelry trends, Sarah Jordan looks at the history of engagement rings.

W oven throughout history are tales of betrothal rings, posey rings, starkly unromantic iron rings and, later, the diamond engagement rings that have dominated the 20th and 21st centuries.

To trace the history of engagement rings, it is crucial to journey back to the Ancient Egyptians, who have been found buried wearing rings made from twisted reeds. Believing the circle to be a powerful symbol of eternity, the Ancient Egyptians wore simple hoops on the ring finger of the left hand, which was thought to contain the ‘Vein of Love’ that led directly to the heart. The Romans had a far less romantic approach to engagement rings, with the majority being presented as tokens of ownership. Common examples featured small keys or plain iron bands evocative of shackles.

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images.

Thankfully, times have changed. The turning point is said to be 1477, when Archduke Maximilian of Austria commissioned the first-recorded diamond engagement ring for his beloved, Mary of Burgundy. Between 1500 and 1700, it was the ‘posey ring’ – a simple band of silver or gold engraved with romantic inscriptions – that dominated. The famously sentimental Victorians popularised decorative engagement rings, set with both diamonds and gemstones in the shape of bows, hearts and flowers. As the Edwardian era began, delicate filigree settings in platinum became the order of the day.

Yet these twists and turns in the history of engagement rings are overshadowed by the discovery of diamonds in South Africa and the role of De Beers in creating the ‘A Diamond is Forever’ slogan. First introduced in the 1940s, De Beers took the diamond engagement ring market and launched it into the stratosphere, encouraging men to spend two months’ wages on something to be revealed during a proposal of marriage.

Since then, engagement rings have offered an opportunity to wow. From Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ Van Cleef & Arpels ring set with a 2.84 carat emerald and a 2.88 carat diamond, to Elizabeth Taylor’s 29.4 carat emerald-cut stunner, the recent past is filled with incredible incarnations of the world’s oldest symbol of love.

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's

Dazzling Jewels