The diamond is the universal symbol of love. Of all its many roles, it is as a messenger of romantic love that the diamond has resonated through the centuries to emerge today as powerful as ever. This began with the belief that Cupid’s arrows were tipped with diamonds. The word diamond is derived from the Greek word “adamas”, meaning “unconquerable”; over the centuries the belief evolved that people who owned and wore diamonds were indestructible. The Greeks even believed that diamonds were the tears of the gods. Diamonds were also believed to be splinters from stars, which fell to earth. Roman soldiers would wear diamonds into battle because they believed it made them undefeatable. Eventually the attributes of courage, unfailing virtue, perpetual youth, good fortune, marital bliss and sweet dreams became associated with diamond.
Engagement Rings in Antiquity
Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics depict eternity as an unending circle or ring; it is believed that a ring as a symbol of a wedding pledge comes from an old custom of two people pledging a bond inside a sacred circle (often a created by a ring of stones). The reason we wear wedding rings on the third finger of the left-hand comes from the Egyptian belief that the vena amoris, (the vein in your left-hand), connected that finger to your heart. The Romans used a plain iron hoop as a wedding ring, but among the elite, the iron ring was worn while indoors and replaced with the more valuable gold band when outdoors. Sometimes there would be inscriptions carved on the inside of the band.
According to a 5th century Roman writer called Macrobius, the wedding ring was to be worn on the fourth finger of the left hand. However, the Catholic Church tradition was to have couples wear rings on their right-hands; this is still the tradition in much of Europe today.
As with many of our traditions regarding rings, the engraving of a ring also started with the Egyptians. In the 16th century the British and French took ring engraving to a whole new level, engraving posies, or small love poems inside the ring. These posy rings are still available today, indeed we have had them in stock many times over the years.
Just as the symbolism of the wedding ring has developed over the years, so has the use of diamond changed.
The earliest references to diamonds are dating from about 300 B.C. However, it was not until much later that diamonds were first mined in significant quantites, in India, in the now mythical mines of Golconda. Many of the world’s most famous diamonds came from Golconda, including the Hope Diamond, the Koh-i-Noor and the Regent Diamond. They finally made their way to Europe, as the Roman’s trade routes spread across the Eastern world. It was in the 12th century that the first use of diamonds was seen in royal western jewellery, in the Crown of St. Stephen of Hungary.
Throughout the ages royals have adorned themselves with diamonds, as a show of power and wealth. Indeed, in the 1200s Louis IX of France declared that only royalty could wear diamonds. However, it was not until the 1400s that women joined in, when Agnes Sorel (a mistress of the King of France) became the first recorded woman to wear diamonds.
Engagement Rings in The Middle Ages
This is an 15th century diamond ring; you can see that the natural shape of the rough is intact, and simply mounted on a gold band.
By the fifteenth century, the diamond ring was a common feature of royal weddings. The first recorded diamond engagement ring was given in the year 1477, a gift of Archduke Maximilian to Mary of Burgundy.
However, the news of the ruling elite wearing diamonds was not always pleasing to the common citizen. The rumour that Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, plastered the walls of her country retreat with diamonds did not go down well with the French people!
This following poem was written in 1475, to mark the wedding of Constanzo Sforza to Camilla d’Aragona,
‘Two torches in one ring of burning fire / Two wills, two hearts, two passions, all bonded in marriage by a diamond.’
The obvious symbolism of the diamond being as unbreakable as a marriage (and vice versa) is clear to see!
Gradually, during the Renaissance, these rings became more and more elaborately decorated. New techniques such as enamelling, and improvements in goldsmithing allowed the manufacture of increasingly intricate designs.
Engagement Rings in Georgian and Victorian Times
With the discovery of diamonds in Brazil in the 18th century, diamond jewellery became more readily available, and was no longer soley for those at the very top of society; more and more people could afford to wear diamonds, and diamond cluster rings were the height of fashion. A common design is seen below, a cluster of small rose-cut diamonds arranged around a larger centre diamond.
It is worth noting that the metal is every bit as important as the stone; historically it was a widely accepted belief that gold was the metal of the sun, while silver was the metal of the moon and platinum was the metal of heaven. Prior to about 1900, you will find that most rings are made of gold, while after that rings were predominantly platinum. In the modern era, both are used.
Below is another antique engagement ring, comprising of Rose Cut diamonds, which look best in candlelight. This is interesting in that it reflects the societal rule that diamonds were for evening wear, and not for daytime wear. This did not begin to change until the 19th century.
This is a classic carved mount vintage engagement ring from the late 19th century, with ornate decoration, swirls and beautiful Old Cut diamonds.
The simple effortless style of the Tiffany setting, created in 1886 and almost unchanged ever since, offered an ideal way to showcase to the beauty and fire of the diamond. Developments in diamond cutting in the later 1800s and early 1900s maximised the sparkle of a diamond, making the solitaire a perfect way to display a diamond. Below is a classic Tiffany setting, showing off a diamond to its best!
Art Nouveau Engagement Rings
Art Nouveau style focussed on Naturalistic motifs, emphasizing soft lines, fine detail and heavy ornamentation. In the ring below you can see the filigree style typical of the era, with lots of intricate work. This was made possible by the use of platinum, which allows one to create a ring with more detail than gold will typically allow.
Art Deco Diamond Rings
Art Deco engagement rings were almost the complete opposite of the Edwardian style – simple and geometric, and alost totally focussed on the diamond as opposed to the setting. Below is a classic Art Deco ring, with straight diamond baguettes.
Finally, you can learn more about diamonds here: Weldons Diamonds Information Pages