The history of engagement rings is quite interesting and varies from culture to culture. It started as early as ancient Rome, where a bride had two rings. She wore the gold one in public and the iron one while she was working around the house. Men also might wear iron in private and gold in public.
In modern western culture, an engagement ring is traditionally worn to indicate an agreement to future marriage. While in western society the ring is normally worn on the left hand ring finger, this custom varies greatly throughout the world.
Often a second ring, the actual wedding ring, is exchanged during the wedding ceremony. While diamonds are traditional, other gemstones may be used.
When did diamonds become popular for engagement and wedding rings? They were first discovered in 1866 in South Africa. After this, diamonds became more available for use in rings. By 1938, the popularity of diamonds for rings had waned. Only 10% of engagement rings contained a diamond. Part of this was the aftermath of the Great Depression and economic collapse of 1929-1939. People could not afford rings.
So by 1938, a diamond cartel named De Beers began a marketing campaign to increase the popularity of diamonds. First they studied the market and by 1939 began the campaign. The campaign was centered around the 4Cs (clarity, color, carats and cut). "A diamond is forever" was introduced as a slogan in 1947. It persuaded consumers that diamonds were essential in engagement rings.
Part of the reason the campaign was successful was the changing culture and the resultant relationship between diamonds, value, and new social norms. Prior to the Great Depression, men could be sued for breaking engagements. There was a value put on being engaged. Engagements were long engagements.
It was a different time and culture. Women were not in the marketplace. They were dependent on being a homemaker in a household where the man was the breadwinner. Or perhaps they lived on a farm where both shared the labor of growing food crops. There was no welfare system as we know it today where an unmarried mother could get on food stamps. Marriage provided a form of security. The family unit was more intact and honored. Jumping from relationship to relationship was not the norm. Sex before marriage was taboo.
There were expenses in preparing for the wedding. There was the emotional struggle of being rejected after having been promised. All these things were potential for legal damages.
Particularly, if a woman had lost her virginity, it greatly reduced her prospects for marriage.The woman keeping the engagement ring was a kind of compensation for that. It became a form of monetary compensation and surety that the marriage would take place.
Times have changed. Men are no longer sued for breaking an engagement. Nowadays, there are laws in various jurisdictions as to whether, if the engagement is broken, whether the woman has to return the ring or can keep it. If the man breaks off the engagement, the woman may be entitled to keep the ring as a form of compensation. Or, the fiance may be entitled to demand the return of the ring. Again, it depends on the jurisdiction where the individuals live.
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