Why Do We Use a Diamond Ring? Tracing the History of Today’s Marriage Proposal

According to recent statistics, about 80% of American brides get diamond engagement rings, and between 80% and 90% of them prefer a diamond-set ring over every other gemstone. The time-honored tradition of proposing with a diamond ring seems to have been with us forever, but when did it really begin? And how was the tradition kept over the years? 

diamond ring


According to a recent Reader’s Digest piece on the subject, proposing with an engagement ring dates back to the ancient Egyptians. They believed circles were symbols of eternity, and couples exchanged rings made out of braided reeds, wearing them on the left hand ring finger. There’s even a charming little explanation for that, as well: the left hand ring finger apparently had a vein “that ran directly to the heart, later named Vena amoris”.

Centuries later, the ancient Romans gave another boost to the tradition. Around the 2nd century B.C., Roman men gave their beloved betrothal rings – instead of just giving money or a valuable object. This, however, was more a symbol of ownership than romantic love: once the brides were at home, they exchanged their gold ring with an iron ring, signifying the bride’s binding legal agreement to her husband.

Diamonds in engagement rings are a whole other story, and much more recent. One of the first documented uses of diamond engagement ring occurred in 1477, when the Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy with a ring set with thin, flat pieces of diamonds in the shape of an “M”. The Austrian started the trend which gained ground among the nobility of Europe, who gradually introduced more and more precious gems into their jewelry.

The biggest and most recent boost to the diamond engagement ring was given for purely commercial reasons. Trying to market their diamonds to the everyman and everywoman in the US, giant mining company De Beers launched an ad campaign during the Great Depression under the slogan “A diamond is forever”. The rest is history: By the early 1940s, engagement rings become the leading line of jewelry in most department stores.