Long before diamonds became a girl's best friend, wedding jewelry was still as meaningful: History credits ancient Egyptians with exchanging woven reed or leather rings as tokens of their affection, drawing on the shape of the band to represent "eternal life and love." The Romans exchanged symbolic accessories, too, although theirs were far less romantic—women were given a custom "ring attached to small keys, indicating their husbands' ownership."
According to the American Gem Society, diamond engagement rings didn't come into play until 1477, when Archduke Maximillian of Austria presented his fiancé, Mary of Burgundy, with a gold band with diamonds in the shape of an "M" in honor of their engagement (and as a nod to their shared monogram). In the centuries after the Archduke chose a diamond for his bride-to-be, engagement rings evolved repeatedly, following popular styles and trends of the time periods. Faceted gemstones and detailed metalwork were in demand in the 1700s and early 1800s, while Queen Victoria's 63 years on the throne—from 1876 to 1901—inspired several different looks: In earlier years, it was popular to use the bride's birthstone in an engagement ring; in the mid- to late-1800s, darker gems like black onyx and jet were most coveted; and in the late Victorian era, jewelers saw a rise in solitaire engagement rings and the use of platinum, according to the International Gem Society.
But the 1870 discovery of massive amounts of the diamonds in South Africa set engagement jewelry on a new course. Until then, diamonds had been mined in quantities of only a few pounds every year worldwide, and the discovery of the mines—which erased the rarity of diamonds—meant the gems would no longer maintain their value. In The Atlantic's "Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?" Edward Jay Epstein details the way in which the major investors in those mines joined together to create De Beers Consolidated Mines, "a single entity that would be powerful enough to control production and perpetuate the illusion of scarcity of diamonds."
Two decades after World War I, writes Epstein, the company realized that "the total amount of diamonds sold in America, measured in carats, had declined by 50 percent; at the same time, the quality of the diamonds, measured in dollar value, had declined by nearly 100 percent." Since they already controlled the supply of diamonds, the De Beers company set out to control the demand, too, finding a niche market in engagement rings and convincing buyers that only diamonds could fill it. "Both women and men had to be made to perceive diamonds not as marketable precious stones," Epstein writes, "but as an inseparable part of courtship and married life." De Beers embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign that included planting diamonds in movie placements, celebrity photo ops, and popular fashion trends, and in 1947, began using the iconic slogan coined by copywriter Frances Gerety, "A diamond is forever."
For generations since, diamonds have been a standard for engagement rings—in 2017, Wedding Wire reports that 74 percent of brides received a diamond engagement ring with an average cost of $5,000. Celebrity engagement rings have been making news ever since Aristotle Onassis proposed to Jackie Kennedy with the 40.42-carat diamond cut by Harry Winston in 1968, and they've offered endless opportunities for comparison ever since—do you prefer Amal Clooney's ethically-mined, seven-carat emerald cut, Beyonce's 18-carat on a split band, or one of Victoria Beckham's 14 different engagement rings? Jewelry may have come a long way from the woven reeds of the Egyptians, but one thing that never changes is the love and commitment symbolized by an engagement ring—whether it's made with a diamond or not.