The History of Diamond Engagement Rings

The History of Diamond Engagement RingsSummer is the season for weddings, and today, having a diamond engagement or wedding ring is virtually a given. But, it wasn’t always that way.

The custom and use of engagement rings dates back to the ancient Romans and Greeks. The rings were placed on the fourth finger as it was once believed that it contained a vein that led directly to the heart. First made of iron to withstand everyday manual and household labor, engagement rings eventually were made primarily of gold—even if only to be worn out on public occasions.

It was during the Middle Ages that the engagement ring came to be viewed as an outward pronunciation of commitment between a man and a woman. It was given and accepted as a pledge, a commitment and promise that would under no circumstances be broken. Thus the phrase “until death do us part” was born.

Early use of diamonds

Although some might argue that diamonds are a girl’s best friend, the use of diamonds in engagement rings was first recorded in the 15th century amongst the European aristocracy. It wasn’t until the mid 1800’s when diamonds were discovered in vast quantities in South Africa that they became affordable for those of modest means.

Ironically, the use of diamonds in engagement and wedding rings slowly declined, hitting a low point after the First World War and into the Great Depression. Diamond rings were going out of style, especially among the younger generation. In fact, in 1939, only 10 percent of engagement rings contained diamonds. Enter the De Beers diamond cartel, which controlled the majority of the diamond inventory at that time—and still does.

The Four C’s

In an attempt to revive interest in diamonds, they launched a campaign to educate the public about the Four C’s of diamond quality (color, clarity, cut and carat weight). Today, you can hardly walk into a jeweler’s shop without having a discussion about the Four C’s.

In 1947, the slogan “A Diamond is Forever” was introduced. The goal of this campaign by De Beers was to persuade individuals that first, an engagement ring is indispensable, and, second, that no engagement ring was complete without a diamond. Obviously, the campaign worked. In 1939 only 10 percent of engagement rings had diamonds. By 1990, 80 percent did and the percentage today is thought to be much higher.

Selecting a diamond

When selecting a diamond, be aware that that diamonds may come with or without a grading certificate from various gemological laboratories. Smaller (less than 1 carat), less expensive diamonds tend not to have a grading certificate due to the expense involved. Larger (greater than 1 carat), more expensive stones may come with a certificate. Insist that any stone in excess of $5,000 be graded. The most accepted lab worldwide is the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). For resale purposes alone, insist on GIA certificates only.


The color grade rates the body color of the diamond on a scale from colorless to having a tint of yellow or brown. The less body color the better as color absorbs light making the diamond less bright. However, a slight tint does bring the price down and is not noticeable to the eye. Color grades range from Colorless (D) to Light Yellow (Z). The best balance between cost and value tend to be colors I, J, K and L.


The clarity grade of the diamond refers to the freedom from inclusions. It is good to have some small inclusions in your diamond because they will lower the price of the diamond, prove it is a diamond (not a look alike) and allow you to identify your diamond, if need be. Clarity grades range from flawless to included with the best balance between cost and value tending to be very slightly included 2 (VS2) to slightly included 1 or 2 (SI1, SI2). Some included stones (I1) can look very nice.


Cut can refer to the shape of the diamond but more importantly applies to how well the facets are placed to reflect light back to the eye. The best cut diamonds will typically have more weight removed in the cutting process. So, a cutter is constantly balancing how much the diamond will weigh when finished and how bright it will be. Look for stones whose cut is rated “good” at a minimum to “very good.”


That brings us to carat weight. One carat is simply one fifth of a gram (or slightly more than 141 carats in an ounce). The carat weight, when combined with the other three attributes, contributes to the value of the diamond.


There is actually a fifth C: cost. Cost is theoretically a composite of the four C’s cited above. Diamond prices for similar stones vary widely between jewelers, so comparison shopping is very important. Markup can reach 100 percent over wholesale cost.


So, what do I consider the best value in diamonds, or how do I respond when people ask me what I would recommend? I consider carat weight the most important of all the C’s. Why? Everyone likes a big diamond, or as large as one can afford within one’s budget. But what about the other C’s?

When you go into most jewelry stores, you end up looking at diamonds under a magnifying glass or microscope so the salesperson can show you the wonderful color and clarity of the diamond. But remember three things: 1) Neither you nor anyone else will ever look at that diamond under magnification again—so does it really matter? 2) As soon as you get soap, lotion, makeup or anything on your ring, that microscopic clarity and brilliant color disappear—your diamond will never be as bright and clear as the day you saw it at the jewelers under perfect conditions. 3) No one else who admires your diamond will ever get within less than three feet of your ring to see its quality anyway. Certainly, no one will ever pull out a magnifying glass to get a closer look!

Simply, I would follow the recommendations for color, clarity and cut as above, and then I would buy the largest stone I could afford within my budget. Size does matter when it relates to diamonds.

John Fisher is owner of Fisher Precious Metals, a source of loose diamonds at wholesale cost from national and international suppliers. You can reach him at [email protected] or visit

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