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The History of Custom Engagement Rings Part 4: From the Great Depression to Today

By Yaĝé Enigmus

Due to the economic impact of the Great Depression, the ability an average worker had to invest in a custom engagement ring was limited. As a result, custom engagement rings were temporarily less popular than they had previously been, and the price of gemstones dropped, with diamonds taking a harder price hit than any other gem. In order to combat falling diamond sales, the international diamond cartel De Beers began a marketing campaign in 1938 that would save the diamond market and mark the beginning of their influence on the world’s engagement ring traditions. De Beers initially introduced “the four C’s” of diamond grading as part of a push to illustrate the value of diamonds, a system that would later be modified to use with coloured gemstones as well. Around the same time, various states in the U.S. began to repeal laws which persecuted affianced men for a “breach of promise”, a term which likely has roots in the Visigothic Code of the 7th century that refers to the breaking off of an engagement. Breaking off an engagement was once seen as being quite harmful to women, as betrothal to a man often lead to sexual intimacy and it was very difficult for women to find suitors in archaic times if they were no longer virgins; in more recent times the danger a woman faced after the breaking off of an engagement tended to be less related to her sexual health and more a consequence of the expenses incurred during the planning of her wedding.

A 1940s style 14K rose gold emerald and diamond engagement ring
A 1940s style 14K rose gold emerald and diamond engagement ring. Image: Skyjems

 

The fact that American women were no longer able to sue their ex-fiancé for damages related to a “breach of promise” made custom engagement rings extremely appealing as they could serve to provide some degree of financial security to a woman in the event that her engagement was broken off. What this did to the bespoke engagement ring market was place very high importance on the price of the ring. This shift in the mindset of buyers made expensive engagement rings a borderline requirement for betrothal and brought new attention to diamonds, but the De Beers cartel wanted diamond engagement rings to be seen as superior to those that featured rubies, sapphires, and emeralds, so in 1947 the slogan “a diamond is forever” was included in De Beers advertisements as an attempt to argue that only diamonds were suitable as the centre stones of custom engagement rings. De Beers took note of the association between an engagement ring’s price and the security it provided to a potential bride. As a way to encourage greater spending on the part of those purchasing diamond engagement rings, they introduced the notion that one should allocate a specific proportion of their yearly income to cover the cost of a ring. De Beers’ campaign lasted throughout most of the 20th century and was a great success, ingraining the practice of buying a loved one a bespoke diamond engagement ring in the minds of countless people across the world; prior to the rise of the De Beers diamond empire, less than fifty percent of all engagement rings purchased in North America featured diamonds as their centre stone.

A De Beers advertisement from the mid 20th century
A De Beers advertisement from the mid 20th century. Image: Bario Neal News

 

Shortly before the end of the 20th century, the De Beers cartel lost its monopoly over the diamond trade, and subsequently lost their control over the world’s perception of diamond engagement rings. The impact of the De Beers marketing campaign can still be seen, as many people still resonate with the practice of proposing to a loved one with a diamond engagement ring, but bespoke engagement rings featuring coloured gemstones have once again become popular. Today engagement ring designs are highly varied, mixing elements of design from previous eras and melding them with channel settings, pavé accented shanks, and all manner of contemporary jewelry innovations. 

A contemporary 18K white gold sapphire and diamond engagement ring
A contemporary 18K white gold sapphire and diamond engagement ring. Image: Skyjems

 

A practice that can be seen in countless nations across the globe, gifting a potential spouse with a bespoke engagement ring is a tradition that has an extremely nuanced past. The history of custom engagement rings is filled with stories from numerous cultures and belief systems that contribute to its complexity. This custom offers a way to send a personal message to a significant other with a piece of gemstone jewelry as beautiful and as timeless as the ages old convention itself.

Here are more of our favourite engagement rings from the Skyjems catalog:

2.62ct Emerald & Diamond Ring in 14kt White Gold

2.62ct Emerald & Diamond Ring in 14kt White Gold

$4,800.00

Fine Quality 12.21ct IGI Certified Unheated Blue Sapphire & Diamond Ring in 18kt White Gold

Fine Quality 12.21ct IGI Certified Unheated Blue Sapphire & Diamond Ring in 18kt White Gold

$13,500.00

1.20 ct GIA Certified Blue Sapphire Three Stone Diamond Ring in 18kt White Gold

1.20 ct GIA Certified Blue Sapphire Three Stone Diamond Ring in 18kt White Gold

$5,280.00

 

© 2020 Yaĝé Enigmus a.k.a. Kevin Back


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