The History of Engagement Rings

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An engagement ring is more than just a piece of jewelry: It signifies a major commitment in your relationship and gets shown off a lot on the ‘gram. But the history behind why engagement rings exist dates all the way back to Ancient Rome. Find out how this piece of jewelry came to be and see how the styles have evolved over the centuries.

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In Ancient Rome, women were given rings made of ivory, flint, bone, copper, or iron “to signify a business contract or to affirm mutual love and obedience,” according to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). It wasn’t until 1477 that the very first diamond ring was commissioned by the Archduke Maximilian of Austria for his bride, Mary of Burgundy.

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Gimmel rings featured two or three hoops that fit together to form one ring. After getting engaged, the man and woman would each wear one part of the ring, then during the wedding ceremony they’d reconnect their bands and the bride would wear the unified ring. Catherine Bora (pictured) and Martin Luther opted for this ring for their marriage in 1525.

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Engagement rings arrived in America in the 1840s but were still relatively uncommon. In the Edwardian era (1901-1910), designs were marked by their dainty and elaborate details. Most rings centered around a large diamond and the goal of the jeweler was to get as many diamonds on the piece as possible. They would do so by encrusting small diamonds into settings made of filigree and ornate detailing sometimes resembling lace.

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The most popular stone for engagement rings during this period was the old European cut diamond. The hand cut round stone remained popular from the turn of the century until the 1930s.

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The 1920s brought with it a wave of modern fashion, art, and, yes, even engagement ring styles. When art deco style emerged, it replaced the frilly and intricate rings of the Edwardian era with a combination of diamonds and colored gemstones and angled lines centered around one large stone.

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Asscher cut diamonds were one of the most popular styles in the 1920s. Invented in 1902 by the Asscher family, the patented cut is similar to an emerald cut, but is wider set and features larger step facets to make the diamond appear more brilliant.

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Due to art deco jewelry featuring a mix of diamonds with colored gemstones, it became common for an engagement ring’s center stone to be fitted with a sapphire, emerald, or ruby instead of a diamond.

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During the Great Depression, many couples opted for less extravagant engagement rings. As a result, styles became simpler and stones became smaller.

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Platinum was widely the metal of choice for engagement rings, until World War II hit, as the material was needed for the war effort.

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Fashion in the ’40s was all about doing more with less—and engagement rings were no exception. Jewelers added intricate designs, like leaves, flowers, bows, or hearts, to settings to make up for smaller stones.

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As platinum was still scarce in the ’40s, yellow gold emerged on the forefront for ring settings and bands.

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For those who could afford it, glamorous cushion cut and solitaire center stones were all the rage by the mid-1940s. Here, Lucille Ball shows off the cushion cut ring she wore during her marriage to Desi Arnaz.

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De Beers’s marketing campaign proved successful, and by the 1950s, diamond engagement ring sales skyrocketed and the custom of proposing with a diamond ring became the norm. The most common style at this time was a solitaire stone with diamond baguettes on the sides.

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The public took an interest in Jacqueline Kennedy long before she was the First Lady of the United States. In fact, her engagement ring from John F. Kennedy had a huge influence on engagement ring trends. The elaborate Van Cleef & Arpels ring was fitted with both an emerald cut diamond and emerald stone, nestled together with a leaf-shaped set of diamonds.

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It’s no coincidence that the models in this 1950s jewelry ad look identical to JFK and Jackie on their wedding day. Their nuptials reignited an interest in glamour, starting with the popularity of the emerald cut engagement ring.

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After a simple courthouse ceremony, Joe DiMaggio sealed his nuptials to Marilyn Monroe with a diamond eternity band. The engagement ring, set in platinum and fitted with 36 baguette cut diamonds, was a huge trendsetter.

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Elizabeth Taylor’s third husband, Mike Todd, set himself apart from the actress’s former husbands with a 29.4 carat emerald cut engagement ring from Cartier. The piece cemented an ongoing obsession with emerald cut rings, which would continue into the ’60s.

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The ’60s were all about showcasing bright and shiny diamonds, and as a result, simple silhouettes became more popular for their modern look. Aretha Franklin’s engagement ring from Ted White shows off the chic simplicity of this trend.

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When Frank Sinatra proposed to Mia Farrow, the singer was prepared with a 9 carat solitaire pear-shaped diamond set in tapered baguettes. Although the couple’s marriage only lasted two years, the resurgence of pear-shaped diamonds took off throughout the next decade.

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How does someone propose to a woman who’s been married four times? With a 39.19 carat Asscher cut diamond. Elizabeth Taylor’s ring, which is known as the Krupp diamond, sparked a trend of grandiose, over-the-top engagement rings.

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Angular and geometric cut rings took off in popularity during the ’70s, making the uniqueness of a ring more important than its size. Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s marquise-shaped ring, given to her by her second husband, Aristotle Onassis, quickly became a trendsetting piece.

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Although the princess cut diamond first began circulating in the ’60s, it was in the ’70s that the style really took off. The look of the square diamond was either worn as a solitaire or with tapered baguettes to the side.

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As people began taking a more personalized approach to their rings, it became common for the bride and groom to design matching wedding sets. Jewelers could sell you a matching wedding band to your engagement ring, as well as a band for your husband.

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Yellow gold had its shining moment in the 1980s. The metal became the go-to setting for bands during the decade.

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Princess Diana picked her sapphire and diamond cluster ring out of a Garrard catalog. Little did she know she’d be sparking an industry-wide trend. Not long after the royal-to-be debuted her sparkler on the lawn of Buckingham Palace, colored stone engagement rings started to make a huge comeback.

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The ’80s were all about excess. From unique finishing touches and tapers to side stones and baguettes, engagement rings were far from simple during this time.

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By 1990, the minimalist trend was back. Settings made in yellow and 24-carat gold were out and cooler metals, like platinum and white gold, were in.

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Since simplicity was so popular during the ’90s, it’s no surprise that the round solitaire diamond was a very common design.

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The marquise cut (a.k.a. the football-shaped cut) had a major moment in the late ’90s, when Victoria Beckham revealed her engagement ring from David Beckham.

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