Why Do We Buy Engagement Rings?

May 28th 2019

By now you may have caught whiffs of the historic marketing strategy that turned a simple carbon stone—a diamond—into an eternal and essential symbol of ever-lasting love. Is this familiar? No? Maybe you should sit down. This is the real history of the engagement ring.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I've accepted such a bauble myself and bought into the romance and tradition of the thing hook, line and sinker. Although I love my ring, the truth is that engagements were not always the romantic and sparkly occasions that they are today. There's much more to the history of diamond engagement rings, and in fact, the diamond industry is considered one of the most powerful monopolies in modern history. 

History of engagement rings

Engagement rings started their history as symbols of subjugation. Prehistoric cavemen tied cords around their mates ankles, wrists and waist to bring her spirit under his control. Turkish puzzle rings were given by suspicious husbands to tag members of his harem and ensure faithfulness while he was away. And Roman custom was to give wives a ring attached to small keys, symbolizing a husband’s legal ownership of his wife.

Eventually the engagement ring did evolve, becoming something akin to the symbol of love, devotion and fidelity that it is today. The tradition also became “virgin insurance,” but that's another story.

Myth maker

The Archduke Maximilian of Austria is one of the first recorded instances of someone using a diamond ring to propose marriage. In 1477, he proposed to Mary of Burgundy. Engagement rings prior to the late 1800s did not usually involve diamonds at all. The precious stone was only found in Brazil and India at the time, and not in abundant amounts. This made diamonds extremely rare and even more valuable. They were mostly reserved for distinctions of royal privilege and wealth, and while it was not unheard of for a royal betrothal to include a diamond of some sort, most people made due with engagement rings of more common materials.

In 1867, the discovery of a single diamond on the banks of South Africa’s Orange River changed everything; it was soon discovered that South Africa was a hotbed of diamonds. Suddenly the world's output of the dazzler went from a few pounds a year to “scooped out by the tons.”

The market was saturated with diamonds, and for a gem whose price tag was dependent on its scarcity, that was not a good thing. 

By 1887, South African diamond mines had been monopolized into a single entity called De Beers Mining Company. The company decided that in order to keep diamond prices high, they must perpetuate the myth that diamonds were still a rare and valuable commodity. They needed to control not just the supply of diamonds, but also the demand, so they stockpiled the gems, strictly controlling distribution, and convinced the public that diamonds were still a scarce and desirable commodity. It was an unsavory business involving unethical behavior towards the diamond buying public, diamond distributors and diamond retailers, but far worse was De Beer’s exploitation of black South African migrant workers who endured low-wages, “pass laws” that restricted their freedom, inhumane conditions, and isolation. The industry had also established a discrimination pattern with labor recruitment, with white immigrant miners earning relatively high wages compared to the unskilled African migrants who were paid one-ninth the wage of white miners and used as cheap labor. And although DeBeers apparently took the position that it was opposed to Apartheid, the company took advantage of the system in order to have cheap labor in its mines. 

Mad men

By the mid-1930s diamond sales flatlined. With the Great Depression and an impending war in Europe, engaged couples were making due with less extravagant stones and even foregoing a ring altogether. By 1938, the typical diamond sold was small and of poor quality with a diminutive $80 price tag. Diamond production continued to boom, but consumers saw little value in unnecessary luxury items.

In order to counter this downward trend, the De Beers consulted Philadelphia ad agency N.W. Ayer to inquire whether “the use of propaganda in various forms” might boost the sale of diamonds in the U.S., and that is how an ad campaign was born. The main objective? “To create a situation where almost every person pledging marriage feels compelled to acquire a diamond engagement ring.”

The first step was to place diamonds in film, radio and print as a traditional and lasting symbol of love and devotion. They loaned jewels to movie stars for red carpet events, wrote up a weekly log about celebrities’ diamonds which they distributed to national newspapers, and commissioned a series of portraits of “engaged” socialites. Noted investigative journalist Edward Jay Epstein in the 1982 diamond-debunking Atlantic Magazine article “Have You Ever Tried To Sell A Diamond,” revealed a 1948 Ayer strategy paper which read: ”We spread the word of diamonds worn by stars of screen and stage, by wives and daughters of political leaders, by any woman who can make the grocer's wife and the mechanic's sweetheart say 'I wish I had what she has.’"

The campaign did not stop there. De Beers also paid “educational visits” to high schools, indoctrinating students into believing that a diamond engagement ring was the traditional and only way to say “I do.” They created the concept of the 4C’s to encourage the public to spend more on “better” diamonds, and it was De Beers who introduced the idea of the “appropriate” amount to spend on a diamond which, according to the year and country in which the advertisements ran, was from one to three month’s salary.

Of course, the piéce de résistance of De Beers advertising campaign came in 1947, when they unveiled the tagline, “A diamond is forever.” Noted by Ad Age magazine as the most successful campaign slogan of the 20th century, this phrase is deeply embedded in the zeitgeist of engagement and wedding culture—and we all bought it.

According to the BBC, at the advent of World War II, 10 percent of engagement rings contained diamonds. By the end of the 20th century that number rose to 80 percent. Couples spend nearly $11 billion on engagement and wedding jewelry, with each couple spending on average $4,000 per ring, according to Bain & Company’s 2013 Global Diamond Industry Report. This is despite an Emory University study that alludes that those who spend $2,000 to $4,000 on an engagement ring are more likely to get divorced than those who stay below a $2,000 budget.

To say De Beers’ advertising campaign was a success would be an understatement. Not even the fact that diamonds are associated with political and financial strife have trumped the manufactured emotional value that we place on receiving and purchasing a diamond engagement ring.