The History of Engagement Rings and Diamonds – Discover the Origin of Engagement Tradition


Today, a sparkling engagement ring is as synonymous with a proposal as the hopeful “Will you marry me?” But rings haven’t always been the sentimental symbol of love and commitment they are today. With our informative guide, you can learn all about the engagement ring tradition, from the earliest meanings of ring wearing to the meteoric rise in popularity of the diamond engagement ring.

If you’re hoping to pop the question in 2024, we’ve curated a collection of the most popular engagement ring trends to guide your choices and help you choose a ring that your partner will love wearing for years to come. Let the history of engagement rings and fascinating facts and figures fill you with inspiration when it’s time to get down on your knee.

The first proposals: The history of engagement

Before you start investigating the origin engagement ring saga, you’ll learn about the history of the marriage proposal. A marriage proposal, where a partner offers their desire to wed, is now rather different to the ancient global tradition of arranged marriage. Historically, arranged marriage matches were made to protect and expand family wealth. Think business transaction rather than a meeting of twin flames. 

Proposing for love is a rather recent social construct. Until around the 17th century, marriages continued to be organised based on financial practicalities, with scant regard for the emotional compatibility of the couple. From the 17th century, industrialisation allowed many strands of society to feel greater financial security, allowing lifelong partnerships to become focused on affection rather than the prospect of affluence. By the 19th century, across the Western world, proposals were mainly driven by a man’s affection for a woman – rather than by his affection for her father’s wealth.

You may think that the custom of getting down on one knee to propose is ancient, but it’s surprisingly modern. It is thought to have gained notoriety in the 1800s when silent movies often depicted a proposal in this manner. There are romantic hypotheses that this act of genuflecting relates to Medieval knights who would take to one knee in front of royalty as a sign of respect and loyalty. However, men didn’t commonly start proposing this way until the 20th century, driven by the dramatic marriage proposals portrayed in Hollywood movies.

The origin of engagement rings  

Be warned – the history of engagement rings is not as romantic as you might hope! Rings linked to marriage were first used around the 2nd Century BCE in ancient Rome where they were, unfortunately, used as a sign of ownership and obedience. Their rings were crafted from ivory, bone, copper and iron, though a second gold ring was sometimes worn for public outings as a sign of status.

Though we may not like to think of the origins of engagement ring wearing as a sign of male dominance, we see a slightly more romantic shift over in ancient Egypt, where the circular nature of the ring was used to signify eternal love. 

During the Middle Ages, Pope Nicholas I made a decree that an engagement ring should be used as a sign of intent for a man to marry. Then, during the 15th century in Vienna, the Austrian Archduke Maximillian commissioned an engagement ring set with a diamond, beginning the history of diamond engagement rings. This century also saw the rise in popularity of the three-banded gimmel rings, where three bands came together on the wedding day – one each from the engaged man and woman and a third, the wedding band, to complete the set.   Diamonds weren’t the only stones used in engagement rings (indeed, the cost was prohibitive for many). From the 17th century onwards, the likes of rubies, emeralds, sapphires, garnets, onyx, and amethysts, often set in gold, were popular. 

From this time and through to the Victorian era, ornate engagement rings were the realm of the upper classes. An opulent engagement ring became an excellent way for a man to display his wealth. In the lower and middle classes, simple engagement rings were used during proposals.

Though the early 20th century saw a dip in luxury engagement rings in response to the First World War, by the end of the century, beautiful engagement rings had become and remain the normal way to propose. 

Why diamonds stole the engagement ring show  

Little did Archduke Maximillian know when he designed his partner’s ring that he was writing the first chapter of the diamond engagement ring origin story. Rare and ethereally beautiful, these pure stones reflected the lavish lifestyle of the upper echelons of society, becoming the desirable style.

This glittering tale isn’t as clear-cut as you might think, and though these enticingly clear gems adorned the fingers of the engaged elite for several centuries, the First World War caused the value of these stones to plummet.

We owe a change in the fortune of diamond engagement ring tradition to the diamond mining company De Beers. In response to the post-war diamond slump, they launched the canny advertising slogan “A diamond is forever”. This firmly cemented diamond as the stone of choice in engagement rings, reflecting a man’s eternal devotion to his partner. Arguably one of the best pieces of marketing in history, the jewellery industry has never looked back, and diamond rings maintain a steady popularity to this day.

So why the enduring appeal? The De Beers campaign secured our association between diamonds and eternal love, while the rarity (and therefore intrinsic high value and status symbol) of the stones makes them highly appealing. The unbeatable brilliance and clarity mean that aesthetically, there is something unbeatable about a diamond when you’re keen to achieve that sparkling, clean aesthetic. 

Current engagement ring trends  

We’ve covered the brief history of engagement rings. With the engagement ring tradition still going strong today, diamond settings still dominate UK sales. But what are the current trends in engagement rings? 

Hopefully, the engagement ring you choose for your partner will stay on their finger for life, so when you choose their ring you need to make sure it will hold its charm for them. When you’re browsing the trending styles it’s therefore important to consider whether they’ll still love the ring 20, 40 or even 60 years down the line. To help you, we’ve picked the trending styles with the most lasting appeal.

Lab-grown diamonds  

The diamond industry has rightly been rocked by the revelations about unethical practices and the negative environmental impact of their mining techniques. Many jewellers now insist upon ethically sourced diamonds, and consumers are turning their attention to lab-grown diamonds. This trending, sustainable option provides pristine diamonds that create stunning engagement rings at a lower price – win-win!

The lab-grown diamonds in this platinum offering by Queensmith impress, and the pear-shaped diamond cut continues to trend into 2024.

A budget-friendly bestseller with its round-cut diamond and white gold band, this lab-grown diamond engagement ring from Austen and Blake sparkles with all the brilliance of a natural stone.

Coloured gemstones  

Alternative designs are all the rage in the engagement ring world in 2024, from unusual cuts and three-stone settings to rose and yellow gold bands in place of the popular white metals. Coloured gemstones are an important part of this trend, allowing a ring to represent the personality of the wearer.

This cushion-cut yellow diamond in a yellow gold band by Tiffany is the epitome of 2024 engagement ring elegance. Breaking all the previous engagement ring rules, it still feels timeless.

The unusual and captivating green hues of peridot are captured perfectly in this simple solitaire ring by Chisolm Hunter. The understated sophistication of a solitaire has led to this style skyrocketing in popularity.

Side stones and halos

Sometimes more is more, and when it comes to side stones and halos, jewellery designers know had to enhance a central stone and maximise sparkle with the clever use of complementary stones. A leading new engagement ring tradition in 2024 is set to be the hidden halo, where additional small diamonds are placed beneath the central stone for a sublimely subtle boost of brilliance.

Bercotts couples the popular lab diamond with a hidden halo design and side stones in their lavish oval-cut diamond engagement ring.

Full of whimsy and boasting side stones and a fashionable gold band, this floral-inspired diamond and green sapphire engagement ring by Taylor and Hart is a piece that you can imagine being passed down through the generations.

2024’s trending diamond and gemstone cuts

If you want to ensure your partner’s engagement ring will sport the most popular stone cut of the year, the following are set to stay on trend as we move through 2024 and beyond:

  • Round cut – a classic with an enduring appeal
  • Pear/teardrop cut – full of vintage charm, providing a romantic silhouette
  • Princess and emerald cuts – these angular square and rectangular cuts feel both vintage and edgy, offering great style longevity

Engagement rings most interesting facts and figures 

You’ve glimpsed beneath the glittering surface of the history of engagement rings, but we’ve got even more interesting facts and figures about these coveted rings.

  •  Though the ancient Egyptians and Romans are known for their early use of engagement rings, there is a hypothesis that prehistoric men used braided grass to tie around the wrists or ankles of their chosen partners in a very similar manner to the rings used by the ancients.
  • In the history of engagement, it was common for men to spend between one and three months’ wages on an engagement ring. In more recent times, around three weeks’ worth of wages has become the average.
  • The most common time to propose with an engagement ring is December – between Christmas and New Year.
  • Over the past decade, the most popular style of engagement ring has been the round-cut diamond set in white gold or platinum.
  • We wear an engagement ring on the third finger because the ancients believed a vein runs from here straight to the heart… they were wrong, but the tradition stuck.
  • A lost engagement ring tradition, the 18th-century posy engagement ring featured romantic rhyming verses on a simple gold band. 
  • Snake rings were a popular engagement ring style during Victorian times, as snakes symbolised eternity. This style was made popular when Prince Albert gave one to Queen Victoria.

Engagement ring FAQs

To round up your exploration of the history of engagement rings, we’re here to clear up any last questions you may have about one of the most meaningful pieces of jewellery.

Q: Are engagement rings used across all cultures?

A: Not all cultures use a ring to signify their intent to wed. In some African cultures, handmade jewellery (often containing intricate coloured beading) is exchanged between the couple. In India, some brides-to-be may wear bangles to show their engagement, with Hindu women wearing a toe ring. Meanwhile, in China it is less common to wear any form of jewellery as a sign of engagement. 

Q: How do you find the right ring size for an engagement ring?

A: If you don’t want your partner’s finger professionally sized (which can spoil the surprise), get any rings that she wears on her first or second finger sized, then the jeweller can advise what size her ring finger is likely to be. They will always “size up” to be cautious, as it is easier to resize a ring that is too large than one that is too small. 

Q: Are there any metals I should avoid in an engagement ring?

A: If your partner has a nickel allergy, avoid alloys such as white gold, If they wear rings that they are unlikely to want to remove, make sure the engagement ring metal is compatible – ensuring the rings won’t damage one another. If you’re thinking about yellow or rose gold over white gold or platinum, make sure that this is a metal colour your partner likes. Once your engagement ring is selected, and you’re waiting for the big moment to arrive, consider protecting this precious piece with bespoke jewellery insurance by TH March.