Engagement Rings, Now and Then – The Story of Their Evolution

History of Engagement Rings

If you have ever dived into the delish American classic ‘Gone with The Wind’ (the book, not the movie!), there is a scant possibility you would have missed the description of Scarlett O Hara‘s lavish engagement ring. A massive four-carat diamond surrounded by glittering emeralds and covered over half her finger. It doesn’t get much better than that, does it? The novel was set in the Civil War but written about nine decades ago, almost as old as the modern-day engagement ring as we know it.  

Today, we associate engagement rings with precious metals, sparkling diamonds, and valuable gemstones, but that wasn’t always the case. Rather than being an expensive keepsake of love, the ancient Romans used engagement rings to mark ownership over their brides. And just about any material would do for that! Think of what was readily available back then – ivory or bone (ugh!), copper or iron, even flint. Yes, these are what comprised the engagement rings back then!

AD 850

It was in AD 850 that the concept of engagement rings was formally recognized. Around this time, gold replaced the rather unconventional materials used so far for the ‘ownership’ rings (thank God for that!). Pope Nicholas announced that any man presenting a woman with a gold band indicated his intent to marry her.

The Year 1477

The first ever diamond engagement ring made its debut in the upper echelons of European society when the Archduke Maximilian of Austria commissioned one for his bride, Mary of Burgundy, in 1477. Given its instant appeal and the roaring splash it made across the continent, the trend caught on among the rest of the European nobility. However, it could not become a hit with the general public, and soon the novelty fizzled out.

So, when did diamond engagement rings make a resurgence? Well, they were kind of always around during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. These rings tended to be ornate, fussy, and not very common due to the scarcity of diamonds. Then around the turn of the century, something happened. Diamond mines were discovered in South Africa in hoards, which led to the market being flooded with these gemstones. As the diamond market grew, so did their use in engagement rings. But it wasn’t until the 1920s, when the art deco movement was in full swing, that sleek, brilliant engagement rings that featured a diamond center stone began to see noteworthy traction. These represented the contemporary, artistic times that people of that time were living in.

If you are looking for an elegant engagement ring design that defies complexity but boasts a showstopping center stone, then this 14k round halo diamond engagement ring is a heart stealer.

Years Between (1920-1930)

Along with the rise of art deco jewelry, colored precious and semi-precious stones also added an artistic dimension to the engagement ring. Different diamond cuts, such as the asscher, emerald, and marquise, were prominent during this period. In fact, MGM Studios bigwig Irving Thalberg, one of the renowned American producers during the early years of motion pictures, gave leading lady Norma Shearer a massive marquise-cut diamond ring in 1927, which was the talk of the town.

Reminiscent of the art deco times, the halo uplifts the brilliance of the center emerald cut diamond in this 14k white gold engagement ring setting.

For a couple of decades, the world went through a bit of an economic downturn. First, there was the “Great Depression”, followed by World War II. During this time, engagement rings became lesser ostentatious and expensive. Instead, the focus was on creating beautiful but affordable pieces. Platinum, a trending material in the 1920s, suddenly took a backseat in favor of the more cost-effective gold.

As the use of platinum in the World War grew, the expensive metal was replaced by the more affordable white gold metal in making engagement rings.

Years Between (1939-1945)

On the one hand, life during World War II was all about economizing. To make up for the lack of massive diamonds, sapphires, or rubies, the focus instead shifted to the ring’s design and crafting. Jewelers purposely started adding more intricate elements like flowers, leaves, bows, hearts, and more to the rings’ designs. On the other hand, this is when the solitaire setting finally began to come into its own and gather popularity. One could credit the glamor and glitz of old Hollywood and movie stars who flaunted their big, shiny solitaires.

History of Engagement Rings

If an unconventional ring shank (band) fascinates you, then this 14k white gold split shank round diamond engagement ring is a fantastic choice.

Years Between (1950-1955)

Around this time, diamond company De Beers also launched an inventive marketing campaign that harped on the concept of romance rather than diamonds. Love was measured in diamonds. Young women coveted diamonds, the ultimate symbol of amour, in their engagement ring, and young men were determined to give it to them. So large stunning center stones began to make a comeback, and so did the style of diamond baguettes on the sides. Pear-cut diamond center stones also rose to popularity, with stars like Judy Garland and Lana Turner sporting rather large and prominent ones!

Embodying love for extravagance, this 18k white gold diamond engagement ring features a 3-carat round center diamond and baguette diamonds on each side.

Then, Princess Elizabeth, the future monarch of Great Britain, got engaged. The diamonds for her engagement ring were actually upcycled from a tiara belonging to her fiancé Prince Philip’s mother. The center stone was about three carats, and platinum was the metal of choice.

Platinum Round Diamond Engagement Ring

The 1950s was the decade when engagement rings took on a personality of their own! This was mainly because of the celebrities who wore them. For starters, yellow gold actually became more popular than white gold. Audrey Hepburn’s engagement ring from Mel Ferrer, in fact, featured yellow, rose, and white gold. How can we forget Elizabeth Taylor? She set a precedent for ‘more is more’, with her large gemstones. She was given a five-carat ring during her first engagement with Conrad Hilton. Lavish enough! But not to be outdone, her third husband presented her with an emerald-cut diamond ring that weighed a whopping 29 carats! Not someone to be outdone at her fashion game, Marylin Monroe was seen sporting an engagement ring with 36 baguette cut diamonds!

But it was First Lady Jackie Kennedy who really stole hearts and made fashion headlines – even before she entered the White House. Her fresh approach to jewelry inspired an entire generation, which was reflected in her choice of the engagement ring as well. Worth over $1 million way back in 1953, this vintage art deco ring featured two exquisite stones – a 2.88-carat emerald cut diamond and a 2.84-carat emerald – surrounded by tapered baguettes. Why fix what’s not broken, you may ask? But Jackie added an extra 2.12 carats of round and marquise cut diamonds to the ring ten years later, making it both eclectic and iconic.

History of Engagement Rings

Drawing inspiration from the First Lady, Jacky Kennedy’s love for emerald diamonds, this gorgeous 14k white gold emerald cut diamond engagement ring with a partially-bejeweled band carries a personality of its own.

Years Between (1957-1965)

As The Beatles and Elvis Presley made music on either side of the Atlantic, engagement rings became more contemporary too. There was a definite revival of the art deco style of the 1920s, with their no-nonsense linear forms and love of the abstract. This was combined with the fun and irreverent vibe of the 1960s. Of course, our favorite celebrities continued to inspire jewelers and customers with their choices. Elizabeth Taylor got engaged again. When Richard Burton proposed to her, he did so with a 33.19-carat Asscher cut diamond and then went on to buy her the even bigger Taylor-Burton diamond a year later, which weighed 68 carats! Grace Kelly’s ring from Prince Rainier of Monaco was also a showstopper, featuring a 10.47 emerald cut diamond flanked by two diamond baguettes. Metals like platinum, white gold, and sterling silver started to make a comeback, as these were the perfect canvas for the bold and bohemian designs of the era.

History of Engagement Rings

Extend your love for emerald diamonds to your wedding band as well with this stunning 14k white gold wedding band.

Interesting Fact – Scientists have discovered a star that is essentially a diamond of ten billion trillion carats. They named the star Lucy after the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Lucy is the biggest discovered diamond ever!

Years Between (1970–1980)

The 1970s were a time of freedom but also war. On the jewelry front, the princess cut made its debut during this decade, making women look ultra-feminine and feel utterly spoilt! Sleek and sedate engagement rings were no longer the norm – design and drama had replaced them. The term‘ flower power’ really meant something, with loud nature-inspired motifs. Yellow gold settings also began to make a comeback, and the halo began to be used generously in most designs. The now-retro channel-set design for engagement rings made inroads around this time and became a rage.

Flaunt this modern 14k white gold three-stone engagement ring design with a princess-cut diamond as the center stone (a raging diamond cut in the 1970s) and baguette diamonds accompanying on each side.

Years Between (1980-1990)

In 1981, a young teenager was plucked out of obscurity and marked to be the future queen of England. Lady Diana Spencer got engaged to Prince Charles, and needless to say, all eyes were on the proposal ring that her betrothed would give her. After much debate, she finally picked a sapphire center stone with diamond clusters out of a Garrard catalog. This decision was single-handedly responsible for the surge of sapphire engagement rings that followed in the 1980s. In 2011, Prince William presented Catherine Middleton (now Princess of Wales) with his mother’s engagement ring, causing a revival of the trend. But more about that later.

Though it is difficult to aspire for a royal life, we can adorn an engagement ring bearing semblance to the royal engagement rings. This 14k white gold oval halo sapphire and diamond engagement ring epitomizes luxury, beauty, and sophistication, just like royalty.

Princess Diana aside, the ’80s were all about extravagance. Remember the pop colors, huge shoulder pads, big hair, and loud makeup? Why shouldn’t these excesses reflect in the jewelry of the decade too? Various diamond cuts were popular, and other colored gemstones like bright rubies and deep emeralds also took center stage. For the first time, the diamond had some serious competition. It was also an era where all metals had their place in the sun – whether it was yellow gold, platinum, sterling silver, or rose gold.

14K White Gold Oval Halo Diamond Engagement Ring

Years Between (1990-2000)

As if exhausted by the indulgent propensities of the 1980s, the next decade was a total contrast with its sharpness. The ‘90s heralded in cool metals, and the classic round-cut diamond became extremely popular during this time.

Embrace minimalism and subtlety with this 15k white gold round diamond engagement ring, radiating brilliantly in its simplicity.

They were also a bit edgy, rebellious, and grunge-like in their approach to minimalism. Marquise-cut diamonds began to take prominence late in the decade when Spice Girl Victoria Adams received a ring with a marquise-cut center stone from David Beckham.

Tread away from the conventional choices of round or oval cut diamonds with this unique and princely 14k hidden halo marquise diamond engagement ring.

The 21st Century (Year-2000 Onwards)

If halos are an important feature of engagement rings today, we have to thank the enduring trends of the new millennium. Circa 2000, single and double halos, and hidden halos, usually with pavé diamonds, were fabulous.

14K White Gold Oval Halo Diamond Engagement Ring

14K White Gold Princess Halo Diamond Engagement Ring

Years Between (2000-2010)

Another great trend from the 2000s was the resurgence of the princess-cut diamond. Women liked to adorn bling, and stones were often mounted on double shanks. East-West settings also emerged prominently when celebrities like Kate Beckinsale changed their ring’s orientation, adding a twist to a classic design. If the 90s were all about experimentation, the 00s were about returning to classic old-world glamor with a simple twist. Design and functionality were also given equal consideration. For instance, the bezel setting rings also gained prominence around this time, adding an extra layer of protection around the stone. Wider bands also became popular, ensuring comfort around one’s finger. Towards the end of the decade, radiant and cushion cuts started appearing noticeably. Sculptural silhouettes were another feature circa 2009, a trend that continued well into the 2010s.

History of Engagement Rings

14K Yellow Gold Hidden Halo Oval Diamond Engagement Ring

14K White Gold Round Halo Diamond Engagement Ring

The Year 2011 Onwards

The 2010s brought with it a whiff of nostalgia. Millennial brides and grooms started thinking about environment-friendly stones, where they’re sourced from, and so on. A revival of antique engagement rings was the result. People preferred to resize or repurpose an existing engagement ring rather than buy a new one and add to their carbon footprint. Even the new rings on the block were vintage-inspired, reminiscent of family heirlooms that could be passed down over time. Of course, rose gold was the star metal of the early ‘10s, and we simply couldn’t get enough of it.

Garden-inspired themes were very much in vogue – vines, florals, and leaves were just some of the motifs. With this, twisted shanks also became popular for that extra bit of ‘chic’.

Celebrities also loved color, a trend that resurfaced after Kate Middleton said ‘Yes’ to Prince William and popped on Princess Diana’s ring. Katy Perry and Lady Gaga are classic examples of women who wore colored stones and rocked them! Semi-precious stones like amethysts and aquamarines were also considered worthy of being put in an engagement ring. The use of birthstones in engagement rings rose, with brides wanting something more personal and tailored to them rather than a standard impersonal gemstone. Three-stone rings were very sought-after, too.

A floral halo encircling the center diamond is the highlight of this very intricately designed and crafted garden-inspired, 14k white gold engagement ring.

The curvaceous shank adds sumptuousness and delicacy to this 14k white gold oval diamond engagement ring.

Every bride wants to be unique. Hidden details, customization, and mixed cuts mark today’s engagement rings. Halos continue to dominate, but more elegantly. The hidden halo is more popular today than it ever was. Oval and pear cut diamond center stones scored over round and princess cut. Thin and simple bands are the norm, but these are usually paved. Brides are more informed and make choices not just based on size but also on their center stone’s clarity, cut, and color. They also know metals and settings and prefer customization to suit their individual needs.

14K White Gold Hidden Halo Oval Diamond Engagement Ring

While delving into the history of engagement rings, let’s not forget the men. The concept of gimmel rings existed in the 16th and 17th centuries (men and women both would wear two interlocking bands upon their engagement); the mainstream idea of a ring for just the groom is only since the early 20th century – relatively recent.

We have to credit World War II for this. Soldiers were the first men to wear engagement rings. This was considered a way of remembering the person they loved while they were away from home. These rings were not made luxuriously from 18k or 22k gold. In fact, due to wartime restrictions, they were mostly 9k or below, with a weight of fewer than six grams.

Today, men enjoy wearing solid engagement bands or wedding bands that are often heavier than women’s in terms of the metal used. Yellow and white gold were the only metals of choice earlier, but platinum gained predominant popularity post 2010 – Prince Harry chose to deviate from tradition during his engagement and traded in the traditional Welsh gold ring for subtle platinum. Contrary to popular belief, men’s engagement rings through the years haven’t been boring at all. Some have come studded with gemstones, some pavéd with diamonds, or some just engraved. Through the decades, art deco rings, asymmetrical ones, those featuring a center stone, and even titanium rings have made it to the list!

Future of Engagement Rings – Our Prediction

Looking to the future, we predict that twisted, free-form, or split-shank engagement rings will be big in trend in the coming years. The modern woman looks for versatility in her fashion choices, and engagement rings that can be styled and stacked with other rings will continue to rule the roost. Women like their rings to have a certain character, and the aesthetic workmanship of these rings speaks for itself. Toi et Moi rings will be fascinating for Gen Z brides. This bypass ring coils around the finger, with two complementary gemstones at either end. In French, the term means ‘you and me’, and this technique is said to have been inspired by Napoleon’s engagement ring for Josephine, which featured a diamond and a sapphire. Brides can play around with this ring, using two entirely different gemstones or even the same ones that have been cut differently.

A ring metal trend that has modern-day brides drooling “awe” all over is the two-tone or mixed metal engagement ring. Why settle for a single metal when you love both of them? Mixed metal design helps to combine the best of both metals, enhancing the overall visual impact. Another trend we see gaining prominence is the ‘tilt’ gemstone trend. Taking the East-West setting one step further, this trend sees ‘tilted’ gemstones set at an angle to the shank. Gen Z brides aren’t in search of the perfect diamond but rather in search of unique designs that speak to their personality. The ring, a souvenir of their special moment, does not have to be overwhelming but should assimilate itself as an extension of the bride’s individuality.

Now that we’ve taken you through the history of engagement rings, it’s easy for you to decide what era you’d like to plunge into and get inspiration from for your own nuptials. Whatever your personality or choice of vintage, Gabriel & Co. has an enchanting engagement ring for every bride. Visit our collection here.

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