The Stamp and Coin Place Blog: connecting the past and present of stamp and coin collecting, and looking to the future.

Diamonds Weren’t Always Forever

A collection of solitaire diamonds worth about $4,000 (via Farrukh on Flickr)

Diamonds are forever. Therefore, diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

After all, when I get the mean reds the only thing that does any good is to jump in a cab and have breakfast at Tiffany’s.

In only the past century, diamonds have become synonymous with love and commitment. Before that, many other gems were used to “insure” that marriage was in the wearer’s future. However, they were not expected as a part of every engagement.

A pendant with a lovely diamond, perfect for marriage-insurance purposes.

A pendant with a lovely diamond perfect for marriage-insurance purposes.

How did diamonds take over so recently, and why did engagement rings go from promises of insurance to an expected tradition?

Engagement rings served as a placeholder until wedding rings were to be worn. The use of betrothal rings was adopted from the Romans by the Catholic Church in the 13th century, and two hundred years later, the first documented diamond engagement ring was presented to Mary of Burgundy. The Victorians gave each other “regards” rings with the recipient’s birthstone. It was a practice and status symbol of the upper classes who could afford two rings.

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A cartoon illustrating the Breach of Promise.

In the States, “Breach of Promise to Marry” laws allowed women to sue men for breaking off their engagement. If the relationship had involved premarital sex (and roughly half of them in the early twentieth century did), then the woman’s reputation was at stake. Since virginity was a huge factor in a woman’s overall marriageability in society’s eyes, a broken engagement had the potential to ruin the rest of her life.

Starting in the 1930s, a number of states began taking the Breach of Promise out of the books. Almost immediately, diamond sales began gaining ground. Since many women could no longer sue for their reputations back, they needed insurance instead.

(via 1791 Rings, Creative Commons)

(via 1791 Rings, Creative Commons)

This insurance came in the form of a small, sparkly piece of jewelry with brilliant marketing.

Frances Gerety coined the phrase “A diamond is forever” in 1947. As a copywriter working for De Beers, the company that controlled the world’s supply of rough diamonds, she and publicity counterpart Dorothy Dignam spearheaded the campaign that put diamonds in demand. The company’s goal was “to create a situation where almost every person pledging marriage (felt) compelled to acquire a diamond engagement ring.” While Gerety created wordy, sentimental copy outlining the diamond’s importance, Dignam wrote letters to newspapers describing the diamonds the Hollywood elite wore.

In one of Gerety’s advertisements, she writes that diamonds have “earth-born firelight.”

This chart shows diamond imports per year - notice the huge spike right before 1950.

This chart shows diamond imports per year – notice the huge spike right before 1950.

The average consumer began to see diamonds everywhere, from movies to the news to advertisements in magazines. Soon, engagement rings did not only serve as a placeholder or insurance. They became a status symbol with deeply sentimental value.

Today, 75% of American brides receive diamond engagement rings. Although it is no longer seen as “virginity insurance,” many couples do not consider themselves truly engaged unless a diamond ring has changed hands. Gerety and Dignam did their jobs by not only putting diamonds on the map, but making them the norm.

…If you liked it then you should’ve put a ring on it.

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