Engagement Rings Through the Decades

The History of Engagement Rings | Cape Town Diamond Museum

Understand Why Diamond Engagement Rings are so Popular

When a bride says ‘Yes!’, it’s often said that she says ‘yes’ as much to the ring as the man. In fact, of such significance is the engagement ring that a public Facebook group, That’s It, I’m Ring Shaming has even earned the attention of mainstream media when giddy brides-to-be show off a creation that others consider to be more gaudy than gorgeous.

Throughout the ages, since 1477 when the first recorded diamond engagement ring was given to Mary of Burgundy by the Archduke Maximillian of Austria, diamonds have reigned supreme as the unseated king of stones and as the ultimate betrothal ring statement. There have been variations to cuts, settings, the metals in which the stone is encased and strong contenders for the engagement ring throne from other stones such as emeralds in particular. But, as far as engagement rings go, diamonds remain literally a cut above the rest, given their status as the ultimate symbol of luxury; and timeless, enduring elegance.

Why Diamonds are Most Popular

The History of Engagement Rings | Cape Town Diamond Museum

Take a Look at Engagement Rings Throughout the Century

Looking at engagement rings throughout the centuries and decades, why are diamonds still the most popular stone in engagement rings? The answer seems to be manifold. Firstly, diamonds are derived from the Greek word adamas which, roughly translated, referred to the hardiest of substances known to man and became interchangeable with the word ‘diamond’ after a while. It is said that the durability of the stone combined with its rarity and dazzling beauty make it a fitting tribute to the queen of a man’s heart. Formed deep underground millennia ago as they were, a diamond is also the literal embodiment of a moment frozen in time – and becomes that most true of tributes to a moment in your life.

Victorian-style Engagement Rings

The History of Engagement Rings | Cape Town Diamond Museum

A Serpent-Shaped, 18-Carat Ring Adorned with Diamonds, Rubies and Emeralds was Presented to Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria may have been the grande-dame of royal queens, but her influence on popular culture was as clear then as it remains today. She is credited with popularising the white wedding dress as but one example. Small wonder then that an entire era is named after her, as is a predominant proposal ring trend of the time. Queen Victoria was presented with a serpent-shaped, 18-carat ring adorned with diamonds, rubies and emeralds. Many young women desired the same shape (a symbol of everlasting love derived from Ancient Rome) but could not afford diamonds, an elite stone that was still very much the preserve of the aristocracy and super-wealthy at the time.

The desirability of diamonds as a stone was thanks to large quantities – comparatively so to what had been available on the market before – of these precious stones being discovered and mined right here on home soil in South Africa.

Queen Victoria was also a fan of Sapphires, and these were often gifted to her by Prince Albert. The next time the sapphire would make such a comeback was when Prince Charles proposed to Princess Diana with that 12-carat Ceylon sapphire surrounded by 14 solitaire diamonds.

Edwardian-era Engagement Rings – 1900

The History of Engagement Rings | Cape Town Diamond Museum

Lace-Like Patterns, Designs Reminiscent of Flowers, Bow-Like Features and ‘Airy’ Designs

The turn of the century until about 1910 to 1915 saw diamonds cement their place as the engagement ring master stone. This antique art-deco style evokes a sense of romance and elegance – although purists argue that the art-deco style in fact came after the Edwardian era, lasting until about the 1930s.

The ornate settings meant that a high degree of attention to detail was required. Think lace-like patterns, designs reminiscent of flowers, bow-like features as well as ‘airy’, floaty designs. Ornate touches such as milgraining and filigree are probably the two clearest hallmarks of hand jewellery from this period.

Why the new-found intricacy? Advances in metals were made, allowing strong metals such as platinum to be used. It was soon discovered that this enabled detail in jewellery design, without sacrificing the structure of a design.

Art Deco Finger Jewellery – 1920s

The History of Engagement Rings | Cape Town Diamond Museum

Emerald-Cut and Old-Cut European-Cut Diamond Rings Were the Most Popular of The Era

It’s interesting that in what is often referred to as the Great Gatsby era with its new, bold, jazz musical direction and clothing design (shorter hemlines, flapper dresses and even shorter hair in the form of a bob), there was a noticeable return to clean, classic design. While emerald-cut and old-cut European-cut diamond rings were the order of the day, the baguette cut started appealing to consumers for the first time. Emeralds, rubies and sapphires injected some colour but in no way overshadowed the diamond.

Art Deco Decade Reloaded – 1930s

The History of Engagement Rings | Cape Town Diamond Museum

Multi-Stone Settings Became Popular, with Diamonds Being Smaller in Carat Weight

As the second decade of the art deco era coincided with the Great Depression, lavish shows of luxury were not only less possible, but frowned upon as vulgar. As diamonds became out of reach for many, multi-stone settings became popular, with diamonds being smaller in carat weight and not necessarily central to the engagement ring.

Geometric designs were popular and served to detract from the smaller-set diamond stones.

A particularly strong trend was the ribbon band – bands set as bows or ribbons containing smaller diamonds. The rise of the film industry also meant that for the first time, the movies were able to influence popular culture.

The 1940s – Round-cut Diamonds Rule

The History of Engagement Rings | Cape Town Diamond Museum

The Founder of the Round Cut Diamond is Marcel Tolkowsky

With platinum in scarce supply, rose gold and yellow gold become the rage. The exact reasons for the platinum scarcity are in dispute, but it’s safe to say the outbreak of World War 2 played a role.

The main hallmark of this decade is the round-cut diamond. The father of this cut is universally credited as being Marcel Tolkowsky.

The 1950s – Things Go Pear-shaped

The History of Engagement Rings | Cape Town Diamond Museum

Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly Both Received Emerald-Cut Diamonds

The war was over, wealth was rising and opulence was back. Pear-shaped diamonds became a choice for many as did the glamourous Emerald cut. This was no coincidence – high-profile screen sirens Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly both received carat-centric, emerald-cut showstoppers from their husbands to-be.

The 1960s – The Square-shaped Asscher-cut Makes a Debut

The History of Engagement Rings | Cape Town Diamond Museum

The Square Assher Cut is the Favorite of the 60s

It’s often said that in the hippy, heady days of the 60s, nothing changed except for everything. And so it was too with engagement rings – while the diamond remained the lead stone, the square Asscher-cut seemed to be the favourite, while the emerald cut was still on-trend. Coloured stones were also making a comeback.

The 1970s – The Emerald Cut Continues to Dominate

The History of Engagement Rings | Cape Town Diamond Museum

The Emerald Cut is Still Very Popular at This Time

Considering this was the disco era of bright lights and heavy beats, you could not be faulted for thinking this decade would embrace gaudy creations. Instead the emerald cut – still immensely popular today – not least thanks to a slew of celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez proudly wearing these glamourous creations, reigned supreme. Smaller rings that are more affordable also find their way to mass production: round solitaires, marquise and pear-shaped diamonds are in vogue as well.

The 1980s – The Rise of the Royal Sapphire

The History of Engagement Rings | Cape Town Diamond Museum

Sapphires Gain Popularity 

Say what you want about the Prince of Wales, but his taste in jewellery has never been in dispute. Cue the glorious blue sapphire set in diamonds he proposed to with to Princess Diana, and subsequently by Prince William to Kate Middleton, and a sea-change to the engagement ring industry was on the cards. Rubies also enjoyed a resurgence thanks to Prince Andrew’s choice of ruby ring for Sarah Ferguson. The other thing that was back, was yellow gold.

The 1990s – ‘Naughty’ but Nice

The History of Engagement Rings | Cape Town Diamond Museum

Everything “Different” Was Popular at This Time

While 80s alternative pop was all about punk, 90s alternative pop was about grunge. It seems this rebellion spilt over into jewellery design, where everything ‘different’ was on the cards. Think gaudy rather than elegant settings, over-the-top marquise designs, and even three-stone settings to represent past, present and future.

The 2000s – Hello, Princess!

The History of Engagement Rings | Cape Town Diamond Museum

The Princess Cut Diamond Became Highly Favoured

The princess cut diamond is highly favoured by couples; a trend that continues today. There’s a 60s air to it, some jewellers say, in reference to the general trend for big stones. Forget understated elegance; ‘bigger is better’ when it comes to the choice of diamond in engagement rings.

Cushion-cut Classics

The History of Engagement Rings | Cape Town Diamond Museum

The Elegant-Meets-Vintage-Inspired Cushion Cut is the Most On-Trend For Couples

Rose gold made a huge comeback from about 2016 onwards, and the elegant-meets-vintage-inspired cushion cut is on the most on-trend for couples. Just as defining are bespoke creations that tell a story or a setting with a special significance for a couple. As are fancy colour diamonds; pink, yellow and black being some of the favourites. Currently, oval diamonds are also commanding a huge share of the engagement ring limelight.

So, what’s been the cut of the century?

And the ‘winner’ is … the round-cut solitaire diamond in a gold band: timeless and striking on any finger, with a bias that emphasises the diamond in all its glory and nothing else.

Looking Ahead

The History of Engagement Rings | Cape Town Diamond Museum

Bespoke Creations are the Way Forward For Engagement Ring Designs

What will the engagement ring jewellery trends be looking ahead? Because China and India have become major players in gold jewellery design and production, many brides find that when they’re shopping they get engagement ring ‘fatigue’, thanks to all the similar designs out there. So, in the next few years, individuality will carry even more of a premium, the ‘bigness’ of the ‘bling’ is likely to take a back seat to the emphasis placed on a bespoke creation.

The History of Engagement Rings | Cape Town Diamond Museum

Black Diamonds Have Gained Popularity

Jewellery with black accents has also become popular: black diamonds set in white or rose gold, or white diamonds set in ‘blackened’ gold allows for unusual design concepts. Unusual surfaces with a matt, satin or reticulated finish speak to some of the interesting contrasts couples may ask for.

Want to learn more about the fascinating world of diamonds? Book a tour through the Cape Town Diamond Museum today! We’re open daily from 9am to 9pm, located at the V&A Waterfront Clock Tower.