The Story Of The First Diamond Engagement Ring

You would be forgiven for thinking that the diamond engagement ring was as old as the concept of marriage itself. In reality, the use of diamond engagement rings is only about as old as the microwave.

This is a story of two stories. The first, dating back to 1477 CE, is the story of Archduke Maximillian giving a diamond engagement ring to the Princess Mary Of Burgundy. The second takes places half a millennium later, when the famous De Beers, who controlled 99 per cent of the diamonds on earth, convinced the entire world that everybody wants a diamond ring.

This turned out to be one of the greatest marketing campaigns in history and built a multi-million empire as a result.

Da Beers was founded by the infamous Cecil Rhodes, born in 1853. Before embarking on a career in the diamond business, Rhodes was a young man bursting with colonial ambition.

Frustrated by the lack of support his imperialistic endeavors were eliciting from the British government, Rhodes decided to go into business for himself. He founded the British South African Company in 1889, originally intended to exploit gold deposits in south-central Africa.

Imagine his delight when a little boy named Erasmus Jacobs, pulled a baseball-sized-diamond out of the river on Rhodes very own bit of land.

This was the catalyst for what would become one of the world’s largest monopolies to date. But from the start, De Beers aimed to control not just the diamond supply but our very perception of the diamond supply.

After the collapse of the diamond market in 1882, Rhodes came upon a brilliantly simple, if not undoubtedly dishonest solution to the problem the diamond industry was facing.
If diamonds were no longer rare, he could only maintain his empire by convincing people the opposite was true.

Eventually, Rhodes died in 1902 leaving the business to Ernest Oppenheimer. He realised that if diamonds were to maintain their value, it wouldn’t be enough for Da Beers merely to continue to ‘promote the illusion’ that they were rare. He would have to promote the illusion: that they were necessary.

They had control over people’s minds and wallets. Now they needed control over their hearts too. After all, diamonds are a girl’s best friend. It is also the only piece of jewellery we tend to see a personal, romantic and lifelong attachment too. This idea was invented for us, not by us.

Da Beers managed to create a product that has never lost its value since the day they took control of the industry 80 years ago. They did this by starting with a precedent.

As mentioned above, in 1477, eighteen-year-old Archduke Maximillian proposed to his great love, Mary of Burgundy, with the first-ever faceted diamond engagement ring. After this, the two lovers are alleged to have started the tradition of the diamond engagement ring.

That was Da Beers story, anyway. In reality, the archduke did propose (through his ambassadors) to Mary and he did present a diamond ring, only to her father Charles the Bold, not to his wife to be. Maximillian wasn’t being romantic; he was merely being a monarch of the time.

The diamond engagement ring as we all know it was an invention of Da Beers and an advertising agency, N.W. Ayer. How did they do it? Initially with the origin story of Maximillian and Mary. They mined history for a precedent and made it the centre of their spin campaign. It set the right romantic tone, with grand historic context. In 1947 they came up with the iconic campaign “A diamond is forever”. They practically invented product placement with this, gifting movie stars diamond rings to wear.

The Da Beers didn’t invent the diamond engagement ring. They did one better. They invented the myth of the diamond engagement ring and subsequently changed the way we see romance forever.