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Anton Petter’s painting of Mary of Burgundy and Archduke Maximilian in Ghent, with ring seen on the index finger of her right hand. Inset is the ring that it is believed was worn, making it the world’s first known diamond engagement ring.



Off the bat it should be pointed out that the engagement diamond ring custom as a we know it, which is as an integral component of the wedding tradition— along with the flowing white dress, cake, veil and the dance with the father of the bride —is in essence a 20th Century phenomenon, brilliantly nurtured by De Beers and some very talented advertising executives and copywriters.

But when De Beers launched its A Diamond Is Forever campaign in 1947, sending the trade in engagement rings into super-drive, it was not inventing something new, but rather elevating a tradition that had been followed by royal families and aristocrats, into a mass consumer practice.  

The history of diamond engagement rings dates back to the Renaissance in Europe. Many believe the first such ring was given to Mary of Burgundy by the Archduke Maximilian of Austria in 1477. A letter written to Maximilian before he proposed read, “At the betrothal, your Grace must have a ring set with a diamond and also a gold ring.”

A painting by Niklas Reiser of Mary of Burgundy from the Renaissance era showing her wearing a solitaire on her right hand, is often used to illustrate the point of her engagement ring. It is not known with absolute certainty if the ring in the painting is her engagement ring, it could have been.

But another painting by Anton Petter, Maximilian and Mary’s meeting in Ghent, also shows a ring albeit smaller, on the index finger of her right hand.  During the time engagement rings were often worn on the second or the third finger of the right hand, because people believe that one or both of these fingers had veins connected to the heart.

A young Queen Victoria, along with gold and gem-set snake engagement ring giben to her by Price Albert in 1839.


During the Renaissance, diamond engagement rings were usually centered on a table cut or flat diamond. But in the courts of 18th century Europe, Queen Charlotte—wife of George III of England who was friends with Marie Antoinette and nicknamed the Queen of Diamonds—wore a diamond wedding band with her delicate diamond engagement ring. Solitaires as the center stone were not considered the norm at that point in time.

In 1839 Prince Albert gave a gold and gem-set snake engagement ring to Britain’s Queen Victoria, sparking a passion for snake jewelry including gold and diamond snake engagement rings.

In 1886, Tiffany’s founder, named Charles Lewis Tiffany, introduced the aptly named Tiffany Setting, presenting a single diamond as a symbol of everlasting love and setting the stage for new approach to engagement, which came to dominate the 20th century, continuing to be popular to this da.. The design had prongs lifting a diamond above a slender gold band. Light passed between the ring prongs and through the diamond, heightening its brilliance.

U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the first high profile women to wear a Tiffany Setting engagement ring. She received the jewel centering on a 3.4-carat diamond from Franklin Roosevelt in 1904 and shortly after wrote him a note saying, “You could not have found a ring I would have liked better.”


In 1947 a few years before she became Britain’s Queen, Princess Elizabeth announced her engagement to Prince Philip and showed the press and public her engagement ring with a 3-carat round diamond center stone flanked by smaller diamonds set in platinum. The event coincided with the launch of De Beers’ “A Diamond is Forever Campaign.”

The glamour of the attractive royal couple’s romance and the fascination with every detail of it was another source of inspiration for couples to get diamond engagement rings during the post war marriage boom.

But it was movie royalty that was really capturing the public’s attention. In 1956 Elizabeth Taylor received a 29.4-carat emerald-cut diamond engagement ring from film producer Michael Todd at the end of 1956. When asked about it by the press, Todd joked that “it was not quite 30 but twenty-nine-and-a-half carats.” Taylor referred to her big diamond as “My ice-skating rink.”

Sometimes blue blood royalty and Hollywood royalty merged, as was the case when Prince Rainier of Monaco gave actress start Grace Kelly a Cartier ring with a 10.48-carat-emerald cut diamond flanked by two baguettes. The jewel received international attention because Kelly was going about the retire from  movie business  to become a full-time royal.

But before she stepped away from the golden screen, the future Princess Grace made one more film, High Society, which was released in 1956, and in she wore engagement ring. The large diamond was actually featured in close-up when her ex-husband in the film, played by Bing Crosby, remarked to her new fiancé, played by John Lund, “Some stone George. Did you mine it yourself?”

Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip at the time of their engagement in 1947, with the 3-carat diamond ring inset.