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THE HISTORY OF ENGAGEMENT RINGS

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The practice of sealing the marriage contract with a ring is a time-honored tradition, dating back to ancient times. The predecessor to today's engagement rings, however, wouldn't have turned many heads: a simple iron hoop was de rigeur in early Roman times, followed by a plain gold band some centuries later. The significance of the ring was its symbolism, with its circular shape an abstract representation of eternity.

Diamonds were first discovered in India around 800 B.C., and were prized by cultures throughout the world for their beauty and rarity; many believed them to possess magical powers. Early societies were particularly impressed with the hardness of diamond; the name diamond comes from the Greek word "adamas," meaning unconquerable. Such an attribute made it the perfect choice to represent the marriage bond.

However, it was the 15th century before brides-to-be could look forward to a little sparkle on their ring fingers; and then, only if they were among the royalty, or very wealthy. The first recorded incidence of a diamond engagement ring was that given to Mary of Burgundy by the Archduke Maximilian of Hamburg in 1477.

Some Renaissance era engagement rings were set with a single diamond in its natural crystalline form. Others had multiple diamonds set in rosettes, letters, or fleur-de-lys. Little love messages, or posies, were often inscribed inside the rings. Popular sixteenth and seventeenth century wedding ring styles included the gimmel ring, made of two hoops that slid together into one ring when shut; and the fede ring (Italian for "faith'), consisting of two clasped hands, sometimes holding a rose-cut diamond heart.

In the eighteenth century, the discovery of diamonds in Brazil increased the available supply; diamond jewelry became quite fashionable, sparkling in the candlelight at evening balls and social events. Engagement rings from this time are charming and romantic, with diamond-set crowned hearts, bows and sprays of flowers.

The wealth generated by the Industrial Revolution, coupled with newly discovered diamond mines in Africa, made diamonds available to the wider public in the Victorian age. Sentimental themes remained popular; larger clusters and bands of diamonds were also favored. Queen Victoria chose a snake ring, whose coils symbolized eternity, to mark her engagement. In 1886, Tiffany introduced the six-prong solitaire diamond engagement ring.

The antique engagement rings available today are primarily those from the first half of the twentieth century. White gold and platinum filigree rings were popular from the turn of the century through the twenties; the intricate, lace-like detail loved by Edwardian era ladies still holds a special appeal for women today. Platinum and diamond Art Deco rings often featured geometric shapes and colored accent stones (ruby, sapphire, or emerald). Both yellow and white gold, often in combination, were common for engagement rings in the thirties and forties. Small side diamonds, and delicately-carved hearts, flowers, and leaves, gave these rings a romantic charm ideal for the occasion. Square-shaped and "illusion" settings beautifully showcased the center diamonds.

Engagement ring styles of recent decades have shown a great deal of variety, in form, detail, and shape of the center diamond. The engagement ring worn by a woman today-whether classic, contemporary, or antique style-is now, more than ever, a reflection of her personal taste and style.