The end of the engagement ring

From Roman times to the Renaissance, and right up to the present day, the ring as a symbol of union between two people has established itself as a tradition. Thanks to some masterful marketing moves in the 20th century, the diamond engagement ring (solitaire) has become a must-have. But with the arrival of laboratory diamonds, identical to those mined, customer habits began to change. Indeed, a paradigm shift is taking place in the world of engagement rings: what if we told you that the solitaire could disappear? In this article, we tell its story and suggest its future.

The Fancy V-Shape, an engagement ring adorned with sumptuous diamonds. 

 

History of the engagement ring: a thousand-year-old tradition

Roman period: use of the ring as a symbol of engagement. 

The origins of the engagement ring go back a long way, to the Romans. Functioning as a pledge of promise, the engagement ring was part of the sponsalia tradition, marking the commitment of two people and the assurance of marriage. A ring was given by the man to the woman, the annulus pronubus.
Initially a simple iron ring (mentioned in the 1st century AD), it later became more luxurious, adorned with stones and crafted in more noble materials such as silver, gold or bronze. Later, rings with engraved joined hands, symbols of eternal commitment, could be offered (mentioned at the end of the 2nd century AD). The democratization of engagement rings spread throughout Gaul, and some have even been found in Constantinople. These archeological finds show that the tradition has continued to gain ground.

 


Gold finger ring, Roman culture, 3rd century AD, The Metropolitan Museum of Arts, New-York. 

https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/712072

 

Mary of Burgundy and her engagement ring

In the Middle Ages, the well-known case of Mary of Burgundy, who received a gold ring from Emperor Maximilian 1st in 1477 as a promise of marriage, is considered the first diamond engagement ring. Since diamonds were extremely rare from this period until the 19th century, few people could afford them, so the practice remained confidential and reserved for those with the most financial means.  

Mary of Burgundy, painting on wood by Niklas Reiser, 16th century, 78.5 × 46.4 × 0.8cm, Austria, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna.

 

Millions of carats discovered in South Africa

It wasn't until the 1870s, with the discovery of diamond deposits in South Africa, that De Beers began operations. These large, highly productive deposits enabled the company to hold virtually all the world's diamond production. This monopoly lasted throughout the 20th century, enabling the company to establish itself as a leader in the diamond world. With the purchase of more and more mines, the giant found itself with an enormous amount of stones to sell. This abundance of diamond stocks led the mine owner to create an illusion of scarcity in order to sell off the stones. But how did he do it?


 

A diamond is forever... but not rare!

Communication strategies subsequently enabled De Beers, which held 90% of the diamond monopoly in the last century, to conceal a reality: natural diamonds are not rare, even less so those with good clarity (one of the key characteristics when buying a diamond, referring to the 4Cs). Indeed, these precious stones were found in abundance in the mines mentioned above. We'll look later at the various marketing campaigns that changed all that. 

 

Photo credit: Pixabay

 

The power of marketing

It wasn't until the 20th century and De Beers' advertising campaigns that the diamond engagement ring became popular.

In 1948, it pulled off a huge marketing coup with its slogan "a diamond is forever". It was thanks to a marketing strategy by N.W. Ayer & Sons, voted best strategy of the 20th century by Advertising Age, that the psychological need for diamonds on engagement rings insidiously infiltrated our habits.

Another campaign was then launched to encourage men to spend more on a ring: "How can you make two months' salary last forever? In doing so, De Beers created a standard for buying an engagement ring, that you should spend two months' salary on it. This new approach has become part of the wedding proposal culture.  

 

It's a success story!

Managing consumer habits, this latest marketing campaign also proposes the idea that there's a diamond for everyone. Whether rich or poor, two months' salary is the prerequisite for buying your future fiancée a ring.

By creating an illusion of rarity through high prices, De Beers has pulled off a masterstroke, as diamonds, as the main component of engagement rings, have become a must-have.

Whether in the Western world or in Japan, renowned as an impenetrable market, De Beers' slogans have succeeded in changing consumer habits. De Beers can also count on Hollywood, notably with the film "Breakfast at Tiffany's", to establish new habits for diamond engagement rings. 

It was a complete success: everyone wanted a diamond on their engagement ring. Indeed, today it's customary to focus more on the diamond and its characteristics than on the ring itself. With the adage "big is better", consumer attention has become even more focused on the diamond, to the detriment of the ring. 

Reinforced by other links in the chain, such as the certifiers, De Beers has seen its sales explode. Certifiers have introduced the 4C panel, classifying diamonds according to four criteria: color, clarity, cut and carat. This panel makes the purchase of a diamond even more complicated, as it creates real confusion for buyers. 

De Beers has achieved two feats:

  • Instilling a sense of rarity in consumers' minds;
  • achieve colossal sales through marketing.

But as we shall see later, the power of marketing has its limits, and it will even backfire on De Beers as newcomers enter the market. 

 

The arrival of laboratory grown diamonds on the market

It's thanks to their arrival on the diamond market that the trend has greatly changed. These diamonds, considered ethical, are qualitatively (chemically, physically and optically) identical to mined diamonds. 

In 2018, the Federal Trade Commission indicated that the name "diamond" for those created in the laboratory is valid, as they have the same chemical fingerprint as those extracted from mines. This is a real victory for lab-grown diamonds, as they definitively gain recognition with the name diamond.  

A comparison can be made with ice cubes: anyone can create them with water and a freezer. These two types of ice are chemically identical, but one is made by man and his "machine" (the freezer), while the other is made naturally (in a glacier, in this case).

The ensuing popularity of lab-grown diamonds has threatened the mining diamond cartel. Indeed, more and more consumers have opted, and continue to opt, for these new diamonds. This has led to a proliferation of laboratories and, consequently, fierce price competition. This veritable war has led to a sharp drop in the price of lab-grown diamonds, but also of mined diamonds. As a result, a veritable domino effect on all the links in the diamond chain was the logical consequence of these events. 

Athena's Wisdom band ring set with a shower of laboratory-grown diamonds.


The De Beers Group's reaction 

This event in the world of diamonds challenged the diamond merchants who had based their business on mined diamonds. Indeed, De Beers immediately retaliated by creating its "Lightbox" collection with laboratory diamonds. The aims were manifold:

  • expand its customer base: to take the temperature of a possible new trend;
  • depreciate diamonds from laboratories with strategies such as:
    • less pure gold;
    • very simple design;
    • very cheap prices;
    • by not offering certification for diamonds included in jewelry.  

This large investment on their part had only one purpose: to make it clear that lab-grown diamonds were simply cheap copies. However, De Beers completely underestimated the reaction of the laboratory-grown diamond market. In fact, supply outstripped expectations and lab diamonds became even cheaper than expected. Lightbox was therefore no longer viable, as profits were very low for their "sub-collection", but it did contribute to a worldwide increase in demand for these cultured diamonds thanks to the publicity given to this range. To this day, De Beers strives to sell the last products in its collection, but will not continue to do so.

Despite De Beers' response to this new threat, sales are steadily declining for the group, also causing investors to lose out, like the giant Anglo American in 2024 for example. The measures taken by the company show that they have failed to adapt to the new trend, and are paying a high price for it. 

De Beers Group revenues from 2009 to 2023

 

Conclusion

With its origins in Roman tradition, the engagement ring was later democratized and is still worn on the ring finger of the left hand. The arrival of lab-grown diamonds on the market has completely destroyed the concept of rarity introduced by the De Beers group. What's more, customers are already increasingly aware that a diamond is no longer a financial investment, let alone a sign of differentiation. 

With the "big is better" mentality, the diamond market has literally shot itself in the foot, because it no longer makes sense. Indeed, some customers are still convinced that a large diamond is the best option. But with cultured diamonds and their rock-bottom prices, mine diamond jewelers are now losing out.

Diamonds are about to become only a component of the ring, rather than the centerpiece. This phenomenon will contribute to a veritable renaissance of the engagement ring, a revolution in the history of jewelry.

It's a return to our origins, with a strong symbolic aspect - inevitable, in our view - and couples will hold the pen that will write the future of the engagement ring.

The Power of Three, ring with an aquamarine, stone of the birth month of March, as well as a pink sapphire and a green sapphire, stones of the month of September. Customizable.

 

Garden of Love, ring adorned with peridots, emeralds and blue sapphires, representing the couple's favorite colors or their eye colors. Customizable.

Hug Me, ring with two different stone shapes, representing the couple with their preferred colors or the one corresponding to the month they met and the month of their wedding. Customizable.

 

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