The story of the engagement ring is a contentious topic, and one that changes depending on who you ask. Over the years there have been a number of exposés promising to blow the lid off the unscrupulous diamond industry, most of which trace the practice of giving engagement rings back to a particularly successful ad campaign by global diamond heavyweights, De Beers in 1938. It has been suggested that in addition to manipulating the global diamond supply, by buying up every diamond mine they could, the company set their sights on manipulating demand with an effective ad campaign by New York ad agency N.W. Ayer.
But what if the history behind engagement rings was based on something different entirely? Our knowledge of how psychology impacts advertising tells us that while advertising can be hugely effective at changing purchasing decisions – like swapping from one brand to another – it’s nowhere near as effective at encouraging people to form behaviors, like proposing marriage with a diamond ring. It has been suggested that the origins of the engagement ring are actually rooted in a much more primal human instinct; sex.
Prior to the progressive era, the enforcement of “Shotgun Marriage” laws in Vancouver, New York and many cities across North America meant that after a couple slept together, they were legally obliged to wed. Following the abolishment of these laws in the early 20th century, many couples found themselves in unchartered territory. Men and women alike enjoyed sex, and wanted to continue having it, but the times had changed. In the past, when a man would make a commitment to a woman, she could comfortably take him at his word, knowing that if he lied, the government would step in to enforce their marriage. Now, without any laws in place, men of the world had to find another way to convince the women of their affections that their intentions were honorable. Enter, the engagement ring.
Effectively working as a form of collateral, an engagement ring would satisfy a woman that her partners’ intentions were true, while giving her some bling to boot! And if it turned out that this wasn’t the case, the ring was hers to do with as she pleased. And so began the tradition of the engagement ring as we know it.