The history of the engagement ring is one riddled with several tales such that it can be a little confusing to accurately determine when the first engagement ring was created, especially with the diamond engagement rings popularized among commoners by the De Beers diamond company thanks to their rather aggressive marketing.
In this article, therefore, we’ll look at everything you need to know about the De Beers engagement rings, the history of the ring, and how a grand idea turned mainstream.
Essentially diamonds have always appealed to the human imagination, with the marketing theatrics that pitted diamonds are rare and also the most unique gemstones making the diamond the most desirable gemstone incorporated into an engagement ring to represent love and commitment forever.
After 1947, De Beers marketed diamonds under the tagline; A Diamond is Forever. With the launch of other ads encouraging the common man to save for a diamond engagement ring to show their love and commitment to their lover, the diamond engagement ring started to become mainstream.
But how did we get to where we are today?
Timeline of De Beers engagement ring
To get to the engagement ring, we have to start from the beginning, and this is a story that started in 1870.
Essentially, diamonds have come a long way, literally traveling from deep in the earth’s crust up to 150km deep to the surface of the earth and into factories and jewelry companies, and the accessibility of diamonds in the market today can be largely attributed to the De Beers company, the controversy surrounding the company notwithstanding. But generally, diamonds have been around for more than 3.3billion years.
De Beers was founded long ago in 1870 by Cecil Rhodes, who was 17 years then, and the son of an English Vicar who suffered from a lung and heart condition and had moved to South Africa.
Cecil’s brother, Herbert Rhode, owned a cotton farm in the British colony of Natal, and Cecil worked at the farm too. Unfortunately, the land they had settled on wasn’t suitable for cotton farming, so their venture failed. Unknown to them at the time, the farm that wasn’t ideal for cotton farming housed diamonds in the earth.
The other thing they didn’t know is that a few years early, an explorer called Erasmus Jacobs (15 years) had discovered a chunk of white stone at the banks of the Orange River, specifically in Hopetown; the only catch is that at the time, nobody knew that the white stone he’d found was an actual diamond. It wasn’t until much later that his neighbor told him that the stone he’d discovered was a 21.25carat diamond.
In 1871, The Rhodes brothers made their first steps into the diamond industry, and they caught the ‘Diamond Fever’ as it was referred to back then, and they opted to start mining diamonds in Kimberly, which was at the time called the New Rush.
They were strategic, and before they got into this line of business, they rented out and sold water pumps to other miners. They made a huge chunk of money from the business.
Cecil used part of the income to systematically buy farmers’ claims of their lands, later opting to invest in mining just like proper investors and businessmen.
Soon after, Cecil purchased some prospects around the Orange River from two brothers, Diederick and Johannes De Beer.
This happened because, even though the De Beers brothers were aware of the diamonds on their land, they were devout Christians who didn’t have any interest in the stones.
And they didn’t want to be swept or moved by the diamond fever, so they chose to sell their land.
Soon after, there was an ample supply of diamonds on the market because of the overproduction of diamonds. The diamond market collapsed soon after, with diamonds purchased at the same price as semi-precious stones like turquoise and topaz.
Surprisingly, this worked out in favor of De Beers’ marketing strategy since De Beers intended to create artificial diamond scarcity, hence control of the market.
So, after some time, the mine owners could not maintain their heads over water, and Cecil took advantage of this situation.
Part of their strategy was to merge the rest of the South African diamond mining companies, which meant that it was easier for them to maintain high fixed prices for their diamonds.
They did this successfully, forming the De Beers Consolidated Mined in 1888. They also created other fake companies and had a full monopoly over diamonds, so by 1890, they controlled at least 90% of the global diamond production.
A year later, when a large diamond was mined, and the miners demanded to purchase it, a commission was set up, but De Beers was favored as the right buyer. Well, this didn’t come as a surprise because the prime minister was Cecil Rhodes.
Years later, Cecil Rhodes created The Diamond Syndicate, which controlled the diamond prices. He died in 1902 from a heart attack at 48, but the company’s growth was undeterred.
Big changes took place in the years that followed, leading to the diamond engagement ring becoming mainstream. The first big move was made in 1939 when De Beers, in partnership with the GIA, created the 4Cs system for determining the quality of diamonds.
The 4Cs – Carat weight, color, cut, and clarity of the diamonds, remain the standards of quality for diamonds today.
Though big, this quality system was not enough to protect the company from the Great Depression and the diminished purchasing power that resulted from World War I&II.
So, De Beers hired a marketing and advertising company after things settled down. In 1947, they advertised their diamonds under the slogan; A Diamond is Forever – this slogan was coined by France Gerety, a young copywriter working at N.W Ayer & Sons.
This was not just an advertisement for any diamond but for diamond engagement rings.
This was the most successful ad run by the company, and this is the case to date, and the ad led to massive sales because the diamond was now regarded as the symbol of true love.
While De Beers lost its monopoly over the diamond market soon after the discovery of diamonds in Australia and Russia, they still maintain a huge hold over the market as they own the diamond mines in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Canada.
By the end of the 20th century, they still owned a huge chunk of the diamond market. In 2000, the company unveiled De Beers Millennium Star, the 2nd largest top-color diamond weighing 203.04 carats, a pear-shaped diamond that was cut in this manner to maximize its beauty.
This also heralded the launch of the De Beers brand selling the finest jewelry quality, and De Beers Jewelry was formed in 2001. By this time, the company was the renowned creator of the best diamond engagement rings.
A Diamond is Forever campaign in 1948 by De Beers
In 1947 and 1948, De Beers diamond company ran one of the most successful marketing campaigns. The campaign was run by the New York-based advertising company, N.W Ayer, who, thanks to one of their young copywriters, Frances Gerety, came up with the slogan A Diamond is Forever.
Before this ad was run and the whole world, with everyone in it, held little hope that they could actually buy a diamond ring, diamonds were only associated with the wealthy and elite.
It was also a symbol of power, wealth, and romance. But by working with the American firm, De Beers convinced Americans and the rest of the world that diamonds were the ultimate symbols of love, marriage, and romance.
But how did this company convince everyone that diamonds were the ‘It’?
Well, after De Beers monopolized the prices of diamonds worldwide and ran the industry as a syndicate run by the chairman Sir Ernest Oppenheimer who made sure that De Beers was the diamond wholesaler for the rest of the world market, and after they’d stabilized the market by controlling demand and supply, anything the company said about diamonds was considered gospel truth.
So when they contracted the services of an ad agency when the global economy was suffering with Europe under the threat of war, they needed to find a company that would create a marketing campaign capable of changing how people viewed diamonds to drive up sales.
At the time, diamond sales were down 50%, so they hired the company in 1938. This was the birth of their great vision, especially because, late in the 1930s, most Americans considered diamonds a piece of luxury reserved for the super-wealthy.
At the time, Americans preferred spending money on appliances and cars. To sell more diamonds, Ayer figured that they would have to market to these customers and individuals with different incomes.
Ultimately, they came up with the winning Slogan; A Diamond is Forever. This ad slogan pushed more people to buy diamonds and made it possible for the buyers to hold onto the diamonds forever rather than resell them.
In essence, this ad created a unique situation that would nudge people to pledge to marriage and love by acquiring a diamond engagement ring.
What we can learn from the History of De Beers engagement ring
The biggest lesson in all this is that while diamonds are not rare and they don’t really last forever, the right marketing strategy will sell diamonds.
Everyone will believe what you tell them, especially when it comes to items that were previously reserved for the super-wealthy. Also, De Beers made diamonds popular globally because of controlling the market.
Though they didn’t do it in the right ways and have been roped into many controversies, they managed to control the entire industry with calculated research and strategies.
The idea of engagement rings has been around for centuries, but even in the past, gemstone engagement rings were unpopular, and the people who afforded the best gemstone engagement rings were the super wealthy.
Later, thanks to De Beers, diamond engagement rings were the standard for everyone, not just the super-wealthy, because A Diamond is Forever.
Stephanie is a jewelry lover when she was a teenager. Her major was fashion design when she was in college. She is a jewelry designer at SOQ Jewelry and other design companies. Now she is also a writer for our website. She writes a lot of designs&brands posts with very actionable tips.