A plain iron hoop was the fore runner of today’s engagement ring. The Romans gave a ring as a symbol of the cycle of life and eternity as a public pledge that the marriage contract would be honoured.
Gold was introduced in the second century A.D. and when the Christians adopted the custom, the ring became an integral part of the betrothal ritual. It was not until the 15th century that this plain hoop and symbol of eternity was strengthened by the emblem of conjugal fidelity – the diamond.
In India where diamonds were first discovered, it was valued more for its supposed magic than its great beauty. It was thought to protect from snakes, fire, poison, illness, thieves and all the forces of evil combined. Mogul princes were wont to bedeck themselves with diamonds, fairly dripping with them at the time when the sub-continent was strewn with the gems.
Each culture prized the diamond for its unique properties. Indians believed the pure whiteness reflected the caste of the wearer. Romans loved its strength and the Chinese treasured the diamond as an engraving tool. The Italians swore by its antidote properties from poison.
In medieval days, the diamond was used in its natural crystalline structure, the eight-sided formation, like two pyramids joined at the base with the lower pyramid completely hidden in the setting. This was supposed to mirror the symbolism of Egyptian pyramids.
By the end of the 15th century, the first real breakthrough in cutting techniques emerged with a totally new shape – the table-top cut. Here, the diamond’s pyramidal point was rubbed flat with diamond dust, the first step towards modern polishing unlocking the diamond’s hidden fire and brilliance for the first time.
The artistry and skill of the 16th century goldsmiths in creating exquisite designs with chased hoops, sculptured and architectural form decorated with soft enamels and diamonds have rarely been surpassed. They also devised a new way of enhancing the diamond’s fire. A silver foil lined the setting to accentuate the pure white light.
The Renaissance goldsmiths now produced a new style of marriage ring, the gimmel (from the Latin Gemelli – twins). This twin ring has two hoops, sometimes three, further emphasising the state of holy wedlock. Martin Luther married Catherine Bora in 1525 with a gimmel ring inscribed with words ‘Whom God has joined together let no Man put asunder.’
By the 18th century when diamonds were discovered in Brazil, the gem became the chief concern of the jeweller. Every fashionable lady would wear many diamond rings on her fingers, the better to show off in the blazing light of a thousand candles at great parties in posh houses.
By the end of the century, with new mines discovered in Africa, supply could meet demand and the status symbol of the privileged few became accessible to the public.
The 20th century
“… the first yellow beam of the sun struck through the innumerable prisms of an immense and exquisitely chiselled diamond – and a white radiance was kindled.” Thus was the diamond romanticised by novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Diamond As Big As The Ritz.
In the 20th century, the diamond has reached its full potential with modern cutting methods and polishing techniques that release the full glory of a stone. In a perfectly cut diamond, the dazzling white light that radiates from its multi-facets shines like a hundred beacons.
At the beginning of the century, platinum was the metal universally used to set diamonds. It was dubbed the ‘metal of Heaven’ for its brilliance, untarnishable whiteness and strength.
Designers concentrated more and more on the stone, reducing the setting to a skeletal frame projecting the diamond itself for its pure symbolism. Cuts achieved more mathematical proportions – emerald, square, rectangular, pear and navette and set as solitaires or in clusters.
The catalogues of the great diamond houses like Harry Winston, Tiffany, Boucheron and Cartier displayed diamond jewellery of tempting designs. In 1981, the German jewellery manufacturer Niessing invented the platinum tension set ring where the diamond is poised seemingly suspended between the two halves of the hoop. Platinum has the unique ability of holding incredible tensions and the stone is literally suspended in a split in the shank and held with a vice-like grip.