An Unlikely Influencer

Proposing with the first recorded diamond engagement ring, one 15th Century Archduke unknowingly started a trend amongst aristocrats and nobility that remains an enduring tradition to this day. 

The first time in history where we encounter a written historical narrative of a diamond engagement ring is the engagement between Archduke Maximilian of Austria and Mary of Burgundy on August 16th, 1477. Romance aside, marriages of political convenience were the custom of the times amongst the rich and the powerful. The marriage of Mary, daughter of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, to Maximilian I, son of Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor of the House of Habsburg, is regarded as one of the most important in history. Its repercussions, besides a war or two, included the establishment of Maximilian as an independent prince who eventually became Holy Roman Emperor; the passage of territories, including the Netherlands, into Hapsburg dominion, and the entrance of Spain into the dynasty through the eventual marriage of Philip the Fair, who was the son of Maximilian and Mary.

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For those of a romantic leaning, tradition has it that when Frederick III was scouting around to find Maximilian a suitable bride, Maximilian and Mary had begun corresponding through interpreters. Mary is believed to have fallen in love with Maximilian through his letters while fearing that her father would marry her off to Charles, the boy dauphin, to secure an alliance with France.

Charles the Bold died in battle early in 1477. Louis XI, the King of France, pressed Mary to marry Charles the dauphin. According to legend, Maximilian set off for Burgundy after arranging a proxy marriage. However, due to Austria’s proclivity for war, folklore has it that he was an impoverished suitor. It is believed that as he travelled through his native lands, villagers pressed upon him gifts of gold and silver which he in turn used to procure a specially commissioned diamond engagement ring for Mary.

The lavish wedding took place on August 16 in Ghent. Due to the great wealth and the political and economic significance of this marriage, the betrothal with the diamond engagement ring at the imperial court of Vienna in 1477 was documented extensively in writings and paintings of the time.

Their public standing had a huge social impact very similar to that of celebrities today: imitation. Mary’s diamond engagement ring inspired other wealthy couples of her era. Diamond engagement rings became a trend among Europe’s elite. A fashion was set and by the early 16th Century, diamonds, as symbols of lifelong fidelity, were cropping up on betrothal rings of royalty and commoners alike. From that single event etched in history many poems and writings since describe the sacred and deeply meaningful nature of the act of giving or receiving an engagement ring from a lover. A tradition had begun; a notable distinction was constructed between the engagement ring and the traditional wedding band that is founded in antiquity.

The trend was augmented by new discoveries of alluvial diamond deposits in Brazil in early 1700 and subsequently in the underground mines in South Africa in late 1800s that triggered ground-breaking advances in diamond cutting techniques. Today, the diamond engagement ring has become a near-universal symbol of love and marriage. As unlikely influencers, Maximilian and Mary, some 500 years ago, set a style for betrothals that has echoed and endured through the centuries and continues steadfastly to this day.

HAMISH SHARMA / Head of Important Jewels

Banner Image: Anton Petter (1781-1858)Marriage of Maximilian I and Mary of Burgundy, circa 1813 

September 2021