As with many Western traditions, the presentation of a ring to celebrate a betrothal can be traced back to the ancient Romans. Archaeologists and historians have confirmed that the Romans wore rings of flint, ivory, copper, and iron to signify love and commitment. Whilst the sentiment of giving an engagement ring remains steadfast today, styles and gemstone preferences have varied greatly over time. Read on to discover more about some of the most iconic engagement rings throughout history.
In 1796, Napoleon Bonaparte presented his love Joséphine de Beauharnais with a ‘Toi et Moi’ ring. Translating from French to ‘You and Me’, the ring comprised of a pear-cut sapphire and diamond nestled side by side, representing the joining of two hearts in union. Unsurprisingly given the provenance, the ring sold at auction in 2013 for €730,000 against an estimate of €10,000 – €15,000.
Queen Victoria proposed to Albert in 1849 and following his acceptance she said it was the ‘happiest brightest moment in my life’. Following the unique proposal, Victoria was bestowed a coiled serpent ring from Albert set with her birthstone, an emerald, which was common practice at the time. Today, a coiled snake seems an unlikely choice for an engagement ring, however in Victorian society it was recognised as a symbol of wisdom and commitment. Whilst there is no exact confirmation, it is believed that the Queen was buried with her engagement ring following her death in 1901.
One of the more controversial royal matches was the union between American socialite Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII, later the Duke of Windsor. Just prior to his abdication from the throne in 1936, the King proposed to Simpson with an impressive 19.77 emerald and diamond ring in platinum by Cartier. To celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary, Wallis had the ring re-designed by Cartier into a gold cluster setting in keeping with mid-century taste. Following her death in 1986, the famous ring sold at Sotheby’s Geneva for $1.98 million USD.
In 1948, De Beers declared that ‘a diamond is forever’, aligning the longevity of marriage with the physical durability of a diamond. The decade that followed saw
impressive diamonds take centre stage in engagement ring design. The Cartier ring commissioned by Prince Rainier III of Monaco for his engagement to American actress Grace Kelly is one such example. Centring a 10.47 carat emerald-cut diamond, the ring features in High Society (1956) where during a particular scene Kelly polishes the rock before leaning back to admire its beauty. Today, the ring remains in the collection of the House of Grimaldi.
Lady Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales
The sapphire and diamond cluster ring worn by Princess Diana is one of the most recognisable pieces of jewellery in history. Controversially, the ‘Marguerite’ ring made by crown jeweller Garrard & Co. was not a bespoke piece, which was highly unusual for a royal engagement. Despite the staggering £47,000 price tag in 1981, the Queen was reportedly displeased with the ring being a ready-made design featured in the Garrard catalogue. Diana continued to wear the ring following her divorce from Charles, and it continues to be worn today by Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge.
No listing of iconic engagement rings would be complete without reference to Elizabeth Taylor’s ‘Krupp diamond’ gifted to her from Richard Burton following five years of marriage. The 33.19 carat Asscher cut diamond is not only large but of an extremely high quality, graded by the Gemological Association of America as a D colour and VS1 clarity. It is reported that Taylor wore the diamond almost daily, stating it was her favourite piece in her vast collection of jewels. The diamond was offered at Christie’s in 2011 as ‘The Elizabeth Taylor Diamond’, and sold for $8,818,500USD.
BETHANY MCGOUGAN / Head of Fine Jewels & Timepieces
Banner Image: The Elizabeth Taylor diamond ring of 33.19 carats / Alamy