A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

How did diamonds come to symbolize a wedding engagement?

December 7, 1999

Dear Straight Dope:

Like many people my age, I been bombarded by the recent engagements and marriages of many of my friends. Stories of engagements in the park, at a restaurant, while playing monopoly … then they show me their ring. It is always a diamond. How did the diamond ring come to symbolize the event of engagement?

SDStaff Spmgbord replies:

A kiss on the hand might be quite continental, as lyricist Jule Styne once wrote, but diamonds are still considered a girl's best friend.

Our fascination and fondness for those sparkling gems follows the tradition of the ancent Greeks who believed diamonds were splinters from fallen stars.

In 1215 at the famous Fourth Lateran Council, Pope Innocent III declared (among other things) a longer waiting period between betrothal and marriage. This decree gave birth to the wedding band — its unbroken circle a symbol of unity and eternity.

But, in answer to your question, it wasn't until 1477 when the Archduke Maximillian of Austria gave Mary of Burgundy a diamond ring to mark their betrothal that the tradition of diamond engagement rings began. The reason the ring is placed on the third finger of a woman's left hand is due to an early Egyptian belief that the venas amoris or "vein of love" runs directly from the heart to the tip of that finger.

Choosing the right diamond these days means looking at "four C's" to determine its quality and price: cut (popular cuts include: oval, pear, emerald, brilliant, marquise and heart shape), clarity (the absence of serious flaws or blemishes), color (which ranges from the letters D - Z with D through F being colorless, G through J being near-colorless, and everything past that having a slight to moderate yellow tint) and carat weight (a carat is divided into 100 points, so a 10-point diamond weighs one-tenth of a carat). Many jewelers today suggest alternatives such as pearls, rubies, sapphires, emeralds or even family heirloom rings, but diamonds still remain the popular choice engagement rings.

By the way, that Jule Styne song ("Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend") was written for the musical adaptation of Anita Loos' 1925 novel "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." The original quote by Loos goes like this: "Kissing your hand may make you feel very, very good, but a diamond and safire (sic) bracelet lasts forever."

In the next chapter, Loos just gets better: "So then Dr. Froyd said that all I needed was to cultivate a few inhibitions and get some sleep."

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