Magazine article Financial History

DIAMOND RINGS: Capitalizing on Social Trends

Magazine article Financial History

DIAMOND RINGS: Capitalizing on Social Trends

Article excerpt

From bridal gowns to multiple tiered cakes, elaborate weddings have become an American tradition: a tradition that usually starts with a trip to the jewelry store. Today, diamond engagement rings symbolize the couple's everlasting love for each other. Yet the origins of matrimonial diamond rings are considerably more materialistic, arising from the confluence of advertising campaigns and the deregulation of engagement and marriage contracts.

While De Beers and Madison Avenue are generally credited with masterminding the rise of diamond matrimonial rings in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, several additional contributing factors are evident. Even before the advent of the famous De Beers US marketing campaign in 1939, diamond imports were dramatically rising. Strong economic growth during and after World War II certainly aided sales of luxury goods like diamonds, as, eventually, did demographic trends that increased the number of young adults. But neither factor explains why diamond matrimonial rings, of all the luxury items swamping the post-Depression economy, enjoyed such success.

According to Margaret Brinig, the Fritz Duda Family Chair in Law at Notre Dame Law, eradication of the "breach of promise to marry" action was the single most influential factor in the rise of the diamond engagement ring tradition following the Depression. Beginning in 1935, six states stopped allowing jilted brides to seek restitution from their erstwhile fiancés. By 1945, 16 states had abolished the action.

Diamond rings, Brinig asserts, filled the hole leftby the defunct breach of promise actions, which had provided women with financial security at a time when many people still viewed marriage as more of a career path than a romantic relationship. For women, marriage opportunities were inversely related to their age and their sexual history. A failed engagement lefta woman older and was humiliating, particularly if her virginity was no longer intact. In states where the law no longer protected jilted brides, society faced a quandary: how to compensate women for the losses they suffered from failed engagements.

Instead of opting for any sort of paper contract, like a prenuptial agreement or performance bond, to fix the problem, couples turned to diamond rings to solve their dilemma. Diamond rings had symbolized betrothal in America since the 1840s, but their use had largely been restricted to the most affluent members of society. When the African diamond rush of the late 1800s flooded the market, however, diamond jewelry became a viable option for middle and even lower class consumers.

By the late 1930s, therefore, most Americans were familiar with diamond engagement rings and could afford to buy one commensurate with their budgets. The average retail price of a diamond engagement ring was $80 ($1,280 in 2011 dollars) compared to today's average of $5,200. Nudged along by Madison Avenue, many saw diamond rings as a natural form of collateral - as something valuable that a jilted bride could keep as compensation if her would-be husband absconded. Diamond engagement rings therefore joined the list of matrimonial requirements alongside white wedding gowns and something borrowed and something blue.

The need for a physical asset as security was also driven by the transformation of romantic relationships. Previously, it was customary for couples to meet at home and be entertained by family. After the economic hardships of the early 1930s, couples starting meeting outside of the household because many families no longer had the money or facilities to entertain guests. Instead, men began inviting women to activities outside of the home. The ritual of dating thus evolved into a type of economic exchange where the male paid for food and entertainment in return for female companionship. As the relationship escalated, so did the value of the "gifts," culminating in a diamond engagement ring in return for lifetime companionship.

In 1939, De Beers hired an advertising agency, N. …

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