When A Diamond Ring Was “Insurance”

The Atlantic ran an interesting story recently, exploring the historical significance of engagement rings. There are plenty of reasons to take issue with this particular custom. It’s inconvenient – perhaps even foolish – to spend so much money on a piece of jewelry during tough economic times. (Especially when diamonds aren’t even that rare and are only expensive because jewelers artificially inflate prices.) The diamond trade supports slavery and regional conflicts in Africa – and there’s not really any way to tell if your diamond is helping fund terrorist activity or civil war. And the practice of diamond mining is devastating to the environment.

But it turns out the original motivations behind the custom are even more cynical than most people would have imagined. Simply put: demanding an expensive ring was a woman’s way of ensuring that, even if the marriage were called off and she would be unable to find another suitor now that her “purity” was in question, she would be able to support herself. Or, as The Atlantic succinctly describes it, “virginity insurance.”

What’s really interesting is that, prior to 1930, most states in the US had “Breach of Promise to Marry” laws – allowing women to sue men for breaking off an engagement. Once these laws begin to be repealed in the 30s and 40s, the sales of diamond engagement rings shot up. The idea was to demand a sizeable investment from the man up-front – and, at the time, it was expected that the woman would keep the ring if the groom-to-be backed out.

It’s an interesting theory, and one that seems historically plausible. Even if the history of diamond rings is rooted in sexist assumptions about a woman’s worth, that doesn’t mean it can’t be a meaningful gesture today. Although, given the ethical issues surrounding diamonds, I’d just as soon go for an alternate, less expensive, conflict-free stone.


Related Stories:

Smartphones: The New Blood Diamonds?

Diamond Mining Leaves People And Land Devastated

California Leads the Way on Conflict Minerals Legislation

Photo credit: William Warby via Flickr


Kamryn M.
Kay M5 years ago

interesting; had no idea.

Dan L.
Dan L5 years ago

Any woman who would not return a ring is pretty low. If she feels scorned, and thinks she is justified in not returning the ring, she is pathetic.

Victor M.
Victor M5 years ago

no money, no ring

Charli S.
Charlotte S5 years ago

Instead of an engagement ring I had my husband get me a mixer (an expensive mixer but one that I wanted). I don't wear rings and thought the expense was stupid. 16 years later the mixer is still used and working great. My husband doesn't get me cards every holiday and doesn't buy me tons of gifts but when I got injured he stood beside me and was insulted when I suggested we get divorced as I would eventually end up with no function. I got a real man and great husband and could care less about the diamond.

I worked in the jewelry business. The markup on jewelry is at least 300% or more. Quit a haul when the normal retail markup is 20-50%! And look at all the blood on those diamonds.

Those who believe if there is a economic collapse that gold and diamonds will be valuable, think again. You can't eat gold or diamonds can you? They will only have value if others believe they do and you may end up trading that $30,000 diamond for an apple. Because those who have the food and the weapons to defend themselves hold your life in their hands. Things don't buy happiness or life. Better to put you money into things that are useful. Books, garden seeds, etc

Laura D.
Laura D5 years ago

Well, the whole "insurance" thing wasn't some ancient custom. It was entirely a marketing ploy by DeBeers. They even went into girl's schools and sponsored marriage seminars and talks, while hawking their diamonds as insurance and proof of their worth.

"Diamonds are Forever" "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend". All of these originated at the start of the last century and they are entirely advertising slogans from DeBeers. It's amazing to me how many people think diamond rings are some centuries old ancient custom--they are not. They just had a very good ad campaign that rivaled that of Coca-Cola.

Nerosh Jaichand
Nerosh Jaichand5 years ago

So sorry people but now days its a fashion statment , any person can by a rock and put it on your finger but that same person is gonna fool around and hurt u,it doesnt matter about the size of the rocks its the truth behind its dat counts .

Sandi C.
Sandi C5 years ago


KS Goh
KS Goh5 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Inga S.
Inga S5 years ago

Stephanie D. = You can have the Fakes! I want the Real Thing! Precious or semi-precious. I have never cared for diamonds, But If I am not worth the real thing don't give me anything Because Nothing is all a Fake Anything is worth!

Donna B.
Donna B5 years ago

Thanks for the story. Used to love diamonds and have a nice engagement ring from 26 years ago, still married!! But when you hear so much about the conflict diamonds and everything it makes me feel guilty and I don't want them anymore. But I love and enjoy all the ones I do have.