Every bride-to-be feels like royalty when her groom kneels on bended knee and asks her hand in marriage. So it’s not surprising that the custom of diamond engagement rings was initiated by royals. The first documented engagement ring was given by Archduke Maximilian of Austria of the imperial court of Vienna to Mary of Burgundy in 1477.
Mary, AKA Mary the Rich, was only 20 when she reigned over eastern France. Suitors got in line hoping to woo her.
The Archduke Maximilian of Austria, future Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, sent his proposal via letter carrier accompanied by a diamond engagement ring. The ring reportedly consisted of a small number of oblong shaped diamonds set in the shape of the letter M (for Mary) on a plain band. It did the trick and both families got what they wanted out of the union: Max’s family married into money and Mary’s family got a boost to the monarch’s militia.
Three hundred and sixty years later Queen Victoria ruled Great Britain, Ireland and was Empress of India as well. As fifth in line to the throne, Victoria did not expected to be crowned Queen. But her father and brothers died leaving her the only heir. Because she was single, no man could propose marriage to her. Instead, Victoria had to extend the proposal to her future husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Prince Albert did, however, come through with a stunning engagement ring shaped like a serpent, symbolizing wisdom and commitment. The gold ring featured rubies, diamonds and true to the custom of the time, Victoria’s birthstone, an emerald.
A progressive trend-setter, the Queen wore white for her nuptials, a precedent-setting choice while brides were expected to wear their finest gowns no matter what color. The Queen’s selection of a white satin gown, 18-foot-long train and four-yard veil forever changed bridal tradition. Victoria was laid to rest in 1901 wearing two rings—her engagement ring from husband Prince Albert and yet another ring given to her by John Brown, her Scottish manservant-turned-intimate late in life after Prince Albert’s death. Closely guarded court records reveal that the second band was the wedding ring once worn by Brown’s mother.
Queen Elizabeth, the paternal great-great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, also did not plan on a career as a monarch. Her father, George VI was thrust upon the throne when his brother abdicated for love. When Elizabeth announced to her parents that she would marry Prince Philip of Greece they were not pleased with her choice but they allowed her to go through with the marriage. Philip had few financial resources to bring to the table after WWII. His mother Princess Alice of Battenburg gave her only son the diamond and aquamarine encrusted tiara that Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra of Russia (the last rulers in the Romanov line) had gifted her as a wedding present. Philip enlisted Philip Antrobus Ltd. to repurpose the tiara into an engagement ring worthy of his future queen. Modest by today’s standards, the three-carat round-cut diamond center stone surrounded by smaller diamonds set in platinum was suited to the post-war conditions of the time. Elizabeth had to pay for her wedding gown using ration coupons like all other English citizens albeit the government gifted her 200 bonus coupons to cover the cost of the 13-foot train of her gown.
Lady Diana Spencer became engaged to Charles, Prince of Wales, on February 1981. Her engagement ring was created by then-crown jeweler Garrard. The ring consisted of 14 solitaire diamonds surrounding a 12-carat oval blue Ceylon sapphire set in 18-carat white gold. Surprisingly the ring wasn’t a custom design and anyone with $60,000 could own their own. Diana wore the ring even after her divorce.
When her eldest son William became engaged to Kate Middleton, he proposed with his mother’s ring thanks to his brother Harry. www.Familyjewelers.com reports that the brothers were allowed to select a keepsake from their mother’s possessions after her tragic death by paparazzi. William had chosen his mother’s watch and Harry his mother’s engagement ring. But Harry gave up the ring to his older brother at the time of his engagement. Diana’s former butler spilled the secret that Harry thought it fitting that his mother’s ring would sit on the throne of England someday when William and Kate are crowned.
Both William’s mother and his wife were commoners who married into the royal family proving fairy tales do come true.