“I tame” or “I subdue”, is what the original Greek word (adamao) for diamond meant.  Later, the term, “adamas”, used by the ancient Greeks to describe the hardest substance known, became synonymous with the word diamond.  The adjective adamas, translates as unconquerable.

As Old as Time

Diamonds are 3 billion years old and the hardest gemstone discovered thus far, but from a mineralogical perspective, diamonds are not much different from common carbon, the graphite in a pencil.  What has imbued them with a centuries-old mystique, has a more human explanation.

Diamonds as Symbols of Divine Devotion

The ancient Greeks believed that diamonds were the tears of their gods and that the light they reflected was a symbol of the constant flame of love.  The first use of rings as symbols of commitment dates back to the betrothal rings of the Romans, which were often formed from twisted copper or braided hair (the tradition of giving one’s beloved a lock of hair).  The ring was worn on the third finger of the left hand.  As with many other cultural acquisitions acquired through Roman conquests, the placement of the ring on this finger was taken from the ancient Egyptian tradition which held that a vein in the third finger (Vena Amors or vein of love) ran directly to the heart.  These rings were not exclusive to betrothals; they were also bestowed as tokens of affection or friendship.

The engagement ring was introduced in 1215, when Pope Innocent III, decreed that there needed to be a “waiting period” between betrothal and a marriage ceremony.  These first engagement rings symbolized the couples’ commitment during that waiting period.

Diamonds as Symbols of Status

Although engagement rings were commonplace, diamonds remained rare for many centuries, and as such they were reserved for the royalty and high elites, the only groups permitted to wear ornate rings or rings with jewels.

Throughout the Middle Ages, diamonds, which had been associated with mystical powers as far back as Plato, continued to be used for mystical purposes. Kings wore them into battle as amulets against evil, talismans that they believed conferred fearlessness and invincibility, a sentiment expressed in Louis IX’s (1214-1270) establishment of a sumptuary law which reserved diamonds for the king alone, cementing their association with the highest level of social rank.   One hundred years later, diamonds made their way through the ranks of lesser royals throughout European aristocracy.  The first diamond engagement ring is recorded as the one given by Archduke Maximilian of Austria to Mary of Burgundy in 1477.

This is the first of a two-part series on the history of diamonds. Sources:

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