You’ve surely heard the saying, “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” But the reason the phrase was literally true in the 1930s—at least in the financial sense—might surprise you.
You can probably scroll through your Facebook feed at any time of year and catch ecstatic shots of grinning girls flashing their newly adorned left ring finger—or the ever-popular “here’s-my-pretty-manicure-why-yes-that-is-a-new-diamond” variety. But the reason that we exchange diamond rings as assurance for future wedlock used to be just that—insurance.
According to an article published in The Atlantic in 2012, there was a law in the United States in the early 1900s called the “Breach of Promise to Marry.” During this time, there was a high premium placed on the fact that a woman remained a virgin until she got married. But surveys from the 1940s show that this was in fact not often the case, and that many engaged couples, ahem, engaged in sexual activities before the big day. Therefore, if the man walked out on his fiancée before actually leading her down the aisle, a woman was allowed to sue the man for his breach of his promise to wed her—assumedly, because the fact that she was no longer a virgin but was also not married would hurt her market value.
In the 1930s, however, states began to strike down the “Breach of Promise to Marry” law and by 1945, half of all states had abolished it. Simultaneously, studies show a surge in diamond imports that could hardly be coincidental—it was four years before DeBeers launched its infamously effective diamond ad campaign that made every Tom, Dick and Harry spring for DeBeers ice (check out their website here). So what gives?
It turns out that economists believe that without the safety net of the law ensuring that dis-engaged women would have some sort of protection post-breakup, the diamond engagement ring was exchanged so that if the relationship went south, the jilted fiancée would have an expensive piece of jewelry to hawk to insure her financial future.
Though this makes the eager exchange of brilliant gems a little less romantic than it might appear in all those giddy Facebook posts, the idea is equally brilliant. At a time when women had to rely on men for their marital and monetary needs, this tiny piece of shiny insurance did its job. Though the custom has all but been reversed in recent decades—it’s almost universally expected that a woman will return her engagement ring to its purchaser in the event of a pre-marital meltdown—the concept isn’t completely passé. Especially considering that plenty of women not only pick out their own ring, but help their intended with the purchase as well, why shouldn’t we get to retain the ring, even if the romance is long gone? Diamonds are forever, after all.