History's Most Famous Engagement Rings

From jaw-dropping diamonds to eternity bands, here are six of the most iconic rings worn on the hands of equally renowned women.

American movie star Grace Kelly retired from acting in 1956 to marry Rainier III, and become Princess of Monaco. Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images (detail)
American movie star Grace Kelly retired from acting in 1956 to marry Rainier III, and become Princess of Monaco. Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images (detail)

The tradition of the engagement ring is believed to have begun in Ancient Rome, when a bride-to-be would wear a gold ring on the fourth finger of her left hand in public and an iron ring at home. The fourth finger was said to contain a nerve that went to the heart, forever marking it as the ring finger. Throughout the Middle Ages, rings were given to betrothed women, but were normally simple metal bands. This changed in 1477, when Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy with a diamond engagement ring. Diamonds at this time were very expensive and very rare, as they were only mined in India. From this time onward, other noble and wealthy couples had engagement rings set with diamonds or other precious stones.

See also: Diamonds: An Iridescent Investment

Maximilian offers Mary of Burgundy an engagement ring. Miniature in a medieval manuscript copy of the Excellent Chronicle of Flanders by Anthonis de Roovere. Ca. 1485–1515. (Bruges Public Library Ms. 437). Photo public domain
Maximilian offers Mary of Burgundy an engagement ring. Miniature in a medieval manuscript copy of the Excellent Chronicle of Flanders by Anthonis de Roovere. Ca. 1485–1515. (Bruges Public Library Ms. 437). Photo public domain

It was not until diamonds were discovered in Africa in the mid-19th century that they became more popular amongst all classes. And by the 20th century, diamond company De Beers, in an effort to raise sales that had fallen during the Great Depression, promoted diamonds as the engagement ring staple, creating the slogan 'A Diamond is Forever.'

De Beers diamond ring, set with a brilliant-cut diamond weighing 3.01 carats, size 521/2, signed De Beers, numbered. Photo © Sotheby's
De Beers diamond ring, set with a brilliant-cut diamond weighing 3.01 carats, size 521/2, signed De Beers, numbered. Photo © Sotheby's

See also: How Diamonds Became a Symbol of Love

Today, 87% of people choose a diamond for their engagement ring, according to 1stDibs, with most wanting the classic round cut. With wedding season in full swing, we look back on six of the most famous engagement rings.

Princess Diana's Sapphire and Diamond Ring

Prince Charles And Lady Diana Spencer (later To Become Princess Diana) At Buckingham Palace On The Day Of Announcing Their Engagement (Photo by Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)
Prince Charles And Lady Diana Spencer (later To Become Princess Diana) At Buckingham Palace On The Day Of Announcing Their Engagement (Photo by Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

Arguably the most iconic engagement ring in history was chosen by Princess Diana upon her engagement to Prince Charles in February 1981 from the selection of the crown jeweller Garrard. The famed ring consists of a centre 12-carat oval-cut Ceylon sapphire surrounded by 14 diamonds in 18-karat white gold. Garrard was inspired by a similarly designed brooch gifted to Queen Victoria by Prince Albert on their wedding day in 1840, which is now in Queen Elizabeth II's collection. Though the ring was originally given to Prince Harry after Diana's death, he gave it to his brother William upon his proposal to Kate Middleton in 2010 so one day it would be 'sat on the throne of England.' Today, Garrard reports that the 'Diana' ring is their most popular design, especially from international clients, but will never be made exactly the same as that ring is now considered bespoke.

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Grace Kelly's Cartier Ring

American movie star Grace Kelly retired from acting in 1956 to marry Rainier III, and become Princess of Monaco. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
American movie star Grace Kelly retired from acting in 1956 to marry Rainier III, and become Princess of Monaco. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

In April 1955, American actress Grace Kelly met Prince Rainier of Monaco at the Cannes Film Festival, and by Christmas of the same year the two were engaged. Originally, Kelly was gifted a Cartier eternity ring with interwoven bands of diamonds and rubies, supposedly to represent the colours of the Monegasque flag. She started filming the movie High Society (1956) at the beginning of the year and needed an impressive engagement ring for the film. In lieu of a prop ring, the Prince commissioned a $4 million Cartier ring, a nearly 10.5 carat emerald-cut diamond with diamond baguettes. The enormous ring was said to be the most expensive ring at the time and today is worth about $40 million. It remains in the collection of the House of Grimaldi.

See also: The World's 10 Most Expensive Diamonds

Marilyn Monroe's Eternity Band

A platinum band, set with thirty-five baguette-cut diamonds (one diamond missing), given to Marilyn Monroe by Joe Dimaggio after their 1954 wedding. Photo © Christie's
A platinum band, set with thirty-five baguette-cut diamonds (one diamond missing), given to Marilyn Monroe by Joe Dimaggio after their 1954 wedding. Photo © Christie's

See also: Worth Millions: Behind the Appeal of Celebrity Memorabilia

When baseball player Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe spontaneously married at San Francisco City Hall wedding in January 1954, he placed this now-iconic ring consisting of a platinum band set with 36 baguette-cut diamonds on her finger. The marriage, however, only lasted nine months, marked by DiMaggio's jealousy of his wife's fame and physical abuse. Despite the ill-fated marriage, the mystique of Marilyn lives on in the ring. It first sold at auction in 1999 for $772,500 (around £639,880), though one of the 36 diamonds is now missing from the band.

Jackie Kennedy's Toi Et Moi Ring and Lesotho III Ring

Diamond and emerald engagement ring. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Diamond and emerald engagement ring. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Art Deco in style, and honouring the future First Lady's love of emeralds, John F. Kennedy commissioned a unique ring from Van Cleef & Arpels in 1953 following his engagement to Jackie Kennedy. The dual-stone ring features a 2.8 carat emerald and a 2.8 carat diamond flanked by floral clusters of a baguette diamonds. In 1961, Jackie added an additional two carats worth of diamonds to the ring by replacing the baguette diamonds with marquise-cut diamonds to create a wreath around the two centre stones. Today, the ring belongs to the collection of the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.

See also: The First Ladies of Fashion

In 1968, five years after the assassination of President Kennedy, Jackie remarried to Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who proposed with the Lesotho III. The 40-carat marquise-cut diamond was the largest cut from the 600-carat Lesotho Brown diamond and was set on a platinum ring by Harry Winston. Due to its high value, Jackie only wore the ring twice before it was locked in a vault. The ring was sold at her estate sale in 1996 for $2.5 million (around £2.07 million) at Sotheby's.

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The Duchess of Windsor's Emerald Ring

Portrait of Wallis Simpson, 1936, wearing her emerald engagement ring. Public domain image
Portrait of Wallis Simpson, 1936, wearing her emerald engagement ring. Public domain image

Like Jackie Kennedy, Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, was also a fan of emeralds, so for her engagement ring, then-King Edward VIII proposed with a nearly 20-carat emerald Cartier ring. The inner platinum band was inscribed with 'We are ours now 27 X 36,' the number signifying the date 27 October 1936 of proposal and when Wallis Simpson's divorce proceeding began from her then-husband, Ernest Simpson. The proposal was so scandalous that less than two months later, on 11 December, the King abdicated the throne to marry Wallis, which he did in June 1937 in France. The choice of emerald was said to represent the rebellion of the king, as emeralds were unusual for an engagement ring as they scratched far more easily than diamonds. For their 20th anniversary, the ring was brought back to Cartier and placed on a yellow gold band with new diamonds. The ring sold at Sotheby's in 1987 for $1.98 million (around £1.64 million), part of the Duchess' jewellery collection which brought in over $50 million.

Elizabeth Taylor's Krupp Diamond Ring

British-born actress Elizabeth Taylor shows off the 33.19 carat diamond ring given to her by husband Richard Burton. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
British-born actress Elizabeth Taylor shows off the 33.19 carat diamond ring given to her by husband Richard Burton. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

See also: History’s Best Wedding Dresses

Engaged a whopping ten times, and gifted many incredible diamonds, Elizabeth Taylor boasted one of the world's most treasured jewellery collections. Her most famous ring, now known as the Elizabeth Taylor diamond, but originally the Krupp diamond, was given to the actress by her husband Richard Burton in 1968. It is a 33-carat Asscher-cut diamond that originally belonged to the Krupp family, wealthy German industrialists. Though given to Taylor four years after their wedding, the colossal diamond was a favourite of Taylor's, and she often wore on her ring finger as a wedding ring. It sold for $8.8 million (around £7.3 million) at her estate sale at Christie's to a South Korean conglomerate.

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