The Reason Most Engagement Rings Look the Way They Do

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Photo: Tiffany & Co./Instagram

In case your social media feeds haven’t already alerted you, it’s engagement season. More likely than not, it seems everyone (and maybe you, too, in which case, congratulations!) suddenly has a brand new ring on that finger. And more likely than not, that ring follows some fairly traditional aesthetic standards. Let’s check.

First, is it a diamond ring? Is it a solitaire, or does it feature one large-ish main diamond? Is that diamond set above the finger with a set of prongs, so that the sides are exposed? Is it twinkly and sparkly, and if you closed your eyes and pictured a classic “engagement” ring, does it look like that?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume the answer to most, if not all of these questions, is yes. Ever wonder why this is? You have Charles Lewis Tiffany to thank for what most of us recognize as the modern engagement ring.

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A look at an early Tiffany jeweler workroom. Photo: Tiffany & Co.

Charles Lewis Tiffany, the founder of, you guessed it, mecca of Robin egg blue kisses and sparkly dreams, Tiffany & Co., designed the first engagement ring of this kind way back in 1886 when he introduced the Tiffany Setting.

The original Tiffany Setting featured a solitaire diamond held above the band by six platinum prongs. “The prongs lifted the diamond off of the band and into the light,” said Melvyn Kirtley, chief gemologist of Tiffany & Co. Lifting the diamond off the finger and letting the maximum light in produces maximum sparkle. “Prior to the Tiffany Setting, most diamond rings were typically set much lower on the finger, and held in place by very short prongs or bezels, which were embedded within the band.” In this setting, only the very top of the diamond, the crown, was visible — so less light got in, and you also couldn’t appreciate the size of the diamond.

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The classic Tiffany setting. Photo: Tiffany & Co.

Many diamond rings of this period also featured closed and foiled backs, where the backs of the diamonds were coated in a thin layer of reflective metal, and then sealed off. While these antique designs are beautiful, they’re tricky to wear now because getting them wet can damage or ruin the setting. Setting the diamond away from the finger and into the light not only maximizes the impact of the diamond, but it’s a much more practical, wearable setting.

You really can’t overstate what a huge innovation this is. For non-jewelry lovers, most people can at the very least picture an engagement ring — or what you’d see in the dictionary if you looked up the term. Before the Tiffany Setting, this didn’t really exist as such — sure, people were using diamond rings (though colored gemstones were also popular) as symbols of commitment, they were just all over the map in terms of look. The mainstream ubiquity of diamonds being the symbol of love, however, is a whole different story, which I won’t get in to now. But, it is worth noting that “Tiffany setting” is so ubiquitous within the industry now that it’s used colloquially to describe any multi-pronged solitaire setting. It’s also the most sought-after engagement ring style in the world.

Tiffany & Co.'s history, and its legacy, extends beyond the popular setting.

Did you know that they were responsible for the first mail-order catalog in the U.S.? In 1845 the brand published The Catalogue of Useful and Fancy Articles, which sold everything from horse whips to French sugarplums.

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An early Tiffany mail order catalogue. Photo: Tiffany & Co.

Gemologists from the jewelry house are also responsible for discovering or introducing many major gemstones to the market. Kunzite, which has a pink or lavender hue, was discovered in San Diego, CA in 1902 and was named for gemologist George Kunz, who discovered it. In 1920, Kunz also announced the discovery of morganite, a peachy pink stone, which was found in Madagascar. He named it after John Pierpont Morgan (as in, J.P. Morgan) “in recognition of the encouragement he has always extended to the arts and sciences.”

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Kunzite (left) and Morganite (right) jewelry. Photo: Tiffany & Co.

Tanzanite, a beautiful purple-blue stone, was introduced in 1968 and was named after Tanzania, where it was discovered. Tsavorite, a green stone, was discovered in 1970, and was named by Henry B. Platt, then president of Tiffany for Tsavo National Park near the border of Kenya and Tanzania, where it was discovered.

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Tanzanite (left) and Tsavorite (right) jewelry. Photo: Tiffany & Co.

The jewelry house is also credited with championing stones, pearls, and metals mined and sourced locally in North America. Sapphires from Montana; tourmalines from Maine; local gold; and aquamarines, topaz, rose-quartz, and zircon mined in Colorado were all made more popular thanks to Tiffany & Co.’s use.

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The Great Seal of the United States, designed by Tiffany. Photo: Tiffany & Co.

And, you know that eagle emblem you see on the one-dollar bill? You can thank Tiffany designer James Horton Whitehouse for that. In 1877 he was approached by the U.S. Government to submit a Great Seal used to validate international U.S. government documents. His design was approved, and a version of it is now the official “Great Seal of the United States.”

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The NFL Vince Lombardi trophy. Photo: Tiffany & Co.

Tiffany & Co. is also behind some of the most major sports moments, and serves as the manufacturer and designer for the NFL Vince Lombardi trophy (given at the Super Bowl), the MLB WS Championship trophy, and the NBA Larry O’Brien trophy, among others.

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The seed pearl suite gifted to Mary Todd by Abraham Lincoln. Photo: Tiffany & Co.

Oh, and did you know Abraham Lincoln gifted Mary Todd a seed pearl brooch and necklace to commemorate his first inauguration? Because he did, and she was often photographed with it.

But I digress…because I could literally go on, and on, and on.

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The 8 carat flawless diamond to be used in a custom design for one lucky client. Photo: Tiffany & Co.

Today, the brand’s legacy continues with Reed Krakoff as chief artistic officer of Tiffany & Co. where he carries on making various useful and fancy articles. Such as a sterling silver bendy straw, which I own and adore. This holiday season, Krakoff is even offering a chance to design a totally one-of-a-kind engagement ring with him using an ethically sourced round brilliant, internally flawless 8 carat diamond.

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