Wedding rings date back millennia to Ancient Egypt, where they were first given as a sign of life, love and commitment.
The relationship between willing marriage partners has evolved significantly in the past century, and our marriage and engagement rituals reflect our more enlightened perspective.
A pre-arranged exchange of material possessions by parents to ensure continuance of their family line is rare to find in the 21st century. However, given our far more enlightened view of nuptial bliss today, why do people still give engagement rings when proposing marriage? Is it simply a holdover from antiquity, or is there a deeper meaning and history there?
Here is a helpful infographic about the rich heritage of engagement rings throughout history, as well as their intended meaning from the ancient world to the world of today. ( Article Continues Below).
The Ancient World 1600-1000 BC
In ancient Egypt, rings were actually not a sign of marriage initially. Rings symbolized the spiritual power of an unending circle, which to them represented the eternity of life after death. Traditionally, Egyptians of the ancient world would wear a ring on the fourth finger of their left hand, as they believed that this finger was directly connected to the heart by means of a vein referred to as the vena amoris (“vein of love”) by later scholars.
Ancient Rome, 500 BC
During the reign of the Roman Empire, men would give their women two rings: a gold ring upon betrothal, and an iron one after their wedding. The gold symbolized the wealth of the man in question, while the iron ring, often engraved or marked with a key or clasped hands, represented a wife’s contractual bond to her husband.
Medieval Europe, 1200-1400 AD
As the Dark Ages came and went, the exchange of rings became a more frequent occurrence in many cultures across Europe. Rings were given as gifts, signs of faith or fealty, and as amulets intended to cure illness. Around 1230 AD, scholar Andreas Capellanus wrote “A woman who loves may freely accept from her lover the following: a handkerchief, a ring, a compact…”
Poesy rings, sometimes called poesie rings, were extremely popular during this era and had short poems or expressions of love engraved on the band, typically in French or Latin. Many poesy rings were worn in stacks for more extended works or passages, and were given as love tokens throughout a long-term romance or relationship. This led to a rise in popularity of stacking rings during this era as well, with many of the wealthier class wearing rings from palm to fingertip throughout the Middle Ages and into the early years of the Renaissance.
The Renaissance, 1400-1600
As the Renaissance dawned in Europe, point cut diamonds were introduced in popular jewelry. Before jewelers began to shape gems in the 15th century, all diamonds were typically worn in the rough. The point cut design has little in common with the more brilliant cuts we see today, but it was the first example of cut stones being set in rings and worn as jewelry.
The most famous diamond engagement ring belonged to Mary of Burgundy, which was specially commissioned for her by her beloved, the Archduke Maximilian of Austria in 1477. This gold and diamond ring with stones set in the shape of the letter M became the prototype for engagement rings for centuries to come.
These rings became highly prized possessions that were passed on to descendants.
Age of Enlightenment, 1700-1800
At the outset of the 19th century, rose-cut diamonds began to gain popularity. Scots-Irish claddagh rings, or clasped hands around a rose-cut diamond with a crown overtop, were considered ideal engagement rings because of their expression of loyalty, love, and friendship between a man and his betrothed. Many of these rings also became wedding bands during this time period as well.
The Victorian Era/Romantic Period 1832-1900
The Golden Age of the British Empire and an era of high romance thanks to the marriage of Queen Victoria to her husband Albert, the engagement jewelry of this period reflects the legendary romance of these two famously in love royals. Whimsical designs and motifs featuring hearts, bows, flowers, and even snakes (a Victorian era symbol for eternity) were commonplace.
As the 19th century drew to a close, a vast deposit of diamonds was unearthed in South Africa. This led Tiffany & Co. to develop and introduce the six prong “Tiffany setting”, technique that raised the diamond above the setting and maximized its brilliance. This style continues to influence the design of engagement rings to this day.
The Edwardian Era to Today, 1900-Present
During the 1920s and 1930s saw the rise of the Art Deco design movement, leading to squared off, geometric designs and cuts, as well as the use of other precious stones such as sapphires, rubies, or birthstones to accent or feature prominently within the design. Platinum continued to be the first choice in metals throughout the 20s and 30s.
In 1950s through to the 1960s saw designers and buyers going bigger and bolder with engagement and wedding bands. Actress Audrey Hepburn received stackable rings from her husband Mel Ferrer in both yellow and rose gold in order to allow her to match her jewelry to her current outfit.
Richard Burton’s engagement ring for Liz Taylor actually made headlines with its 33-carat asscher-cut diamond, dwarfing Kim Kardashian’s 15-carat ring by comparison.
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy also wore a distinguished diamond and emerald engagement ring that became all the rage among brides-to-be for years to come.
Fashion and taste shifted again in the 1980s with Prince Charles sapphire engagement ring that he presented to Princess Diana to mark their betrothal, and the 1990s and early 21st century saw a rise in the return to more traditional rings in round and princess cut with unadorned bands.
While there is no crystal ball to predict the future, trends toward simple and tasteful engagement ring designs are likely to continue well into the coming decades. The recent trend towards a return to more traditional designs and ethically sourced stones only underscores the deep respect Western culture holds for diamond engagement rings and what they symbolize. Truly, they are the gift of a lifetime.