The early wedding ring dates to the ancient Egyptians, who believed that a circle symbolized eternal love. These early rings were made of braided reeds or other materials and were put on the ring finger, which they believed contained a vein that ran to the heart. Ancient Greeks later adopted this tradition.
Later in the second century, Romans began the tradition of a betrothal ring to signify a contract of ownership, love, and mutual obedience. Romans sealed all contractual matters such as marriage with a kiss. This is a tradition we continue today in wedding ceremonies. They used various materials for rings, such as copper, bronze, silver, and gold, which were usually worn outside the home. In the third century, the Romans made a new ring design—called a fede—which became very popular. It consisted of a bezel design with clasped hands, representing hands joined in trust and pledging vows of faith or loyalty. Throughout history, many other cultures adapted clasped hands in their engagement rings.
Engagement Ring Designs in the Middle Ages
During Medieval and Renaissance Europe (fifth to fifteenth century) the fede design remained popular, but there were other variations as well. The same rings were used for both engagements and weddings. There were also designs that were more ornate and included things like a heart, enamel, gemstones, or inscriptions.
In the sixteenth century, the gimmel ring design was used for both the engagement and the wedding. Gimmel means “twin” in Latin, and the rings resemble a puzzle. The couple would wear one of the ring pieces during the engagement and put the second ring piece together on their wedding day.
The gimmel ring was also used as gifts between men throughout history. For example, King Henry III gave an ornate, jeweled, gimmel ring set to Count Gysnes in 1204 as a symbol of royal friendship. Many gimmel rings were ornately designed throughout history and included the fede design. Some had even had more than three hoops, which were used in England, Germany, Ireland, and other countries. The rings were referred to as “joint rings” during Elizabethan England.
The Claddagh ring originated in the Irish fishing town of Claddagh (part of modern-day Galway) in the seventeenth century. The ring signifies love, loyalty, and friendship. The design consists of a heart (love), hands (friendship), and a crown (loyalty). Claddagh rings are used for engagements and weddings and are still used today for love and friendship. Here’s how to properly wear the Claddagh ring:
On the right hand, with the heart pointed outwards: single and looking for love
On the right hand, with the heart pointed toward the heart: in a relationship
On the left hand, with the heart pointed outwards: engaged
On the left hand, with the heart pointed towards the heart: married
Today, most people no longer wear Claddagh rings to show their relationship status, but rather to show their Irish heritage. Other people may simply enjoy wearing the ring on their finger, necklace, bracelet, or as a pocket charm, and they are often given as gifts of friendship.
Another Ring of European Origin
Some couples today inscribe their rings with important dates, initials, or an inscribed message. In the seventeenth century there were posy rings. These may also be spelled as posie, posey, or poesie, and roughly translate to “poem” in French. However, it’s unknown if the original ring designer of this style was from Great Britain or France. They were engraved with short adages that were friendly, amorous, or religious. Rings were inscribed on the inside, outside, or both, and sometimes included pictographs.
Diamond Engagement Rings
The diamond, roughly cut, has been used for thousands of years in rings, but it was not used as an engagement ring until the fifteenth century.
In 1477, the Archduke Maximilian of Austria had a ring made of diamonds shaped with an M for his proposal to Mary of Burgundy, which succeeded in winning her over from other suitors. Diamonds were extremely expensive at the time and the ring won her heart. This is considered by most historians as the first diamond engagement ring.
Diamonds were expensive, since supplies were considered scarce. In the 1860s, more plentiful veins of diamonds were discovered in South Africa. This wasn’t considered good for business, as the abundance of diamonds made the price drop. Consequently, British businessmen created the first diamond cartel to keep up the illusion of scarcity, called the De Beers Consolidated Mines, Inc.
Over the next ten years, they drove up prices and came to control over 90% of the world’s diamond supply. They are still a major influence today, and their 1940s campaign is credited in inventing the “diamond is forever” engagement ring. It is very difficult to find specific history of engagement rings outside of European cultures, and many have incorporated the Western culture’s ring traditions in more modern times.
Other World Engagement Ring Practices
India has a diverse culture and, as a result, many different practices for marriage. However, they have long enjoyed engagement ceremonies and have placed rings on each other’s fingers at this occasion. Typically, a man puts a ring on the woman’s right hand, and the woman puts a ring on the man’s left hand. They also used toe rings (bichiya), which many people still do so today.
In Argentina, couples use a silver band when engaged, then change it for a gold wedding ring at the wedding ceremony. Jewish traditions vary, but in some cases the fiancé places a ring on the right index finger of his fiancée, and during the wedding ceremony, the ring is moved on the same hand to the ring finger. In Northern Kenya, Samburu warriors wear a necklace with decorative beading to signify engagement. In Greece and Turkey complex puzzle rings have been used throughout history and in modern times.
A common Japanese traditional ring, used for the engagement and wedding by the bride and groom, is the Mokume Gane ring, which means “wood eye metal.” Ancient samurai used Mokume Gane materials to decorate their swords. The ring has a stunning swirling design that has been gaining popularity in Western cultures recently.
Other Wedding Traditions
Although engagement and wedding rings did not take off before Western influence, areas like Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and China had their own customs for courtship and weddings.
In Japan, women painted their teeth (called Ohaguro) with a pitch-black lacquer, as far back as the Kofun period (250 to 538 CE) to show that they were the right age for marriage. It was considered beautiful and it was done mainly by married women for centuries. However, it could also be practiced by men, aristocrats, and other important people as well. It prevented tooth and enamel decay, so many people still practice it today in other countries outside of Japan. Some of the ingredients in Ohaguro were iron, tannin, and other various materials. The recipe resembled iron-gall ink and was applied every day or every few days. In Japan, during the Meiji period, this tradition started to fall out of fashion. While trying to modernize the country, this practice was mostly stopped by the Japanese government’s ban of the practice in the 1870s. Today, it can be still seen in plays, movies, festivals, and geisha districts.
Other countries that blackened their teeth throughout history may still do so today. These countries include Vietnam, Northern Laos, Yunnan China, several Pacific Islands, Thailand, and some parts of India.
China has had many different courtship and wedding ceremonial practices, some of which are still used today. For example, the Six Etiquette of today had been used for thousands of years since the Western Zhou Dynasty. The Six Etiquette includes proposing marriage, matching birth dates, submitting betrothal gifts, presenting wedding gifts, selecting a wedding date, and the wedding ceremony itself. Matchmakers were common throughout history and are even used in China today.
Today, the practice of women proposing to men and same-sex engagements has created a new demand for engagement rings. In 1926, many large jewelry manufacturers attempted, but failed, in a campaign to popularize men’s engagement rings. Known as mangagement rings, they can vary in style and taste, and some resemble common rings men already wear. Traditionally, they are made of gold, platinum, stainless steel, or tungsten, and may include a diamond centerpiece.
The engagement ring today is a matter of taste and style. Many choose something from their heritage or from another culture, and it can be fun to find a little enlightening history behind the style of your ring.