Why Do We Wear Rings? A History of Wedding Bands

A man and woman's hands with wedding bands.

When a woman gets engaged, the first thing most people say (after “congratulations”) is, “Let me see the ring!” After a couple ties the knot, they’re both expected to sport rings at all times—and if they don’t, it’s considered a sign that they aren’t committed. Yes, the wedding ring has become ubiquitous in the world of love and marriage… but has it always been that way?

While some traditions are relatively new to the public sphere, wedding rings actually have a long and storied history as a symbol of love and commitment. When you wear a wedding ring, you’re taking part in a tradition held since ancient times! Let’s take a look at the history of the wedding ring.

The First Wedding Rings

An ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic of a married man and woman.

The earliest recorded example of the traditional wedding band is found in ancient Egypt, over 3,000 years ago. According to hieroglyphics on scrolls from the era, couples began making rings for each other out of hemp, reeds, leather, or ivory. The more expensive your materials, the more love it was believed you held for your partner (thankfully, we know that’s not the case these days). The circular shape of the ring also symbolized eternal and unbreaking love—a meaning we still ascribe to rings today.

As time went on, other cultures adopted the wedding ring tradition. In ancient Rome, grooms would give their brides an iron ring, which makes them the earliest predecessor to our modern metal rings. The iron ring brought new meaning to the wedding band tradition; it now stood not only for eternal love, but for a love that was strong and durable. The Romans were also some of the first people to customize their rings, often engraving the couple’s faces on the band.

Why the Left Hand?

Just as we do today, married folks in ancient times wore their wedding bands on the fourth finger of the left hand (or third finger if you don’t count the thumb). There are two prevailing theories for how this tradition began. For polytheistic nations like the Greeks and Romans, this finger was said to contain the “vena amoris,” or vein of love. It was believed that this vein ran from the ring finger directly to the heart, and therefore was the best place to keep your symbol of love. Of course, we now know that the circulatory system doesn’t work that way, but the ring placement hasn’t moved.

A woman wearing an engagement ring with her hand on her fiance's arm.

As Christianity spread, there became another reason for placing a wedding ring on your fourth finger. During a Christian marriage ceremony, the priest would say a prayer over the couple, closing it with, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” As he prayed, the minister would touch each finger on the left hand, starting with the thumb (one finger each for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). As he said, “Amen,” the priest would seal the marriage union by placing the ring on the fourth finger. Again, the specifics of this tradition aren’t quite as commonplace (not everyone has a religious ceremony), but the placement of the wedding ring has stayed put through time.

A Diamond Is Forever

A diamond ring in a red box against a wood background.

The wedding ring tradition quickly spread across the globe, but it saw different iterations wherever you went. 15th century Europeans opted for “posy rings,” which featured short poems engraved on the band. Jewish culture dictated that a wedding ring could only be a circle of solid gold or silver (the lack of gemstones or detail work symbolized an uncomplicated marriage). The many meanings and connotations have come to shape how we feel about wedding rings today.

It was in 1475 that the modern wedding ring was born. When Italian condottiero (a military captain) and Lord of Gradara Costanzo Sforza married Camilla D’Aragona, they summed up their ceremony with the following stanza: “Two wills, two hearts, two passions are bonded in one marriage by a diamond.” The couple started a trend of diamond wedding and engagement rings, though like most trends, it was strictly for the wealthiest of couples.

In fact, diamond rings were considered a luxury of the high life from the 15th century through the 20th, until copywriter Mary Frances Gerety wrote the famous slogan “A Diamond is Forever.” She created this campaign for the De Beers company in the mid 1940s, and an empire was born! These days, diamonds are the most common stone featured in an engagement ring or wedding band.

So the next time you look down at your engagement ring or wedding band, think of the centuries of history and tradition that have led that beautiful ring to your finger. And if you don’t want to wear a diamond, don’t! Wedding rings have taken many forms over the years, so if you ask me, anything goes! As long as your ring is a symbol of love in your mind and heart, you’re in the right ballpark.

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