They say that if you like it, you should put a ring on it. But why? What does getting married have to do with rings and why is a shiny diamond ring such a huge symbol of getting married? In today's society, the first thing we do when someone tells us that they are engaged is look toward their hand. Is it just a marker to say, "Hands off! I'm taken!" Or is it more than that? This is the real reason why women wear engagement rings.
For the record, the actual wedding ring dates back much farther than the engagement ring. Egyptian couples exchanged wedding rings made of reeds or hemp as far back as 6,000 years ago. However, the history of rings goes even farther back than that. Historians have ample evidence to show that the use of rings as symbols of devotion stretches way back into prehistoric times. Before men had figured out what metal was and how to craft things from it, they tied grass around their partner's wrists and ankles. It was believed to 'tie down their spirits', and became a precursor to the modern engagement ring.
The first ever engagement rings were invented in 13th century Rome. Back then the Pope demanded that Christians wait between their betrothal and their marriage for sex. They were just simple weddings rings worn on the left finger. There is historical proof of the practice of giving and receiving engagement rings dating as far back as ancient Rome. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks are regularly cited as the inventors of the engagement ring, however, the only definite mentions of them being worn on a regular basis to signify an intention to marry has been with the ancient Romans.
Why the left hand? The origins of the ring finger is actually pretty romantic. The Egyptian, Greek and Roman people believed in a vein called the "Vena Amoris." It supposedly runs from the ring finger on the left hand to the heart. So the engagement ring was close to the wearer's heart in a way. For them, this was a better symbol as any that someone was in a relationship of value and importance.
For the Romans, public life was highly important and completely different from private life. Keeping up appearances was something that wealthy families spent a great deal of time on. For that reason, they wore gold rings in public and iron rings at home. (Iron was a very popular metal in ancient times.) Initially it was a practice reserved only for noble families, but over time it became common for just about everyone to wear iron rings as a sign that they bound themselves to another in some kind of commitment; if not a husband or wife, as a servant or loyal follower. Marriages in ancient Rome were much more about business than love, however. An engagement was an agreement to enter into contract, marriage contract, that is, between two men; the bride's father (the seller) and her groom (the buyer) hence the reason for two rings. The second ring of gold was worn in public to identify to others how much the bride was worth.
Several centuries later, the Visigoths, Germanic tribes who spread out over the European continent in the 7th century, had it written into their laws that 'when the ceremony of betrothal has been performed and the ring has been given or accepted as a pledge, although nothing may have been committed in writing, the promise shall, under no circumstances, be broken.'
By the 12th century, this idea was further cemented in the minds of Europeans when the Vatican introduced the 'banns of marriage', stating that there could be no clandestine marriages. All marriages must be announced to the public in advance. Engagement announcements then became commonplace, and the ring remained as a non-verbal announcement as well.
By the Middle Ages, the use of simple iron and gold rings was widespread and expanding trade meant that more materials were available. These new materials, especially jewels, were exclusively used by the wealthiest members of society to adorn their rings. Mary of Burgundy was the first to wear a diamond engagement ring, presented to her by her future husband Archduke Maximilian of Austria in 1477. The Archduke proposed to her in 1477 with a ring that had an "M" on it in diamonds. Everyone else soon followed suit and jeweled engagement rings were worn alongside the original plain wedding bands.
During the Renaissance, particularly in Italy and England, men presented their betrothed with a unique kind of ring consisting of multiple small interconnected bands known as puzzle rings. These rings components, when taken off would fall into their separate sections and getting them back together again was something of an optical and mechanical puzzle. According to some, they were used to catch out wives who had been unfaithful by removing their ring.
During the 18th century in Britain and America, Puritans had a custom of giving their future wives a thimble rather than a wedding ring. The idea was for the lady to wear the thimble while she prepared items for her dowry. In those days, anything ostentatious like chests of gold were considered improper, so linens and quality clothing were made by the bride instead using thimbles as a sign of engagement. After the wedding when the dowry was considered completed the cup of the thimble was cut off and could be worn as a ring.
In the early 1900s, there was a law called "Breach of Promise to Marry." It made it so that a woman could sue a man if he left her after he proposed but before he married. When this ridiculous law was struck down, women saw engagement rings as their backup plan, insurance, if you will. If her fiancee left her, since she could no longer sue him, but she could still sell her ring.
The first large deposit of diamonds was discovered in 1867 in South Africa. Five short years later, in 1872, the rate of diamond mining had exploded to over one million carats per year. And this is without the use of the modern mining equipment we have today!
People wanted diamonds of all shapes and sizes, for all kinds of jewelry. Despite the increase in availability and the lowering in prices, however, diamond engagement rings were really only seen within the ranks of the upper classes only. In the late 1800s, the diamond trade exploded. World famous diamond dealers De Beers had control of most of the world's diamonds at that point.
Their marketing team seized upon this opportunity to begin pushing diamonds by marketing them to men as a way to propose to women. Ever hear the old saying that a diamond engagement ring should cost two months of your salary? That idea was put into the public consciousness by DeBeers. Then in 1938 the gigantic diamond traders kick-started a hugely successful marketing campaign which brought diamond engagement rings to the masses releasing an ad campaign with the slogan "A Diamond is Forever." By marketing it as an important gift that would last for generations and signify a lasting love, it cemented the diamond's place as the go-to gift in a proposal.
Unlike the rest of the world, Chile has a somewhat more equal engagement ring tradition. Rather than the man spending two months salary on a diamond for the woman he loves, both the future bride and groom wear engagement rings that they buy for each other. They are worn on the right hand and on their wedding day they move them over to the left hand.
Who said engagement rings must be worn on your ring finger? In many Hindu cultures in India women are given toe rings rather than finger rings. These rings, known as 'bichiya', are beautifully decorated and take a place of pride on the wedding day as the bride is either barefoot or in sandals. In other areas women wear silver or gold bangles to symbolize their marital status; although the western style engagement ring is gaining popularity into their modern society as well.
A diamond that is mined in an area of conflict by forces that sell diamonds to finance cruel military action is called a conflict, or blood diamond. Though you can be careful where you buy your diamonds from, more and more people removing away from the diamond tradition to ensure they don't fund any cruelty.
Traditional diamond rings are seen as outdated by many. Because of conflict diamonds and personal taste, many couples choose other stones or materials. If you search the internet, you can even find engagement rings made of bone! Many couples are opting to add personal touches to their engagement rings, wedding bands or both. From simple engraved messages to all out custom made pieces there are plenty of alternative options. This practice has been going on forever, though. For example, ever hear of gimmel rings?
Gimmel rings were at the height of their popularity in the 1600s. The name "gimmel ring" actually comes from the Latin word 'gemellus', which means 'twin'. These rings consist of two interlocking hoops that when connected form one single fancier ring. Traditionally the bride and groom would receive one hoop each at the time of their engagement. When the wedding day arrived the two rings would be joined as one. The most common designs are the clasping hands that interlock and hold the two pieces together or the heart in hand design where one ring had the hand and the other the heart, when joined the hand falls over the heart for protection.
The best example of a gimmel ring can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It dates from 1631 and is German in origin. It features elaborate symmetrical metalwork with one ring topped with a ruby and the other featuring a diamond. When they rings are separated the ruby ring has the Latin inscription of 'Whom God has joined together' and the diamond counterpart has 'let no man tear asunder'. It also features a symbol of life and death known as 'memento mori' with one side housing a tiny baby and the other a skeleton.
In Irish culture, women often have Claddagh rings. They're worn on their right hand ring finger if their are single, and moved to their left hand when they are married or engaged. This is worn in lieu of an engagement ring.
Purity rings are a sign of commitment by young people who wish to remain abstinent until marriage. Used often by Christian couples, it can signify a commitment to God, whites replaced by a commitment to their future husbands when they get engaged.
The reason that men traditionally give engagement rings but don't usually wear them themselves is because men are historically more likely to be the breadwinner with income. It can be seen as men "marking their territory" as well. Some people now see engagement rings as a sexist tradition and choose to go without.
Other interesting engagement ring history...
- 1886: Tiffany's introduced the 'tiffany setting', otherwise known as the still extremely popular six-prong setting for round brilliant cut diamonds, which lets the most light in and sets the diamond high above the band.
- 1918: Cartier creates their own signature engagement rings; the Trinity Ring, which features three intertwined hoops of rose gold, yellow gold and white gold, symbolizing love, fidelity and friendship.
- 1920: A select few jewelry companies decide to launch engagement rings for men. The concept fails spectacularly, in part because of the worldwide economic crisis that occurred at the same time.
- 1969: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor purchase the largest diamond engagement ring of all time; 68 carats! It is so heavy that Elizabeth Taylor was unable to actually wear it as a ring and instead makes it the central feature of a specially commissioned $80,000 diamond necklace.
- 2000: The World Diamond Council is formed to develop and oversee tracking systems for all mined diamonds in an effort to stop the ride of blood diamonds.