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Engagement rings carry with them a symbolism of love and commitment. They represent an essential purpose, a promise to be with one person. Wearing an engagement ring shows that you are betrothed, affianced, allied with your one true love. It shouts it out to the world, "I am taken!". In this article, you will learn about the history of engagement rings.
Engagement rings are most often more elaborate than the wedding ring your finger will eventually wear. They represent the excitement of what is to come, an eventual contract between two people who have decided they are committed to each other through sickness and health.
Nowadays, Diamonds are most often associated with engagement rings, but this has not always been the case. Many other stones have carried the representation of everlasting love throughout the centuries, including sapphires, rubies, and emeralds.
Early Betrothal Rings
Diamond rings first made their appearance in betrothal rings during the 15th century, but it wasn't until the 17th century that they became much more common. This was due in part to the availability of diamonds, as well as their affordability and popularity (or lack of). Before there were sufficient supplies of diamonds available, and cutting techniques advanced to exaggerate their brilliance and fire, diamonds were mounted just as they came out of the earth, and were mostly worn by wealthy citizens who had access to their limited supply.
The English word engagement is rooted in the French word engager, meaning to pledge. The term joined the wedding lexicon around 1742 and was defined as betrothal or promise of marriage. The giving of an engagement ring became customary among those who could afford one.
Early betrothal rings symbolized not only love and marriage, but formerly represented an actual monetary value with the promise of more at the wedding. Some ring designs had practical uses and/or symbolic meanings. Rings designed as keys either symbolically or functionally granted access to the household or household goods. A seal or signet ring granted the wearer the authority to sign for products and services using the seal.
Various fingers were given the exclusive purpose of representing love and marriage, and which hand and finger the engagement ring was placed on varied from culture to culture and generation to generation. The Greek church insisted that the right hand was the proper hand for betrothal and wedding rings, with most European countries doing the same through the 13th and 16th centuries. The French preferred the right hand until the 15th century, and some Scandinavian countries have held onto this tradition into modern times. Thumb rings are customary in India and were popular during the reign of George I in England. Jewish betrothal rings were placed on the index finger.
Religious marriage rituals used the 4th finger (what we call the ring finger). A priest would point to each of the first three fingers and say, "In the Name of The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost," ending on the 4th finger, where the ring would be placed. The fourth finger on the left hand was also believed to have a vein running from it straight to the heart, making it the most suitable place for an engagement ring.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, The French gained a fondness for gimmel rings as a sign of betrothal. Gimmel is a term with Latin roots - gemellus - meaning twin. At this time, the gimmel ring evolved from a friendship ring to a full sponsalium annulus or "ring of affiance." The most popular design was the twin ring with clasped hands that could be unclasped by rotating the rings on a pivot point. Other popular ring types were puzzle rings, which usually had five or more intertwined rings. Gem-set and signet alliance rings were worn by the bride and groom and could be joined together at the marriage ceremony.
The tradition of presenting "keeper rings" as betrothal rings was popular in the American Colonial period. These rings consisted of a hoop of small diamonds. After the marriage, the keeper ring would be put on after the wedding ring to act as a protector or guard of the more simple, but more important wedding band.
A Timeline of Engagement Rings
- Caveman tied cords made of braided grass around his chosen mate’s wrists, ankles, and waist, to bring her spirit under his control.
- Ancient Egyptians believed in the spiritual power of an unending circle, symbolizing eternity. They were often buried wearing rings made of a single silver or gold wire on the third finger of their left hands. They believed this finger to be connected directly to the heart by the vena amoris.
- An ancient Roman man would give his wife a ring made of iron. Some rings were attached to small keys, indicating ownership, while others featured clasped hands, a motif that would continue to be used for another 1000 years.
- A widespread practice of seducing girls into mock marriages with rings made of rushes is put to an end by the bishop of Salisbury in 1217 when he declares that a marriage with a rush-ring is legally binding.
- Stacking of rings is popular during this time and into the middle ages. During the Renaissance, rings were worn from palm to fingertip.
- Gold bands are exchanged during marriage ceremonies. These rings are often decorated with two linked hands, doves, or lyres. In the 1300's the Christian Church called these designs "heathenish," and plain, unadorned gold bands came into popularity.
- The point cut diamond is developed. Before this diamonds were worn in the rough. Diamonds were sought after due to their strength and endurance, rather than their brilliance.
- A priest’s manual written in the 13th century describes the diamond as, "unbreakable and love unquenchable and stronger than death, so it suits the diamond ring to be worn on the ring finger, the vein of which comes directly from the heart."
- The Gutenberg Bible is published in 1456. This or any other edition of the bible has no mention of betrothal or marriage rings.
- In 1477, one of the first uses of diamond engagement rings is recorded. Archduke Maximillian of Austria commissions a ring made of gold and diamond for his betrothed, Mary of Burgundy. This sets of a significant trend to pair diamonds with engagement rings.
- While on her deathbed, the Grand-Daughter of Mary Tudor, Lady Catherine Grey asks her jailer to hold onto her two rings, a pointed diamond engagement ring and a gold wedding band.
- Some English puritans condemned wedding rings as being ‘superfluous and superstitious’, however, most people did not agree, and wedding rings were required as part of the marriage ceremony.
- In Europe, silver "poesy rings" were trendy. These rings were inscribed with posies - small poems from the heart, usually in French or Latin.
- The Puritans give their betrothals practical thimbles instead of rings; however, many thimbles would have their tops sliced off and worn as rings anyways.
- In 1742 The giving of an engagement ring becomes customary. The term engagement ring joins the wedding lexicon.
- Rose cut diamonds are developed and come into fashion.
- Hearts and clasped hands are popular motifs on lovers rings.
- In 1855, an act is passed requiring wedding rings to bear hallmarks.
- Victorians use gemstones to spell out names or endearments, such as a D-E-A-R-E-S-T ring set with a sequence of diamond, emerald, amethyst, ruby, emerald, etc.
- In the year 1867, diamonds are discovered in the Cape Colony (now a province in South Africa), making diamonds much more readily available.
- 1880 is the year the De Beers Mining Company is founded. Within a decade, the company controls 90% of the world's diamond production.
- Tiffany & Co. introduces the "Tiffany Setting," a six-prong ring that is designed to maximize the brilliance of a diamond, in 1886.
- Near the end of the century, mail-order catalogs begin offering affordable wedding and diamond engagement rings.
- Up to this point, gold was the metal of choice for engagement rings. Cartier is credited with pioneering the use of platinum in jewelry. The white metal accentuates the white of the diamond, leading to white gold and platinum dominating engagement ring design from this point forward.
- During this time, engagement rings begin to have a very different look to cocktail rings, with a central dominant stone signifying betrothal.
- Cartier creates the Trinity Ring - intertwined hoops in pink gold, white gold, and yellow gold, symbolizing love, friendship, and fidelity, respectively.
- Engagement rings become the leading line of jewelry in most department stores.
- Diamond engagement rings become the standard when De Beers launches their “A Diamond is Forever” ad campaign.
As you can see, engagement rings have an exciting and varied past. Many styles have waxed and waned in popularity, but what hasn't changed, is people's desire to show their love and commitment to each other explicitly.