The period leading up to an engagement is very special. You’re likely spending a lot of time in contemplation as you browse and decide upon a ring, plan your proposal, and count down to the big day. As you approach this exciting milestone, you might stop to ponder the history behind engagement rings. The tradition is so familiar for most of us that we don’t even question where it came from. But as it turns out, there’s a colorful past behind the use of rings to mark marriage.
Betrothals and Beginnings: A Brief History of Engagement
It’s difficult to discuss the history behind engagement rings without looking at the history of engagement itself. A word that’s associated with engagement is betrothal. It comes from the Old English word “treowðe,” which basically means “a pledge of truth” or a “truthful pledge.” A betrothal was similar to an engagement, except betrothal involved entire families rather than just the couple. The engagements were not necessarily arranged by the families, but they often had something at stake, such as money or land. In the modern world, we can easily break engagements if we choose to, but betrothals often had binding legal contracts involved with them.
The Tale of the Engagement Ring: Pre-History
When examining the history behind engagement rings, we must go all the way back to the days when cavemen roamed the planet. It’s said that ancient man would tie a cord of braided grass around the wrist, ankle, or waist of his love, which was believed to help keep her spirit under his control. This ritual shows that, despite a lack of the concept of engagement as we know it today, commitment was always an important part of relationships throughout history.
Ancient Egypt (2800 BC)
In many ancient cultures, the circle was the symbol of eternity. The space within the circle was thought to represent a gateway leading to the future. Therefore, giving a lover a ring meant a promise of eternal devotion as well as a pathway toward a new life. In the Egyptian history behind engagement rings, Gold was symbolic of wealth and joint ownership of wealth.Gold rings were often worn on the ring finger of the left hand because that finger contains a vein that leads directly to the heart. This is something we continue to practice in the Western world today.
Ancient Romans also used engagement rings. However, rather than acting as a romantic symbol of love, these rings represented ownership. When a man picked out a mate he found desirable, he gave her a ring as a way of claiming her as his own. Engagement rings were forged from iron to symbolize strength and a lasting connection. Women obviously didn’t get much say in the matter back then. A look at the history behind engagement rings shows why modern women have it much better than many of their ancestors!
Second Century BC
Pliny the Elder, also known as Gaius Plinius Secundus, was a Roman author and philosopher who recorded quite a bit of the history behind engagement rings from around that time. According to his writings, it was common for the groom to give his bride a golden ring to wear on special occasions and an iron ring for everyday life. These rings were symbolic of the binding legal agreement of their marriage.
The History Behind Engagement Rings: From Ancient Times to Modern Designs
The ancient Romans were the first to practice engraving rings. The practice continued through the middle ages and beyond, with gemstones often accompanying the inscriptions. It was right around the start of the Middle Ages that the Catholic Church became officially involved in the marriage process. It was Pope Nicholas who first announced that an engagement ring was required to solidify a groom’s financial commitment to his bride. In order to be considered valid, however, the ring needed to be gold.
The Year 1215
In today’s world, people generally choose to have long engagements for the purposes of allowing plenty of time to plan a wedding. They also give couples the time they need to feel certain that they’re making the right decision. In 1215, an engagement period was mandated by Pope Innocent III, making it a legal requirement that must be completed prior to the actual marriage. This was a huge turning point in the history behind engagement rings, because it prevented men from skipping straight to the marriage to avoid purchasing a ring.
The Year 1217
It was common in this day and age for men to seduce women into mock marriages with rings. There were a variety of reasons they would do this, and none of them benefitted the woman whatsoever. The Bishop of Salisbury put an end to this in 1217 by deeming rush-ring marriages legal and binding.
The Year 1477
When Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy in 1477, he chose a ring set with diamonds in the shape of an “M.” This inspired a number of new trends in the world of diamonds and other precious gemstones. Many European aristocrats and nobles began hungering for these exciting new pieces.
America’s earliest Puritan communities in the 1700s were against the idea of wedding rings, at least at first. It was believed that wearing jewelry in general was too flashy and didn’t mesh with the teachings of the Bible. However, the Bible doesn’t mention anything negative about the history behind engagement rings per say, and since flashiness was the issue, many Puritans found themselves using thimbles rather than rings. Thimbles were an everyday tool, so they were considered acceptable. Cutting the closed part of the thimble off to make a wearable ring was a popular practice.
During this period, sterling silver “poesy” rings were also quite common. They featured engravings with religious sayings or personal romantic quotes. This practice is still often utilized on today’s fine engagement jewelry.
The Victorian Age
The Victorian age was an exciting time in the history behind engagement rings. It was common to choose engagement rings that featured a word, such as “dearest,” spelled out by the chosen stones. For example, to spell dearest, the jewelry maker would feature diamonds, emeralds, amethysts, and so on. Pearl and opal rings were also popular during this time, because Queen Victoria’s personal style had a lot of influence over the culture. Rather than plain wedding bands, many people built upon the poesy trend by having the couple’s initials and wedding date inscribed into the band.
In the latter part of this century, a large supply of diamonds was discovered in the Cape Colony province in South Africa. This added many new diamonds to the market, which allowed the price of diamonds to drop somewhat. The De Beers Mining Company was founded during this time, and within 10 years, they controlled 90 percent of the diamond market.
Modern Wonders: Engagement Rings Over the Last Century
The history behind engagement rings has taken us on a wild journey that leaves those in modern times with plenty of style options to choose from. However, in the 1930s, the United States was plagued by terrible economic conditions, and the demand for diamonds and other precious jewels began to fall.
The Year 1947
In an effort to revive the stalled diamond market, De Beers introduced the “A Diamond Is Forever” campaign in 1947. A variety of marketing efforts were used, including glamorous shots of some of Hollywood’s greatest starlets posing in diamond jewelry. It should come as no surprise that people wanted to mimic these elegant celebrities. Decades later, this fact hasn’t changed a bit.
The De Beers strategy ended up being one of the greatest ad campaigns in human history. In just three short years, diamond sales increased over 50 percent. Americans loved the idea of a hard stone that lasted forever and its symbolic ties to marriage. A diamond’s durability represented a lasting love, which is how the tradition of using diamonds in engagement jewelry became what it is today.
Choosing Your Own: How Knowing the History Behind Engagement Rings Can Help
It’s easy to see that engagement jewelry has come a long way. If you’re having trouble choosing your own ring, it might be helpful to examine your relationship to see what style of ring might be best. Are you and your partner old fashioned? Would something modeled after an ancient ring be up your alley? Maybe you’re drawn to the Victorian era and would like to choose a ring that represents that time. Or, perhaps you’re both tech junkies, and the only suitable ring would be one that thoroughly represents the look and feel of the modern era.
With so many options from the history behind engagement rings to choose from, making a final decision can be tricky. If you need a push in the right direction, check out these great rings from the collection at Trumpet & Horn.
This gorgeous ring (pictured at right) is vintage inspired and comes from the Claire Pettibone Fine Jewelry Collection. Featuring plenty of influences from the Art Deco period, an 18k yellow gold band with six round brilliant-cut diamonds and milgrain edges. The center stone is a beautiful 1.54-carat Zambian emerald that comes with a Guild Lab Certificate of authenticity.
This ring is ideal for:
- A strong woman who isn’t afraid to break from tradition and steer away from the traditional diamond center stone
- A woman who adores emeralds or the color green
- A fan of Art Deco style
- Shell Harbor
This is a modern vintage ring (pictured at left) that’s estimated to have been made around 1980. It’s made from 18k yellow gold and features an oval-cut 0.40-carat sapphire with an oval-cut diamond on each side.
This ring is ideal for:
- A woman who loves modern style with a strong Victorian influence
- A woman who does crafts or other activities that involve working with her hands, as the placement of the stones makes the ring comfortable to wear
- A woman whose favorite color is blue
Sometimes, the simplest designs offer the most beauty. The Victorian era is one of the most exciting times from the history behind engagement rings, and this beautiful ring (pictured at right) features some of the era’s best minimalist style. Estimated to have been created in 1905, the Williston features a 0.64-carat diamond with a grade-F color and S12 clarity. It’s centered on an 18k yellow and white gold band.
This ring is ideal for:
- A minimalist who can’t stand the thought of overly flashy engagement jewelry.
- Fans of the solitaire diamond
The Art of Proposing: Should You Surprise Her?
If you’re still unsure of how to choose an engagement ring, you might want to open up the lines of communication a bit. Not everyone chooses to keep their proposal a secret. The history behind engagement rings might lead you to believe that you must surprise her, but that’s not the case. Some people aren’t fans of surprises, and if you think your partner might feel that way, it’s reasonable to discuss the engagement in advance. This is generally a good idea anyway. You don’t want to realize that your partner has no interest in marriage when you’re down on one knee!
If you choose to bring up the subject, you can directly ask what type of ring she might prefer. Going this route doesn’t mean the proposal won’t be a surprise. You can still pick out a ring in a similar style and keep her guessing about when you’ll pop the question. Another option, which many modern women prefer, is picking out the ring together. You’ll lose the fun element of surprise, but you’ll also be 100 percent sure that she’ll be happy with the ring. In the long run, isn’t that what matters most?
At the end of the day, you have to go with your gut and choose a ring that feels right. The history behind engagement rings tells many tales, but the most important story you can tell is your own. If your partner loves you and is truly happy with the relationship, the small details of the ring will not matter so much. The most important thing is putting in the effort.
If you need help during the decision process, please don’t hesitate to contact the team at Trumpet & Horn. We love helping people choose engagement jewelry and start their journey in love off on the right track.
Banner: Laura Gordon Photography | Image 1: Betrothal of the Virgin | Image 2: Prehistoric Caveman | Image 3: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics Image 4: Roman relief statue | Image 5: Pliny the Elder History | Image 6: Photo of Emerald Ring by Luna De Mare Photography | Image 7: Magna Carta Fresco | Image 8: Mary of Burgundy Image 9: Sterling Silver Crest Ring | Image 10: Vintage Victorian Ring Bayswater | Image 12: Photo of Herringbone by Hannah Forsberg | Image 13: Sawyer Baird Photography