The History of Engagement Rings

Today most engagement rings symbolise a couple’s commitment to each other and their dedication to their future life together, but the tradition has not always been a promise of love. Initially they were given as a sign of ownership – often as part of a woman’s dowry – and demonstrated the wealth and influence attributed to the woman’s fiancé. The pre-marital giving and receiving of rings is a relatively recent trend, but one which has become popular amongst many cultures and is now the fashion worldwide.


It was the Ancient Grecians who first exchanged betrothal rings to signify romantic attachment, but some believe the tradition originated in Ancient Egypt where knots of hair and leather were woven into circles. Later examples of Ancient Egyptian rings became much more intricate, but were still limited in design and metal rings were reserved for wealthier couples. Tombs in Egypt have been uncovered which depict engagement bands set with gemstones, but even they would have been relatively crudely made because the technology was then not advanced enough to create a smooth metal band.


Others consider Turkish puzzle rings to be the dawn of the practice, though like many Roman betrothal rings they were not symbols of a loving bond, but were considered more important for counteracting infidelity and illustrating ownership. When more ornate Roman rings were presented, it was as a sign that the woman’s fiancé trusted her with access to his wealth and possessions, and as a sign of her hierarchical status within his social circle. Engagement was latterly deemed a legal promise, sealed not with a kiss but with a precious ring, which protected her from having her position usurped by a mistress or rival.


In Medieval times the engagement rings of the masses were plain bands much like many wedding rings are today. In Colonial America thimbles, gloves and other gifts were given in place of jewellery to symbolise a betrothal. Quakers believed jewellery to hold no moral value and as such considered it worthless and meretricious, even for an engagement. Despite this, when young Puritan women were gifted a thimble by their fiancé to help them sew garments for their dowry, they would often remove the bowl and wear the base as a ring once they were married. After the ceremony the thimble was regarded as having served its useful purpose, so refashioning it was an acceptable way of continuing to appreciate the gift.


In 860 AD Pope Nicholas I decreed that gold rings should be used for marriage and engagement, because they validated the financial commitment being made by the man to the woman. This doctrine was echoed again by Pope Innocent III in the 12th century, but these metals did not become attainable for the masses until much later. In the 14th and 15th centuries the upper classes occasionally had gold or silver bands set with semi-precious gemstones, and the lower classes still swapped simple copper or iron rings.


Platinum has only been fashioned into jewelry throughout the last two-hundred years, and though its exclusivity has always been highly valued, it is still not an affordable setting for many couples. During World War II platinum was prohibited for use in jewelry in the United States – even in engagement rings – due to its necessity for manufacturing munitions. During that period white gold was created to simulate the crisp elegance of platinum, and remains a popular choice for brides-to-be looking for heard-wearing, contemporary engagement rings.


The type of expensive gemstone ring we think of as an engagement ring now was initially reserved solely for the upper classes. Indeed, the first known example of an exclusive gem-set engagement ring was presented by royalty at the imperial court of Vienna. It was there in 1477 that Mary of Burgundy received a diamond betrothal ring from Archduke Maximilian of Austria. It was not until the 1800's that engagement rings became more common among less affluent couples, and even then was not until the 20th century that diamond rings became the accepted standard to accompany a proposal in Western culture. It was then that deposits of diamond rough (the crystalline material faceted diamonds are cut from) were discovered in African mines, leading diamonds to have a greater and more affordable presence on the gemstone market. This availability led jewelers to create more intricate and diverse designs in which to set their diamonds, which in turn increased their demand and appeal in engagement jewelry.


Throughout history engagement rings have announced the union between young lovers. Today as much as ever they serve as a declaration of the love, fidelity and enduring passion between two people who hope to spend their lives honoring that bond.


Content Author: Kay Esselle

Used by NAK Design Studio

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