Surprising History behind the Engagement Rings
Proposing marriage with an engagement ring is one of the most romantic gestures in the world, but this sweet tradition used to be very different compared to what it is today. The history of engagement rings didn’t always involve sparkly diamonds or elaborate proclamations of love — in fact, engagement rings served a much more practical purpose until only a few centuries ago. From preventing infidelity to flaunting a man’s wealth, you might be surprised to learn about the not-so-sentimental side of engagement rings. The history of engagement rings is actually quite surprising, what we think of as a symbol of love today was nothing more than a mark of ownership in ancient times, Not very romantic, right? But luckily, times have changed and with engagement season officially upon us, we think it’s important to give you a crash course on your new bling.
Brush up on the history of engagement rings with this quick rundown.
Engagement Ring Facts
They’ve always been worn on the left hand.
The early history of engagement rings is actually pretty romantic. It goes back to ancient Egypt when rings were exchanged between lovers to signify their never-ending bond (wedding ceremonies as we know them didn’t exist yet). The Egyptians believed that the circle, which has no beginning or end, was a symbol of endless affection between a man and a woman. Rings were made of braided hemp or reeds, and they were worn on the fourth finger of the left hand, which the Egyptians believed had a special vein that was connected directly to the heart. Sound familiar? While this theory has since been debunked, we have the Egyptians to thank for what we now call the ring finger.
Engagement rings were an indicator of status.
Thankfully, marriage today is a mutual decision between two people who are in love, but it’s no secret that marriage had very different meaning thousands of years ago. During ancient Rome, marriages were arranged as a business transaction between two families, and the Romans were the first to use rings as part of the legally binding contract. Not surprising, since they were also the first to implement legal requirements on monogamy, dowries, and divorce.
In ancient Rome, an engagement ring was a public indication that a woman had become her husband’s possession. The engagement rings were made of iron and were relatively unembellished, but brides would often be presented with a gold ring to wear in public as a sign of her husband’s wealth. The gold rings commonly featured motifs of clasped hands, carvings of the –betrothed or romantic inscriptions.
An Ancient Sign of Ownership
Like so many of our customs today, engagement rings can be traced all the way back to Ancient Rome. According to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), Roman women wore rings of ivory, flint, bone, copper and iron “to signify a business contract or to affirm mutual love and obedience.”
Gold rings were later found in the ruins of Pompeii, proving the shiny metal became the material of choice in the Common Era. The Romans were also fans of owning two engagement rings, an iron ring worn at home and a gold ring worn in public. If you are looking for an excuse to purchase a travel ring, blame it on the Romans!
A Mark for Marriage
It wasn’t until 850 that the engagement ring was given an official meaning. Pope Nicholas I declared that the engagement ring represented a man’s intent to marry with gold as the most popular material for betrothal rings at the time.
The first time diamonds appeared on an engagement ring was in 1477 when Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy. According to the GIA, the ring featured long and narrow diamonds mounted in the shape of an “M.”
Engagement rings are a sign of the times.
The Victorians are known for being sentimentalists, and they took a much more delicate approach when it came to designing their engagement rings. Typical styles around this time featured intricate filigrees, hearts, flowers, and colorful gemstones. Engagement rings depicting snakes were also extremely trendy after Prince Albert proposed to Queen Victoria with a serpent ring featuring an emerald head.
If you’ve been wondering where diamonds fall in the history of engagement rings, the Victorians deserve a lot of credit. This gem was already a favorite among aristocrats and members of high society, but it became much more accessible for the middle class during the diamond rush of the mid-19th century. Diamonds were often arranged in clusters and set in silver instead of gold, a trend that continued through the early 1900s. In 1886, Tiffany & Co. introduced its iconic Tiffany Setting featuring a solitaire diamond perched on a plain platinum band. The rest is history!
The Rise of Diamonds
Even though the Archduke was the first to propose with a diamond ring, he was by no means a trendsetter. In fact, diamond engagement rings didn’t become popular until 1947 when De Beers, the British company that mined diamonds in South Africa, launched an advertising campaign. With the help of Hollywood stars and the slogan, “A diamond is forever,” diamond engagement rings skyrocketed in popularity.
The Latest Millennial Trend
In recent years, we’ve started to see a shift in engagement ring preferences among brides. Of course, the diamond is still a popular option, but more and more brides are opting for colored stones and rings made out of unique materials. When Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton, he chose a stunning blue sapphire engagement ring. Actress Blake Lively received a light pink oval diamond in a rose-gold setting from Ryan Reynolds and Katy Perry was given a unique ruby in a floral halo design by Orlando Bloom.
So, the next time you hear somebody joke about a ring being like tiny handcuffs you can inform them while that used to be the case (thousands of centuries ago), that is far from the truth today. Got it? OK, you can take your ring selfie now!
Engagement rings are constantly evolving.
While the majority of modern couples are still following the tradition of having an engagement ring, they’re going about it ways that are different than ever before. Case in point: nearly 20 percent of millennials shopped for an engagement ring together prior to the proposal, and one in three will show their partner pictures of rings they like. Many couples are opting to design a custom ring together, which is both romantic and pragmatic (the Romans would be proud!). Today, there’s no single type of engagement ring dominating the industry — instead, engagement ring trends run the gamut from minimalistic solitaire styles to quirky bohemian rings and vintage-inspired pieces.