Humans have been enchanted by anything that glitters and sparkles since the beginning of time. Ancient tribes and cultures have adorned themselves with pretty jewels and metals throughout history, but where and when did the customs of the engagement ring and wedding band start?
Some believe that the wedding band originated in ancient Egypt along with the belief that the fourth finger (counting the thumb) on the left hand contained a vein that is connected directly to the heart. Therefore, that finger became the ring finger, the finger connected to love and marriage. This is still known as the ring finger in most parts of the world. However, in Norway and Russia the wedding band is worn on the same finger though on the right hand instead of the left.
No one knows for sure when or where the engagement and weddings rings came to be. There are theories and historical accounts that connect rings to slavery and people who were considered to be possessions. There are also some theories about cave men tying women up to capture them and keep them. None of these origin stories are pretty or romantic.
In some ancient cultures, like the Celts, the term tying the knot was quite literal. Symbolic cords tied the couple together, symbolizing their union as one. Some ceremonies just draped the cords over them while others actually bound the couple together at the wrists. The ceremony itself was a very simple ritual called handfasting. The bride and groom were bound together by a ceremonial rope, cord, a piece of the family’s tartan or other symbolic wrap.
Some accounts state that wedding rings did not become common until the 11th century. Others believe the ancient Romans were the first to offer wedding bands, but they were a symbol of ownership used to claim women. Historic accounts give a little more romance to the Romans. Roman betrothal rings were once made of iron and called “Anulus Pronubus.” They symbolized strength and permanence. It is also thought that the Romans were the first to engrave their rings.
Whenever and wherever the tradition started, it has endured. The ring itself is a circle. The circle is a symbol of eternity since it has no beginning and no end and is the shape of the sun and the full moon.
The first recorded diamond engagement ring was given to Mary of Burgundy by the Archduke Maximillian of Hamburg in 1477. At the time, a diamond was a very rare. It was something only the wealthy would have access to.
In medieval Europe the ruby was the stone of choice for engagement rings. The red stone was associated with the heart and love. Sapphires were also popular because they were blue, like the heavens from which love came.
Some cultures, especially throughout the British Isles, used a Fede (faith) ring which may have been an early form of the claddagh (clasped hands) ring.
The Claddagh ring is from Ireland, named from one of Ireland’s oldest fishing villages. These rings have been in use in Ireland for several hundred years. The two hands clutching a heart are for friendship, the crown for loyalty or fidelity, and the heart symbolizes love. Tradition states that, if you are single, you wear the ring on the right hand facing out. If spoken for, you wear it facing in. If you are engaged, you wear the ring on your left hand facing outward. At the wedding ceremony, the ring is then turned inward to signify the final devotion of the heart in marriage.
Silver was the metal of choice for Renaissance Italians. They gave their loved ones highly ornate silver betrothal rings engraved and filled with black enamel. When gold became the metal of choice in Europe, the silver ring was still given at the betrothal. Later, an identical gold ring was given during the marriage ceremony. This may be where the concept of dual rings originated.
Puritans claimed wedding rings were a pagan ritual and outlawed them. They were enraged when the Catholic church claimed that Mary and Joseph wore wedding rings made from Onyx or Amethyst, which would have taken the history of wedding bands back pretty far.
Poetic rings became popular in France in the 17th century. These rings were inscribed with poems or other romantic verses declaring adoration and everlasting love.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, sapphires and emeralds were the stones of choice for engagement rings. It wasn’t until the Victorian era that diamonds became popular. Diamond mines were discovered in South Africa in the late 1800s. Soon diamonds flooded the market and everyone had access to them. Later Victorian engagement rings were filled with diamonds.
For a while, diamonds were so commonplace they fell out of fashion. Diamond sales slumped until DeBeers launched a clever marketing campaign in 1947. The slogan “A Diamond is Forever” changed our beliefs about love, engagement rings and wedding bands forever. Ever since, diamonds are a top choice for engagement rings.
Now, almost 80% of brides receive a diamond engagement ring, with a plain gold band as the most popular style for a wedding band.
Whatever you choose to use for your ring, it is the ring itself, not what it is made from that symbolizes undying love. Wear the circle well.
(c) Wenona Napolitano