The long history of engagement rings and wedding rings

Perhaps the ancient Egyptian wedding rings looked something like this contemporary hemp ring. Photo from Kimberly Dawn.

Perhaps the ancient Egyptian wedding rings looked something like this contemporary hemp ring. Photo from Kimberly Dawn.

Egyptians wedding rings. Historians and anthropologists speculate that the first examples of wedding rings originated in ancient Egypt. Evidence in papyrus scrolls dating back thousands of years ago describe braided rings of hemp or reeds that were exchanged between a wedded couple. Egyptians saw the circle as a symbol of eternity, and the ring symbolized the couple's enduring love. The ring was worn on the third finger of the left hand, which the Egyptians believed to hold a special vein that was connected directly to the heart (later known as the Vena amoris).

Perhaps the rings looked something like this contemporary hemp ring. Photo from Kimberly Dawn.

An iron wedding ring from Roman times.

An iron wedding ring from Roman times.

Wedding rings in Antiquity. While the ancient Egyptians are credited with having invented the engagement ring by some experts, others claim that the history is a bit shady. We can, however, reliably find evidence of the engagement or betrothal ring in ancient Rome. In the second century BC, a Roman bride-to-be was given two rings, a gold one which she wore in public, and one made of iron which she wore at home while attending to household duties.  As time went by, many of these iron rings featured small protrusions in the shape of keys. Although some believe the keys unlocked tiny jewel boxes, these rings were probably not functional. More likely, the key symbolized a woman’s control over the valuables of the household.

Wedding rings in the Middle Ages. Even after the fall of the Roman empire, the Visigoths carried on the tradition of the wedding ring. Their law in the seventh century required "that when the ceremony of betrothal has been performed... the ring shall have been given or accepted as a pledge, although nothing may have been committed to writing, the promise shall, under no circumstances, be broken."

In 860 AD, Pope Nicholas I decreed a gold engagement ring a requirement for marriage.

Rings from the medieval period in Europe were the first to commonly use gemstones, including rubies or sapphires, and tended to look a little bit like tiny reliquaries for relics. In fact some were shaped like mini temples. Others were actually set with jeweled boxed that could hold teeny treasures.

The first diamond engagement ring. So, although engagement and wedding rings had been around for hundreds of years, the diamond engagement ring was a while in coming about.  The first documented instance of a man presenting his soon-to-be bride with a diamond engagement ring is Maximilian I of Austria in 1477. He presented to Mary of Burgundy a gold ring set with small diamonds in the shape of an "m."

The first diamond engagement ring was given to Mary of Burgundy.

The first diamond engagement ring was given to Mary of Burgundy.

The Victorians and their engagement rings. During the Victorian era, a huge glut of diamonds was discovered in South Africa. In fact, by 1872 the output of these diamond mines exceeded one million carats per year. As production increased, diamonds became more common in engagement rings. However, diamond engagement rings were still seen as the domain of the nobility and aristocracy -- and many felt that the simpler engagement bands were more in keeping with their social status. (Acting according to your class was very important to the Victorians.)

A diamond is forever! Engagement rings set with diamonds seem so de rigueur in our times, in our mother's times, and even in our grandmother's times (finances allowing!) that it is difficult to imagine that they weren't always the standard. In the 1930s and into the 40s, few Americans invested in diamond engagement rings. But did you know that one simple marketing scheme changed everything?

In 1947, the giant diamond cartel De Beers began using the slogan "A Diamond is Forever" in their aggressive marketing campaign and has been using it ever since. Today about 75% of American brides wear diamond engagement rings that cost an average of $4000.

Tiffany.  The most common setting for engagement rings is a solitaire diamond in a six-prong setting. The six-prong setting was popularized by Tiffany & Co. in 1886 and was sold under the "Tiffany setting" trademark. Before the arrival of the Tiffany setting, diamonds were bezel set. So you can imagine how revolutionary the prong setting was. Now more of the diamond was exposed and light could travel through the stone increasing its ability to sparkle and shine! These days you might see this setting referred to as "Tiffany-style."

No ring. A thimble instead. It is believed that during the Colonial Era in the United States, the Puritans who had renounced wedding bands (and jewelry) altogether, instead traded wedding thimbles. They argued that thimbles were acceptable because they were practical. Some daring ladies, after marriage, would slice off the bottom of the thimble... thereby creating a wedding band.

Puzzle rings from the Orient. Popular legend holds that puzzle rings originated in the Middle East. When a man went off to war, he would give his wife a puzzle ring. If on his return he found her hastily trying to fit it together, he would know she had removed it during his absence... that she had been unfaithful.

However, others believe that puzzle rings first appeared in Asia over 2000 years ago. From there, they followed the early trade routes to the Middle East.

Here is a picture of an old, but probably not ancient, puzzle ring that was salvaged in 2014 from the SS Central America, a steamship that perished in mile-deep water off the coast of South Carolina during a hurricane in 1857.

Here is a picture of an old, but probably not ancient, puzzle ring that was salvaged in 2014 from the SS Central America, a steamship that perished in mile-deep water off the coast of South Carolina during a hurricane in 1857.

 

We don't see this style of engagement ring anymore. Perhaps it is something to bring back into style!

Toi et moi. "Toi et moi" (you and me) was an 18th century setting style with opposing tear-shaped jewels. A famous example of this type of ring was given to Josephine by Napoleon as an engagement ring. It featured a blue sapphire and a diamond, each weighing a little less than a carat.

The Empress Josephine's engagement ring was sold at auction in 2013.

The Empress Josephine's engagement ring was sold at auction in 2013.

It seems an unimpressive ring for an Empress... but at the time of his marriage proposal, Napoleon was a young and promising officer, but he was not rich. And a ring like this was probably well beyond his current means.

In 2013, the ring sold at auction for $949,000.