The History of the Engagement Ring

diamond solitaire ring

Although the tradition of the engagement ring has remained constant throughout the ages, much else about it- style, material, ceremony-has evolved over time.

Despite the nature of marriage and engagement constantly evolving, the romantic symbol of the exchanging of rings remains consistent. It has been a well-established tradition for centuries to present a ring upon engagement; only in recent history however, has this tradition lent towards specifically diamond rings. Prior to the trend towards diamonds, many other styles served the purpose.

Ancient History

The use of rings to symbolize marriage and engagement can be first traced back to the Egyptians who believed that the full circle shape of the ring represented eternity. Within this civilization, it was custom to be presented a ring made of woven reeds wound round the ring finger of the left hand, a placement that has not changed over the centuries. It was widely believed that this finger had a vein running through it directly to the heart called “Vena Amoris” which translates from Latin as “Vein of Love,” rendering it the perfect placement for the engagement ring.  After the Egyptians, we can see some evidence of rings being used for a similar purpose by the ancient Greeks, but the first definite use of the term “engagement ring” was coined by the Romans.

Despite today’s romantic connotations with these rings, their original purpose was far more practical and economic. Similar to the “bride price,” the ring was used to signify ownership of the bride, as she was passed from the family to the new husband.

The Romans used a variety of rings over the course of the engagement and marriage: a ring made from gold was to be worn outside of the home, whereas an iron ring would be worn indoors (as that would be when a woman would complete household tasks). “Fede” rings were also used by the Romans and then subsequently throughout medieval times. Fede rings showed two hands or sometimes two hearts joined together around the finger symbolizing the joining of two people.

Middle Ages

During the Medieval era, the Catholic Church imposed strict rules upon engagement and marriage. The rings had to be exchanged in front of a priest and the engagement made public so that any objection to the couple marrying could be voiced. This system was known as the “banns of marriage.” There would be an obligatory forty day period between the engagement and the marriage in which any objections could be made. In addition to this regulation, the groom also had to pay a sum of money which was essentially a deposit (four times as expensive as the betrothal price) ensuring that he would follow through with the engagement.  This intervention meant that the engagements were as binding as the marriage itself, meaning that the rings were considered greatly important.

Popular styles of ring during this period were Fede rings and Posy.

european ring with clasped right hands

European Fede ring with clasped right hands. Fede rings showed two hands or sometimes two hearts joined together around the finger symbolizing the joining of two people.

Renaissance

The first occasion of a diamond ring being used to signify an engagement was by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I. The ring in question featured flat pieces of diamond in an “M” shaped setting and was used when he became engaged to Mary of Burgundy in 1477. This was the beginning of the long-standing tradition of using a diamond ring, which had previously been unheard of.   

16th– 18th Century

The Gimmel ring (a ring which consisted of two or three hoops that fit together to form a full ring, “Gimmel” coming from the Latin word for twin, “Gemellus”) took a surge in popularity during the 16th and 17th Century. One of the two hoops would be worn by each partner during their engagement and joined back together upon marriage to signify their unity. In the cases of Gimmel rings consisting of three hoops, a third person would keep one part, witnessing the engagement vows and holding the ring until the wedding.

gimmel ring british museum

The Gimmel ring is a ring with two or three hoops that fit together to form one complete ring. One of the two hoops would be worn by each partner during their engagement and joined back together upon marriage to signify their unity.

Another popular style of engagement ring during this time, continuing from the Middle Ages, was the Posy ring. Posy rings were usually gold and featured a short love poem or inscription engraved on the inside of the hoop. They were common as both an engagement ring and a general lovers’ gift throughout England and France.

Victorian

A romantic and whimsical style of ring came into fashion with the dawn of the Victorian era. With the nation mirroring the romance between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the popularity of rose gold settings, lacy scrolls, scalloped edges, hearts, bows and other ornaments adorning engagement rings became popular. Victoria’s own wedding ring was in the shape of a snake wrapping around her finger with an emerald in its head. The snake was representative of eternity while an emerald signifies a steadfast bond; both highly appropriate for the occasion.

A romantic and whimsical style of ring came into fashion with the dawn of the Victorian era. The popularity of rose gold settings, lacy scrolls, scalloped edges, hearts, bows and other ornaments adorning engagement rings became popular.

A variety of colored gem stones also became popular at this time. Albert’s preferred gem stone was known to have been opal, making it a common choice for engagement during this era. After his untimely death however, onyx became the stone of choice throughout the grief struck nation as it’s people set into a mourning period in line with their Queen.

Diamonds saw another surge in popularity during the Victorian era due to an abundance of them being mined from South Africa. The preferred type was the Old European cut, each of which was unique at this time- perfect for a personal and special engagement gift. A final factor towards the increased popularity of diamond engagement rings was the introduction of the “Tiffany setting” by Tiffany & Co.  which featured a six-prong setting with one diamond raised above the shank, making it stand out and giving diamond rings that extra something special which helps them remain so popular today.

20th– 21st Century

By the Edwardian era, it was the expectation that all men now presented their would-be wives with an engagement ring. The style of rings at this time became more ornate, often featuring delicate decoration such as floral engravings and filigree work (pictured below).

As with most other features of the 20th and 21st Century, the favored style of engagement ring evolved along with the popular fashions of the time. The Art Deco movement, for example, was highly influential upon people’s choice of ring. Additionally, available resources remained a factor which impacted popularity of certain materials. There was a restricted amount of platinum readily available during the second world war which saw the rapid decline of its use.

With the growing impact of advertising and the media came yet another growth in the popularity of diamond engagement rings, solidifying them as the peoples’ first choice of ring. The 1948 slogan “A Diamond is Forever” used by the De Beers Diamond Company is still widely recognized today and had a massive impact on the sales of diamond wedding and engagement rings.

From the 1950s onwards, many trends came and went; platinum and white gold became more popular than yellow gold, Asscher cut and radiant cut saw an increase of interest, and cluster, trilogy and solitaire styles all became favorites. Although some couples have preferred to opt for a much more minimalistic approach since the beginning of the 21st Century, there still remains a large amount of interest in antique rings, particularly antique diamond rings. Perhaps it is the stories and the character that come along with these antiques that result in their unwavering appeal– an interesting history of various romances throughout the decades.

Although the tradition of the ring has remained constant throughout the ages, much else about it- style, material, ceremony-has evolved over time. The choice of that perfect engagement ring, therefore, is personal and unique to each couple.


Delilah Kealey-Roberts joined the AC Silver team as a Sales & Digital Assistant in 2017 after completing her degree in English Literature at Leeds University. Delilah possesses a passion for jewelry and antiquities combined with an interest in blogging and social media.

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