When Did Engagement Rings Start? | The History of This Romantic Tradition

Whether you’re engaged, about to pop the question, or single and curious like the rest of us, you’re here to ask: “When did engagement rings start?”. Well, engagement rings date back to ancient times.

So, how did this tradition start? How did it evolve? When did it become so popular? Is it inherently a sexist practice to claim ownership over another person or a purely romantic one to symbolize commitment and celebrate love? The history of wedding rings is genuinely fascinating, and we can’t wait to tell you about it.

History of Engagement Rings

To answer your question: “When did engagement rings start?” we have to go back to Ancient Egypt.

In 1500 BC, ancient Egyptians used rings to symbolize eternity. They believed in their spiritual power since they’re shaped like “unending circles,” the sun and the moon.

They also believed in the connection between the third finger of the left hand and the heart through the vena amoris vein, which is why they wore bands on those fingers.

Gold and enameled stone ring from ancient Egypt

When Did the Engagement Ring Tradition Start?

In Ancient Rome, women received rings of bone, ivory, flint, iron, or copper as proof of a business contract or mutual love and obedience, as the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) states.

Of course, in Ancient Rome, a ring wasn’t merely a symbol of love but ownership. In fact, it might even feature keys to solidify that concept.

an iron ring from ancient Rome

So, the groom would give his prospective bride an iron ring to wear at home and a gold one for the betrothal ceremony and important events.

Moreover, Rome is the origin of the “ring finger” notion. Romans believed that the fourth finger of the left hand had a direct connection to the heart. That’s why you may know it as the left-hand ring finger.

When Did Rings Become a Symbol of Marriage?

It was 850 when Pope Nicholas declared engagement rings a symbol of a man’s intention to marry a woman. He also chose gold for the betrothal ring due to its popularity.

various rings dated in middle ages

When Did People Start Using Diamond Rings for Marriage?

The shift from gold rings to diamond engagement rings started in 1477. Archduke Maximilian of Austria commissioned a diamond ring for his betrothed, Mary of Burgundy. The gold ring featured long and delicate diamonds shaped like an “M.”

This set forth a trend in European nobility, and they added more precious gems and diamonds to their jewelry. The popularity of engagement rings with diamonds among the elite was only helped by Queen Victoria’s known love for diamond jewelry.

Queen Victoria's snuff box

Archduke Maximilian’s ring wasn’t enough for diamond engagement rings to become a trend among commoners. The true gamechanger was the discovery of diamond mines in South Africa.

Cecil Rhodes and other investors established Debeers Mining Company in 1873. Less than a decade later, they were in control of 90% of the world’s diamond production. Around the same time, the 1920s witnessed a rise in simple prong settings, white gold or metal, and platinum settings.

After the Great Depression, De Beers launched their marketing campaign “A Diamond is Forever” in 1947. If you’re wondering just how influential this ad campaign was, the slogan and Hollywood stars revolutionized diamond engagement rings as signifying everlasting marriage. Where only 10% of engagement rings had diamonds in 1939, the percentage exceeded 80% by 1990!

But we’re jumping ahead; it was in the 1950s that most rings offered at a marriage proposal were diamond ones. And the most popular engagement diamond ring design was the solitaire stone with diamond baguettes as side stones. Since then, the diamond engagement ring trend has persisted and evolved.

And in 1955, Joe DiMaggio proposed to Marilyn Monroe with a diamond eternity engagement ring. The ring was set in platinum and fitted with 36 baguette-cut diamonds.

So far, we’ve referred to the yellow gold band and the diamond ring. But there are indeed other trends that have emerged over the years, including:

Gimmel Rings

Gimmel rings are two or three interlocking hoops that combine to make a complete ring. When a couple would get engaged, each one would wear part of the ring only to reconnect the bands in the wedding ceremony. Afterward, the bride would wear the matched set, which features two right hands clasped. But that soon became two hands holding a heart.

Also, you might be interested to know that Catherine Bora and Martin Luther wore them when they got married in 1525, and these hoops started gaining popularity around that time.

vintage gold rings

Posey Rings

These silver rings were widespread in the middle ages, the 1700s to be exact. They signified loyalty and made for such romantic engagement rings.

After all, they had engraved posies (mini love poems or ballads from the heart). And they were written in Latin or French on the inside and outside of the engagement ring. Sometimes, the couple would replace them with gold posey rings on the wedding day.

Vintage Silver Posey Rings

Double-Ring Ceremonies

This two-rings trend surged in the 1940s when men also wore engagement rings. In fact, the number of ceremonies, including the tradition of getting bands for the bride and groom, increased from 15% to 85%. So, it’s no surprise that engagement rings were the leading jewelry line for most department stores.

various vintage engagement rings

Engagement vs. Wedding Rings

You might find “wedding ring” and “engagement ring” used interchangeably, but let’s take a second to understand when they became two different rings and how different they are.

When Did Engagement Rings and Wedding Rings Become Two Separate Rings?

This question is loaded because the differences between the engagement ceremony and marriage ceremony weren’t cut clear. In other words, marriage wasn’t any different from an engagement in that it wasn’t a formal agreement, legal contract, or religious commitment.

In Medieval England, marriage was merely the offering of a “present consent.” To elaborate, the couple would give and receive an object, referred to as a “wed.” In the 8th century, it was often a ring.

The distinction between the wedding ring and engagement ring only happened in the 12th century when the Christian Church established marriage as a church ceremony. It also gave birth to church-sanctioned wedding rings. Moreover, this decision entailed that a ring presented without a clergyman and outside a church was considered a personal engagement ring.

Additionally, extravagant engagement rings faced some backlash in the 1300s, as the Christian Church criticized such designs for their “heathenish” nature. As a result, some couples resolved to exchange a plain wedding band without adornments.

How Different Are Engagement and Wedding Rings?

The church’s stance should give you an idea of how different the wedding ring and engagement ring were in design. On the one hand, wedding bands are simple and without center diamonds or large stones. Both the bride and groom wear a wedding band.

On the other hand, betrothal rings vary in their degree of extravagance, but they typically feature diamonds or other gemstones. Traditionally, only the bride would wear this diamond engagement ring, but that’s changing, as you’ll see.

Both engagement rings and wedding rings are worn on the third finger of the left hand, which is why many women wear the engagement ring on their right hands during the marriage ceremony. Afterward, they move them back, stacking both rings on the same finger.

closeup of bride and groom's hands with rings

The Engagement Ring in Modern Times

Today, wedding rings and engagement rings symbolize love, devotion, commitment, and partnership. There are typically two engagement rings: one for the bride and one for the groom. To illustrate, many future husbands wear “man-engagement” rings. These are especially prevalent in western countries, Europe, and South America.

Over 80% of American brides wear diamond engagement rings (see also how to clean a diamond ring). Typically, Americans spend about three to four months’ salary on a diamond engagement ring. Nevertheless, engagement rings with colored gemstones are also getting their fair share of love.

The engagement ring game has been entirely transformed. It isn’t just that the designs and stones have changed but even how brides wear them! In the past, brides wore their engagement rings on the fourth finger on the left hand. Now, they mostly wear the engagement ring on their right hand.

modern gold engagement rings with diamonds

FAQs

What finger is a woman’s wedding ring?

A woman’s wedding ring, or engagement ring, is typically worn on the left hand. The tradition of wearing a wedding ring on the left-hand dates back to ancient Egypt and Greece. In these civilizations, it was common for women to wear rings on their right hands while men wore them on their left hands. The tradition continued into medieval Europe, where brides would give a small token in exchange for a gold band from their groom.

What is the difference between an engagement ring and a wedding ring?

Engagement rings and wedding rings are both symbols of love, commitment, and marital status. However, they differ in the sense that engagement rings symbolize a promise to marry and wedding bands signify marriage itself.

Which do you wear first wedding or engagement ring?

The wedding ring is the first to be worn. A tradition that dates back to Roman times, it’s said that wearing a wedding band on your left hand prevents the evil eye from striking you. As for engagement rings, they are traditionally worn on the right hand as they don’t protect against evil spirits as their counterparts do.

diamond rings offer in the store

Final Thoughts

Overall, we can trace the emergence of engagement rings back to Ancient Egypt in 1500 BC, where rings symbolized eternity, and Ancient Rome, where brides wore betrothal rings, sometimes iron rings.

But officially, the ring became a symbol of a future marriage in 850 when Pope Nicholas declared it as such. Since then, the De Beers campaign “A Diamond is Forever” changed the game forever, and numerous other trends followed, adding their touches to this tradition.

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