The act of exchanging engagement rings is so prevalent across the world today that it is hard to believe that it is a concept that has a rather short history.
Well, if five centuries can be considered short – the first recorded instance of a diamond engagement ring as we know it being presented and worn is from 1477. However, this pales in comparison to symbolic rings of union, the precursor of both the wedding ring and the engagement ring, which have been discovered to have originated as far back as mankind’s pre-history. That is almost fifty thousand years even further into our past.
Despite the fork in the road that one romantically fateful day in 1477 brought about when Archduke Maximilian of Austria slipped a ring of diamonds onto the presumably slim and dainty finger of Lady Mary of Burgundy, engagement rings and wedding rings have a long shared history. To really understand the evolution of engagement rings, it is, therefore, necessary to look beyond just five centuries and into the world before metal tools, before agriculture, and before writing.
To 44,000 B.C.
Anthropologists have discovered that in this ancient time, men used braids of corded grass as symbols of their partnership with a woman. These were not placed on the fingers but rather on the wrists, ankles or waists of women. It is also doubtful that this was considered a romantic gesture – researchers believe it was more likely part of a ritual where the man sought to gain spiritual assistance to allow him to bring his mate’s spirit under his control.
Nice to know there were such feisty women around that long ago that men sought help from the gods.
It has also been suggested that
‘…Neanderthals…regarded this not only as a sign of loyalty and friendship, but also believed that by doing so the wife’s soul would remain intact…’ https://www.expatica.com/nl/insider-views/Wedding-ring-traditions-from-around-the-world_107981.html
The next step in our journey of evolution takes a leap forward to 2,800 B.C. The ancient Egyptian civilization which has given the world so many majestic monuments and as much knowledge as mystery was the setting for the birth of a revolutionary concept – the romance of the ring.
The circular band of the ring which has no beginning and no end was said to symbolise the endless love between the pair who wore them; the space it enclosed was seen as the doorway to a new beginning of their life together. These were commonly gold or silver rings.
The ancient Egyptians were also the source of one other element of our modern-day tradition – the placement of the ring on the ring finger. This practice originated in the (mistaken) belief that there is a vein in the ring finger that runs directly to the heart. The supposed existence of the ‘Vena Amoris’ was further popularised in the late seventeenth century by an English lawyer’s treatise on marriage law.
The first evidence of a dual-ring ceremony is in 200 B.C. in the Roman empire. This, however, was not the dual ring ceremony that we know today. The prospective groom placed two rings on his special lady’s finger, one gold and the other, iron on their wedding day. They former was the ceremonial wedding ring that would be worn in the future on special occasions whereas the latter would be worn by the bride every day when she did the housework.
The first mention in law of the engagement ring as a solemn symbol of a promise to wed almost as significant as the wedding ring occurs in 650 A.D. The Visigoths compiled the Visigothic Code which stated:
‘…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. Nor shall it be lawful for either party to change his or her mind, if the other is unwilling to consent…’
This was an important step in the evolution of the engagement ring into its current role as an important part of the journey of a couple to their marriage.
Fast forward to 1477 A.D. when the aforementioned Archduke Maximilian of Austria set the tone for diamond engagement rings with his presentation of a gold ring with the letter ‘M’ written out in diamonds to Lady Mary.
Women shall be eternally grateful to the Archduke, while it would be prudent to surmise that most men, after hearing of the Two Month Rule on engagement ring cost, are probably less so. The popularity with women of gold wedding rings and white gold wedding rings further strengthens these sentiments.
Europe continued to be at the forefront of pushing change in engagement ring design; the next evolution of note was the emergence of the Posie ring at the start of the eighteenth century. A posy is a small bunch of flowers and the posie ring was like a bunch of literal flowers for one lover to give another – a short line of verse inscribed into the band.
From the Victorian era of the 1800s to the mid-1900s, there was first a rise and then a decline in the intricacy and average value of the engagement ring. The Victorians popularised excess, with all manner of precious stones incorporated into bands of complex designs that sated their penchant for expressive love.
In the later part of the century, the discovery of diamonds in South Africa set the tone – and standard – for all future engagement rings. 1886 saw Tiffany & Co. debut their ‘Tiffany setting’ which rode on the coattails of this explosion in the use of diamonds in engagement rings.
The trauma and rationing of the great World Wars marked a turning point because there was neither the money nor the excess material to craft exquisite bands and gemstones. It is ironic, then, that this was also the point where engagement rings for men became popular. Up till then, rings were considered feminine jewellery.
The pang of separation was bridged by engagement rings that soldiers wore to war. Many a soldier wore but a simple tin band on his ring finger, and yearned to hold the gentle hand that wore its counterpart, sometimes halfway around the world.
It was also in this period – in 1944 – that the reply to a Catholic priest’s query to The American Ecclesiastical Review officially sanctioned ‘double ring’ ceremonies.
Today, men’s engagement rings have come a long way. Men are spoiled for choice almost as much as women in terms of both materials and design. Tungsten Rings, cobalt chrome rings, titanium rings, gold rings as well as platinum rings are extremely popular for the blend of masculinity and style that they confer to the wearer.