Ancient Engagement Rings

In the Western culture it has become normal and even expected that women wear an engagement ring; this was also the case in several other cultures around the world and in certain scenarios men were also expected to wear one.

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An Ancient Sign of Ownership

Like so many of our customs today, engagement rings can be traced all the way back to Ancient Rome. According to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), Roman women wore rings of ivory, flint, bone, copper and iron “to signify a business contract or to affirm mutual love and obedience.” Gold rings were later found in the ruins of Pompeii, proving the shiny metal became the material of choice in the common era.

The Romans were also fans of owning two engagement rings—an iron ring worn at home and a gold ring worn in public. If you are looking for an excuse to purchase a travel ring, blame it on the Romans!

A Mark for Marriage

It wasn’t until 850 that the engagement ring was given an official meaning. Pope Nicholas I declared that the engagement ring represented a man’s intent to marry with gold as the most popular material for betrothal rings at the time. The first time diamonds appeared on an engagement ring was in 1477 when Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy. According to the GIA, the ring featured long and narrow diamonds mounted in the shape of an “M.”

The Rise of Diamonds

Even though the Archduke was the first to propose with a diamond ring, he was by no means a trendsetter. In fact, diamond engagement rings didn’t become popular until 1947 when De Beers, the British company that mined diamonds in South Africa, launched an advertising campaign. With the help of Hollywood stars and the slogan, “A diamond is forever,” diamond engagement rings skyrocketed in popularity.

The Latest Millennial Trend

In recent years, we’ve started to see a shift in engagement ring preferences. Of course, the diamond is still a popular option (hello, J. Lo’s jaw-dropping emerald-cut stone), but more and more brides are opting for colored stones and rings made out of unique materials. When Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton, he chose a stunning blue sapphire engagement ring. Actress Blake Lively received a light pink oval diamond in a rose-gold setting from Ryan Reynolds and Katy Perry was given a unique ruby in a floral halo design by Orlando Bloom. Even singer Ariana Grande broke from tradition when she debuted a pearl and diamond bauble from fiancé Dalton Gomez in December 2020.

The ring is seen as a gift from a man to a woman to show that they are committed to marrying each other. In fact engagement rings have a long and diverse history:

The engagement ring in ancient times

Ancient Egyptians and the ancient Greeks are both said to have utilized engagement rings and it is often stated that the tradition arises from this period in history. Unfortunately there is no solid evidence that this was the case. History shows ancient Rome as being the first recorded incident of an engagement ring being used. The ancient Roman book “Attic Nights” suggests that the vein in the finger next to the little finger on the left hand was directly connected to the heart. Romans are said to have given two rings to their brides to be. There would have been a gold or ornate ring for public occasions and an iron ring to be worn around the house. This custom carried on for many centuries.

The Middle Ages

In the middle of the 7th century it became an accepted part of the betrothal ceremony that the ring was given as a confirmation of the pledge made between two people. The ninth century saw Pope Nicholas answering questions on the act of giving an engagement ring. These answers confirm the tradition of giving engagement rings and by the early 13th century it had become law that marriages were declared in advance; this was instituted by Pope Innocent III in the banns of marriage.

Engagement rings in the Renaissance period

This is one of the best documented uses of an engagement ring. The Archduke Maximilian of Austria gave his betrothed, Mary of Burgundy, a diamond engagement ring. During the 16th century and the protestant reformation the engagement ring was replaced with the wedding ring; possibly as a sign of rebellion against the Catholic traditions. Catholic countries later followed suit. It is also thought that many puritans stopped using the rings altogether as they felt they were too ostentatious; instead they used thimbles. The dawn of the enlightened era saw an increase in the use of gimmal rings for engagements and posie rings. Although during this period the posie ring was often used as a sentimental ring.

The Victorian Era

In the 19th century diamonds were discovered in South Africa. This led to a reduction in the cost of diamonds and an increase in the availability of diamond rings. It was generally members of the nobility who indulged in diamond rings and, despite the increase in availability, many people in the middle or lower classes stuck to a simple engagement band. Women started wearing the engraved signet ring too, because it was imposing and it exuded lavish and extravagance.

The 20th Century

The advent of World War one and the subsequent Great depression saw a large decrease in the number of engagement rings being sold. Diamond prices crashed in the 1930’s and the De Beer family started a marketing campaign to both enlighten the public as to the availability of diamonds and to educate them in the difference between cut, clarity, colour and carats. The campaign promoted the idea that as an engagement ring is a symbol of eternity it should have a diamond in as they last a lifetime. In fact the phrase “diamonds are forever” comes from the mid 19540’s part of this advertising campaign. The campaign had the desired affect and engagement ring sales steadily increased across the rest of the century.

In the 21st century, modern brides to be now expect an engagement ring and these rings are worn continually. This shows that the woman is committed to be married and is no longer interested or available to others. It is common for a man to spend two or three month’s salary on purchasing the right ring. One of the most common and stylish type of engagement ring is the solitaire. It has a simple strap and the most precious and alluring top stone, or diamond.

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