Where Did Engagement Rings Come From?

History of Engagement Rings

Long before we learned that diamonds are forever and before they became a girl’s best friend, engagement rings were made of simpler stuff. While there‘s no historical record of the first time a man slipped a ring on the finger of the woman who promised to be his bride, there is enough evidence to suggest that the tradition at least dates as far back as ancient Egypt.

Ancient Egyptians were responsible for bringing a little romance into the symbolism of the marital ring. They regarded a ring as representing a couple’s endless circle of love and often designed them with an empty space at the center, which represented the gateway to their united future. Egyptians are also credited with starting the tradition of wearing rings on the third finger of the left hand because they believed the vein in that finger was connected directly to the heart.

Early Engagements

Roman Ring
Roman Ring

Pliny the Elder (23 A.D. – 79 A.D.), a Roman author, naturalist and philosopher, wrote accounts of brides-to-be being presented with two separate rings by their future grooms. The first one, made of gold, was worn during the wedding ceremony and at important functions in the future. The second ring was a simple iron band, worn at home while the wife performed her household duties. Unfortunately, the iron ring also symbolized the husband’s ownership of the wife.

One of the earliest official statements of a ring being used to enter into a formal contract can be found in the Visigothic Code, a set of laws compiled in Hispania (Spain) during the 7th century. It states, “When the ceremony of betrothal has been performed … and 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.”

Because the actual history of engagement rings gets cloudier the further back in history you search, the examples above may have pertained to wedding rings, although there are indications that the rings were usually presented to the brides-to-be some time before the actual wedding ceremonies.

The majority of betrothal and wedding rings used in the distant past were composed of simple bands, although there is evidence that some such rings from the Middle Ages contained gemstones. Many can’t be positively identified as true betrothal or wedding rings unless they contain an inscription or are otherwise identified as such. Some resemble modern-day engagement rings while others don’t. Sapphires, rubies, emeralds and diamonds were all used in these early tokens of love.

The Religious Influence

For Roman Catholics, the engagement ring’s official introduction is unequivocal. In 860 A.D., Pope Nicholas I decreed that an engagement ring become a required statement of nuptial intent. He described the practice in a letter to Boris I of Bulgaria in reply to questions regarding differences between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox practices.

Two other customs related to engagement traditions were established during that century: the forfeiture of the engagement ring by a man who reneged on a marriage pledge and the surrender of the ring by a woman who broke off the engagement.

The First Diamond Engagement Ring

Archduke Maximillian and Mary of Burgundy
Archduke Maximillian and Mary of Burgundy

The first concrete evidence of using a diamond ring specifically for an engagement was in 1477, when Archduke Maximilian of Austria presented such a ring to Mary of Burgundy. Diamonds were so rare and expensive, it was not a light investment – but apparently worth the expense of having the letter ‘M’ spelled out in small diamond chips. After all, the betrothal was based on Mary’s sizeable fortune. Despite all that money, the marriage was an apparent success until Mary died at age 25 from injuries sustained in a horseback riding accident.

American Engagement Ring Traditions

The Puritans who settled in America were true to their name, because as fair and frivolous engagement rings were being presented to European brides-to-be, American girls received a romantic thimble as a symbol of everlasting love and devotion. As practical as the thimbles may have been, they weren’t well received. Once the ceremony was over, it became common practice for the female newlyweds to saw off the base of the thimbles and convert them into rings.

During the Victorian era, engagement rings became whimsical and romantic, made of precious metals and often decorated with jeweled hearts, bows and flowers. Diamonds were more widely available when a large deposit of them was discovered in South Africa in 1867. While not as rare as they once were, the price of diamonds was still exorbitant, so they were used most often in rings commissioned by the very wealthy and the aristocracy.

6 Prong Tiffany Setting
6 Prong Tiffany Setting

In 1886, Tiffany & Co. introduced the six-prong “Tiffany Setting,” which raised a ring’s center stone above the band to maximize its brilliance. The setting set the engagement ring industry on fire and remains the quintessential engagement ring. It took decades for diamond engagement rings to become popular throughout the United States, but by the 1930s, the tradition had caught on. By 1965, 80 percent of all new brides in the United States sported a diamond engagement ring. The rest, as they say, is history.

The tradition of giving a ring to the woman who has promised to become your bride may go back centuries and diamond engagement rings may be relatively recent innovation, but one thing is certain. No matter the style of the ring or the stone used in it, an engagement ring is the symbol of your pledge of steadfast and enduring love.

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