Often we find ourselves following traditions without actually knowing where these traditions started and why we take part in them. Engagement rings are a common tradition that few people know the origin of. What is the significance of the engagement ring? Why does one person in the relationship wear one and the other (usually) doesn’t? Why does the ring's stone tend to be a diamond? What is the proper etiquette for wearing the rings before and after the ceremony? These are all valid questions that few actually can answer. Here is a look at the history and significance of engagement and wedding rings.
The Engagement Ring's Origins
The history of the engagement ring dates back to ancient Egypt, as does much of our history. It was often in the shape of a circle to symbolize the eternal cycle, and placed on the fourth finger on the left hand which they called the “vena amoris”, or the vein of love, as they believed it was this finger that had a vein that led straight to the heart. As we know today though, all of our fingers have veins that connect to the heart.
According to anthropologists, the first recorded proposal that involved an engagement ring dates back to 1477. Archduke Maximillian of Austria had a diamond ring commissioned for Mary of Burgundy that was a band full of diamonds in the shape of her first initial. From here much of the aristocracy followed suit.
In the past, it was Roman custom for the wives to wear rings that were attached to small keys as a sign of husbands’ ownership. According to wedding historian Susan Waggoner, “Roman law took a surprisingly modern view of the engagement ring, recognizing it not as a sign of ownership but as a kind of security or down payment paid to the bride-to-be”. Even up until the 1930’s, women in the United States could sue their partner for damages if their fiancée broke off the engagement, as it could ruin her reputation in society and any potential marital prospects.
The Wedding Day
Once the wedding day has arrived, it is common for the engagement ring to be switched to the fourth finger of the right hand. During the ring exchange in the ceremony, the spouse will place the wedding band on the left hand and after the ceremony, the engagement ring is moved back to the left hand, lying on top of the wedding band. Historically it is believed that the wedding ring should remain closest to the heart. Over the years though, more and more partners are choosing to create their own tradition such as welding the rings together, keeping them on separate hands or even choosing to not wear them at all. These traditions though vary greatly between countries and cultures. In some countries, both partners will wear engagement rings and in other ones, they only have one ring rather than both engagement and wedding bands.
Why a Diamond?
Why are diamonds so popular? Back in the 19th century, large diamond mines were found in South Africa and suddenly, the supply greatly exceeded the demand, driving down prices. The British company, De Beers, managed some of these mines and realized they needed to protect their investment. As a response to the crisis, they hired the New York ad agency, N.W. Ayer, to sell the American public the idea that diamonds, and only diamonds, were synonymous with romance. The larger and better quality the diamond, the more love you had for your fiancée, so they said. It was also in their interest to keep people believing that diamonds were scarce. During this time, the iconic slogan “A Diamond is Forever” was highly pushed promoting that investing in a durable and pure diamond is a way to show the partners commitment and lasting marriage. Ironically diamonds can easily be chipped, discolored and even shattered.