Blog PostHistory of Engagement Rings

wpengine July 12, 2017

Engagement rings are a huge craze today. We have all seen the hand in the air pose to show off that bling bling, but have you ever wondered how and where the trend all started? From the ancient world to present-day engagement rings have symbolized love and commitment. Monarch Box has done their research and created an interesting infographic of the history of engagement rings.

The Ancient World 1600-1000 BC

In ancient Egypt, rings were actually not a sign of marriage initially. Rings symbolized the spiritual power of an unending circle, which to them represented the eternity of life after death. Traditionally, Egyptians of the ancient world would wear a ring on the fourth finger of their left hand, as they believed that this finger was directly connected to the heart by means of a vein referred to as the vena amoris (“vein of love”) by later scholars.

Ancient Rome, 500 BC

During the reign of the Roman Empire, men would give their women two rings: a gold ring upon betrothal, and an iron one after their wedding. The gold symbolized the wealth of the man in question, while the iron ring, often engraved or marked with a key or clasped hands, represented a wife’s contractual bond to her husband.

Medieval Europe, 1200-1400 AD

As the Dark Ages came and went, the exchange of rings became a more frequent occurrence in many cultures across Europe. Rings were given as gifts, signs of faith or fealty, and as amulets intended to cure illness. Around 1230 AD, scholar Andreas Capellanus wrote “A woman who loves may freely accept from her lover the following: a handkerchief, a ring, a compact…”

Poesy rings, sometimes called poesie rings, were extremely popular during this era and had short poems or expressions of love engraved on the band, typically in French or Latin. Many poesy rings were worn in stacks for more extended works or passages and were given as love tokens throughout a long-term romance or relationship. This led to a rise in popularity of stacking rings during this era as well, with many of the wealthier class wearing rings from palm to fingertip throughout the Middle Ages and into the early years of the Renaissance.

The Renaissance, 1400-1600

As the Renaissance dawned in Europe, point cut diamonds were introduced in popular jewelry. Before jewelers began to shape gems in the 15th century, all diamonds were typically worn in the rough. The pointcut design has little in common with the more brilliant cuts we see today, but it was the first example of cut stones being set in rings and worn as jewelry.

The most famous diamond engagement ring belonged to Mary of Burgundy, which was specially commissioned for her by her beloved, the Archduke Maximilian of Austria in 1477. This gold and diamond ring with stones set in the shape of the letter M became the prototype for engagement rings for centuries to come.

These rings became highly prized possessions that were passed on to descendants.

Age of Enlightenment, 1700-1800

At the outset of the 19th century, rose-cut diamonds began to gain popularity. Scots-Irish Claddagh rings, or clasped hands around a rose-cut diamond with a crown over top, were considered ideal engagement rings because of their expression of loyalty, love, and friendship between a man and his betrothed. Many of these rings also became wedding bands during this time period as well.

The Victorian Era/Romantic Period 1832-1900

The Golden Age of the British Empire and an era of high romance thanks to the marriage of Queen Victoria to her husband Albert, the engagement jewelry of this period reflects the legendary romance of these two famously in love royals. Whimsical designs and motifs featuring hearts, bows, flowers, and even snakes (a Victorian-era symbol for eternity) were commonplace.

As the 19th century drew to a close, a vast deposit of diamonds was unearthed in South Africa. This led Tiffany & Co. to develop and introduce the six-prong “Tiffany setting”, a technique that raised the diamond above the setting and maximized its brilliance. This style continues to influence the design of engagement rings to this day.

The Edwardian Era to Today, 1900-Present

During the 1920s and 1930s saw the rise of the Art Deco design movement, leading to squared off, geometric designs and cuts, as well as the use of other precious stones such as sapphires, rubies, or birthstones to accent or feature prominently within the design. Platinum continued to be the first choice in metals throughout the 20s and 30s.

In the 1950s through to the 1960s saw designers and buyers going bigger and bolder with engagement and wedding bands. Actress Audrey Hepburn received stackable rings from her husband Mel Ferrer in both yellow and rose gold in order to allow her to match her jewelry to her current outfit.

Richard Burton’s engagement ring for Liz Taylor actually made headlines with its 33-carat asscher-cut diamond, dwarfing Kim Kardashian’s 15-carat ring by comparison.

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy also wore a distinguished diamond and emerald engagement ring that became all the rage among brides-to-be for years to come.

Fashion and taste shifted again in the 1980s with Prince Charles sapphire engagement ring that he presented to Princess Diana to mark their betrothal, and the 1990s and early 21st century saw a rise in the return to more traditional rings in round and princess cut with unadorned bands.

While there is no crystal ball to predict the future, trends toward simple and tasteful engagement ring designs are likely to continue well into the coming decades. The recent trend towards a return to more traditional designs and ethically sourced stones only underscores the deep respect Western culture holds for diamond engagement rings and what they symbolize. Truly, they are the gift of a lifetime.