Engagement ring history dates back to Ancient Egypt
Did you know that engagement ring history begins before the time of Christ? Centuries of tradition surround this popular outward symbol of love and commitment. The ring as a symbol of marriage can be traced as far back as Ancient Egypt. The endless loop symbolizes eternity, and the open center represents the gateway to a new partnership.
The earliest known betrothal rings, signifying a promise to marry, were made from hemp, rushes, leather, bone or ivory. Egyptian images from 5,000 years ago depict rings made of rush and grass, which were surprisingly practical, lasting about as long as the short engagement.
The history of the engagement ring took an important step forward when Ancient Romans introduced rings made of metal and gradually began to use a plain iron band as a betrothal ring. Wealthier Romans wore the iron band indoors and exchanged it for a gold band outdoors (iron does rust, after all).
Simple inscriptions inside the band appeared as early as the 4th century A.D. Wealthy Romans occasionally fashioned betrothal rings from silver or gold, to signify that the man trusted his wife with his valuable possessions.
People of Gaul (Western Europe) and Britain often wore rings on the middle finger, according to Roman author Pliny the Elder, in his first-century A.D. work “The Natural History.”
The Romans, however, believed that the vena amoris (literally, “vein of love”) ran from the third finger of the left hand directly to the heart, thus the betrothal ring was worn on that finger. That engagement ring tradition is still in practice today, with the fourth finger now commonly known as the “ring finger.”
In the Middle Ages, precious gemstone engagement rings became popular, with the addition of colored stones such as sapphires and rubies.
Engagement Ring Styles
Engagement ring styles have continued to evolve throughout engagement ring history. We’ve already discussed plain bands made of various materials, ranging from reeds and rushes to leather and other materials, and then metal, beginning with iron and gradually moving to gold and silver.
The “fede” ring (Italian for “faith”) had a central image of two clasped hands. A similar design, known as the “gimmel” ring (Gaelic for “bond” or “tie”), is actually three separate bands which join at the base to become one. The outer bands each have an outstretched hand, and the center band contains a heart.
When a couple was betrothed (a much more formal, legally binding agreement than today’s engagements), the bride- and groom-to-be each kept one of the outside bands, and a witness to the betrothal retained the center ring with the heart.
Gimmel rings were popular in engagement ring history. At the wedding ceremony, the three parts were re-joined to become the wedding band for the bride.
When the three pieces are put together, the two hands clasp each other, and when rolled open reveal the hidden and protected heart.
The gimmel ring is believed to have been the inspiration for the still-popular Irish Claddagh ring, a design often used for friendship and wedding rings that has two hands holding a heart topped with a crown.