The tradition of marriage – and by extension, the history of engagements, engagement rings, and proposals – is a long and often opaque one, shrouded in mystery and stretching back throughout the eras.
Today, we’re going to be taking a closer look at the history of engagement rings, and considering certain famous engagement rings in history. Through examining the long journey this item of jewellery has taken, we may just develop a greater appreciation for this most valued and desired symbolic gesture.
Included in this article:
- How long have engagement rings been around?
- A cultural touchstone
- Why learn the history of engagement rings?
- Ancient origins of engagement rings
- The Middle Ages
- Renaissance Europe
- 17th and 18th Centuries
- The arrival of diamonds
- Millennial engagement ring trends
- The future of engagement rings
How long have engagement rings been around?
While the most famous examples of engagement rings in ancient history come from Roman times, we also know that the ring itself has been a symbol of marriage since time immemorial, suggesting that there may have been engagement rings through history which pre-date the Romans.
A cultural touchstone
While the traditions, beliefs, and practices surrounding marriage and engagement have shifted considerably since ancient (and even not-so-ancient) times, the iconic importance and universally recognised symbolism of the engagement ring has survived intact.
The gesture of getting down on one knee, and that moment that the box is opened, the ring is revealed, and the question is asked has become something of a cultural touchstone.
It represents the final scene of many of our favourite movies, the turning point of so many lives, and an act for which so many of us spend our time wishing and planning for… and yet we all too often take the long history of the ring itself for granted.
Benefits of understanding engagement ring history
Of course, recognising the historical importance of engagement rings isn’t going to be at the forefront of your mind while selecting the perfect ring for your fiance. However, by learning a little about the origins of engagement rings, considering the history of engagement ring styles, and looking at some famous examples, it might just bring a little more joy and significance to that selection process.
1. The ancient origins of engagement rings
It’s possible that the earliest engagement rings weren’t made of metal at all, and most certainly didn’t feature any glittering diamonds or other gems.
According to some of the earliest writings on the subject, most women in ancient times would be granted a plaited band of rush or other sturdy grasses, which was worn to signify that she (or her family) was no longer seeking a marriage partner. The band would be renewed on an annual basis until the marriage was formalised and the contract was complete.
One metal stood out in early Roman engagement rings
The information we have on engagement rings in Roman times suggests that a number of different materials were used, denoting different social classes in the strictly hierarchical Roman society.
While ivory and bone were not uncommon, and higher-born women would have been offered engagement rings made from gold and other precious metals (indeed, gold rings were found in the ruins of Pompeii), the vast majority of Roman engagement rings were cast from iron.
A symbol of love… or ownership?
As one might expect, the modern notions of romance weren’t at the forefront of the minds of ancient peoples – while romance was definitely an aspect of Roman life, marriage was still very much a formal, business-like contract – and the ring of iron was a symbol of obedience, ownership and the unbreakable bond that such a contract represented.
At least, that’s what historians generally believe to be the case. Human emotions, and the bonds that emotions give rise to, are complex and fascinating, and love-based marriages almost certainly existed even in the classical world.
The Roman and Greek poets and playwrights often wrote of elopement, love marriages, and forms of affection and desire which are by no means worlds away from those of the modern age.
While the engagement ring may not have been a symbol of love in those times, it’s surely not a coincidence that it evolved to become one of the most potent symbols of love and romance imaginable today.
2. Engagement rings in The Middle Ages
In the classical world, as mentioned, the ring was primarily a symbol of ownership and formal betrothal, almost adjacent to the concept of engagement rather than central to it. This changed in the Middle Ages, when the symbolic importance of the engagement ring was sanctioned and approved by the Vatican, namely by Pope Nicholas I.
Pope Nicholas I makes engagement rings official
The Pope formally declared that, from his reign across Christendom and forevermore, that the engagement ring would become the official form of declaring intentions of marriage. He also decreed that gold would be the standard metal chosen for rings of this type, although naturally, this precious metal was likely beyond the reach of much of Europe’s population at this time.
Curious engagement practices in Europe and England
This decree gave rise to a number of curious practices surrounding the act of proposing marriage; it seems that in many rural communities, especially in England and Western Europe, rituals involving rings of wheat and other crops (echoing, perhaps, the ancient use of rushes to symbolise engagement) became quite commonplace. For the wealthier citizens of such countries, more complex and grandiose gestures became the norm.
One of the more interesting engagement ring practices, the ripples of which are felt to this day, involved the groom first placing a gold ring on the index finger of his bride to be, then the middle finger, and then finally on what has become known as the ring finger. This three-fold proposal was said to represent the Holy Trinity and was a way of bringing the devout beliefs of the age into the act of proposing marriage.
3. Engagement ring trends in Renaissance Europe
The intricate art of jewellery making and ring design has an equally long and proud history as that of the engagement ring. It is somewhat curious, then, that most of the ancient examples of engagement rings are simple bands, unadorned and undecorated – something which, once again, suggests the rather formal nature of engagement and marriage in those times.
One of the earliest and most enduringly beautiful examples of decorative engagement rings came about in the height of the European Renaissance, a period in which artistry and innovation permeated so many facets of daily life. Gimmel rings, whose name comes from the Latin ‘gemelli’, or twin, were elaborately-worked items of jewellery featuring designs which remain popular in some countries and cultures to this day.
Two key designs featured in this engagement ring style, which were as follows:
Two hands joined
The more popular, and indeed more enduring design, saw the Gimmel ring styled in three parts, with each featuring a pair of clasped hands. The first of the three parts was worn by the bride, the second by the groom, and the third by a witness. On the day of the wedding, the three components of the ring were joined and reunited as one ring, which would then be worn by the bride. Claddagh rings, a traditional Irish and Celtic form of the clasped-hands Gimmel ring, remain reasonably popular to this day, and are a direct descendent of this original design.
A haunting design – the baby and the skeleton
The second form of the Gimmel ring, which perhaps unsurprisingly has since fallen from favour, consisted of two gold hoops which would fan open to reveal a pair of tiny figures. Commonly, these figures would represent a baby and a skeleton, representing the span of a couple’s life, hidden beneath gem settings. Of all the engagement ring styles in history, this is perhaps the most intriguing and symbolically-laden of them all… although it’s easy to see why such a design is not so popular today!
4. Engagement ring trends in the 17th and 18th Centuries
Engagement rings featuring gemstones have popped up throughout the historical record for centuries. However, it wasn’t really until the 17th and 18th centuries, when the decadent tastes of the upper classes and nobility began majorly influencing wider consumer trends, that they became more and more commonplace.
Secret gemstone symbolism
Engagement rings from this period of history were often adorned quite heavily with gems and precious stones, and it was believed that different stones had different properties or symbolic meanings, resulting in quite varied engagement ring styles from example to example.
One of the more romantic touches was to use the first letter of each gemstone to spell a secret message or the recipient’s name on the ring. For example, if your fiance’s name was ‘Tessa’, you might get your jeweller to line up a turquoise, an emerald, two sapphires, and an amethyst gem on the ring, representing the name of your betrothed.
5. The arrival of diamond engagement rings
If there’s one gemstone which is fundamentally and irreplaceably associated with engagement rings, both historically and in the modern age, it is surely the diamond. With its brilliance, clarity, and unrivalled sparkle, the diamond is the most coveted and beloved of all the precious stones, and the key feature of the majority of engagement rings exchanged today.
The first ever diamond engagement ring
The first diamond engagement ring is perhaps one of the most famous engagement rings in history, and was a powerful trendsetter which – although not significantly imitated at the time – went on to become a point of reference for fine jewellers for several centuries. The ring was given from Archduke Maximilian of Austria to Mary of Burgundy, and featured a series of long, narrow diamonds which spelled out the initial ‘M’ in a truly spectacular fashion.
In 1477, which was the year in which this ring was presented, the design was nothing short of a sensation. Although interestingly, diamonds at that time weren’t seen as particularly different from any other precious stone. Rather, it was the craftsmanship and the attention to detail, as well as the romantic suggestion of such a personalised ring, that caught the public’s imagination.
Why did it take so long for diamond engagement rings to become popular?
It took a long time for diamonds to become de rigueur for engagement rings, primarily due to the geographical scarcity of this precious stone, and the fact that the nobility of Europe had other gemstones readily available.
Factor in the characteristic hardness of diamonds, and the difficulty in cutting these gems, and it isn’t hard to understand why it took so long for them to become the first choice of gemstone for engagement rings.
However, this all changed at the end of the 19th century.
The diamond rush
South Africa had become a pioneering European colony, and the diamond industry was booming in the southern hemisphere. The great diamond rushes of the 1870s made diamond engagement rings more accessible, more fashionable, and more widely available than ever before – a dramatic new trend which hasn’t changed since it began.
‘A Diamonds Is Forever’
The year 1947 saw the public’s appetite for diamond engagement rings go up by several considerable notches. This was primarily catalysed by a hugely successful run of advertising campaigns, spearheaded by the British diamond mining company De Beers, which was operating in South Africa at the time.
The slogan ‘A Diamonds Is Forever’ captured the public imagination, and prompted the wearing of diamonds by the starlets of the silver screen.
A concurrent advertising campaign, which suggested that an engagement ring should have the equivalent price of a month’s salary (later upped to three month’s salary) helped push the popularity of diamond engagement rings further.
A momentous innovation in diamond ring design
Around the same time, the six-prong (or six-claw) platinum setting for diamond engagement rings was invented by a leading jewellery designer, giving rise to the creation of the first diamond solitaire rings. This innovation truly put the diamond, and the various new cuts and shapes coming into fashion, literally and figuratively front and centre.
As such it heightened the desire for diamond engagement rings, as well as a lady’s ability to show off her most prized possession, taking the item of jewellery to new and exciting heights.
6. Millennial Engagement Ring Trends
As we’ve seen, the history of engagement ring styles has involved a process of evolution across the ages, reflecting new ideas of love and commitment, and the changing notions of marriage in its various designs and symbolic meanings.
As you might expect, the new generation of millennial engagement ring customers have quite distinct preferences, styles, and expectations when it comes to their engagement rings, reflecting a more contemporary culture and set of ideals.
The diamond is, of course, still a hugely popular option. Famous engagement rings featuring this most precious of gems would include the phenomenal ring sported by Jennifer Lopez in recent years, which boasts a flawless emerald-cut stone.
Kate Middleton and a shift back to coloured gemstones
However, there has definitely been a shift towards coloured stones and rings featuring more unique materials, reflecting this generation’s enthusiasm for individuality over tradition. Take, for example, the ring with which Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton – a stunning engagement ring featuring a spectacular blue sapphire.
The famous ring, of course, originally belonged to Princess Diana, Prince William’s mother. At the time, for a member of the Royal Family to buck against tradition and opt for a coloured stone of this sort was a bold statement indeed, and one which immediately sent ripples through the jewellery world. When Kate appeared with the ring on her finger decades later, the moment was no less mediatic.
Other notable examples of engagement rings with a noticeable millennial leaning would include the large emerald cut diamond ring Brooklyn Beckham, David Beckham’s son, gave to his fiancé; Jeezy’s girlfriend’s enormous marquise cut diamond (vintage-style diamond cuts are another keystone of millennial ring trends) and Katy Perry’s engagement ring given by Orlando Bloom, which featured a striking ruby in a floral halo style.
Millenials value the story behind the jewellery
While these examples hail from the glitzy world of celebrity, there’s no doubt about the fact that their influence can be felt throughout contemporary culture. Millennials value the unique, the experiential, the bespoke, and the story behind their jewellery choices.
They’ve also been powerful drivers of higher moral standards in the jewellery industry, seeking out jewellers and designers who work with raw materials obtained sustainably and from sustainable or ethical sources. This trend is likely to stay, and is indicative of a higher social awareness that benefits us all.
7. The future of engagement rings
We could spend forever discussing the famous engagement rings of history, examining the rise and fall of various trends, and investigating the ways that scientific innovations might affect the engagement rings of the future.
However, the simple fact is, we don’t really know what the future of engagement rings looks like, any more than a Roman woman might have been able to imagine Ariana Grande’s diamond and pearl engagement ring from the year 2020.
What we can say, with a reasonable amount of confidence, is that engagement rings are here to stay. Thousands of years of history have led the art of engagement ring design to where it is today, and the power of that uniquely enduring symbol of love has grown and grown across the ages.
If you’re on the lookout for the perfect engagement ring to present to your beloved partner, that’s something to keep close to your heart: the gesture, the symbol, and the iconic power of sealing your commitment with a ring is part of an unbroken cycle, which connects your proposal to those which stretch back throughout history, and which will continue long into the future. Love is, after all, timeless.
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