The origin of the engagement ring

For todays post, I decided to research the origin of engagement rings.

I had this romantic notion that when I went researching this subject I would find that the first engagement ring was dreamt up by a man who was so madly in love he searched the world for the perfect gift for his future bride. Unfortunately the origins of our beautiful diamond rings aren’t nearly as glamorous.

Ancient Roman Engagement ring, Iron
Ancient Roman Engagement ring, Iron

The tradition was started in ancient Roman culture where a man would  give a iron band to his future bride as a public mark that a contract had been made between the two families. How romantic! Iron was the chosen metal as it signified an unbreakable contract, apparently nothing short of death would get you out of an engagement. The ring was also seen as a sign that the woman would pass from the ownership of her father to her husband. This is apparently why men didn’t wear any form of an engagement ring.

Thankfully they ditched the iron in the third century and began to use silver and gold bands. This again symbolized the the contract made but also the grooms faith in his fiancee that she could be trusted with his wealth. Still no sign of the word “love”!

Gold engagement ring, 3rd Century
Gold engagement ring, 3rd Century

This simple band developed over time to encorporate various symbols of unity such as knots and clasped hands. Over time the engagement ring developed in different directions. The most common incorporating the symbol of joined hands. This ring became known as a ‘concordia’ or fede ring. Fede is an Italian phrase meaning ‘hands (joined) in faith’or a pledge of love. Finally the engagement ring symbolized something more than a legally binding contract! Other rings such as the Gimmel ring (two bands joined together), the Posy ring (decorated with engravings of poetry), and the Puzzle ring.

Gold Fede rings 16th Century
Gold Fede rings 16th Century

They also began wearing engagement rings on the third finger of their left hand. This tradition was  taken from the Egyptian belief that from that finger ran the “nerve of love” straight to he heart. They also began engraving messages of love on the inside and outside of the ring. The fede ring above is engraved in Latin on the inside ‘ I am a token of love, do not throw me away’.

Gimmel ring, Unassembled, Gold and Ruby
Gimmel ring, Unassembled, Gold and Ruby
Gimmel Ring, Assembled
Gimmel Ring, Assembled

It is interesting that although there was lots of jewellery set with gemstones and diamonds. The engagement ring didn’t get any diamonds until the 15th century.  The first well documented use of diamonds in an engagement ring was by Archduke Maximilian of Austria in 1477. Finally we get something sparkly!

Marriage also began to be consecrated by the church from the 16th century. Amongst peasants this ceremony involved strange traditions where the future husband tried to put the ring on the finger of his bride while she struggled in an attempt to make the ring fall to the ground. I have no idea what this symbolized but I doubt it will make a come back.

That’s as far as my research has taken me for the moment but I’ll continue looking at the development of the engagement ring in a later post.

All photos taken from Sylvie Lambert’s book ‘The Ring‘. It’s a brilliant book that looks at the ring throughout history.

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