Diamonds are forever, right? Well, the engagement ring tradition actually hasn’t been around nearly that long. In the past, the English didn’t even use rings. Instead, the couple would break a piece of gold or silver in half and each keep a piece. Proposing with a diamond engagement ring didn’t really catch on until 1477 when Archduke Maximilian I of Habsburg proposed to Mary of Burgundy with a diamond engagement ring. But even before that, different kinds of rings and items were given. Today, around 80% of couples declare their engagement with a diamond ring at an average cost of around $3,200, without regard to where the tradition came from.
The idea of wedding rings goes as far back as the ancient Egyptians. The Egyptians would fashion “rings” out of hemp or rush. Since the wedding bands were made out of plant materials, they needed to be redone around once a year.
The Greeks also used rings to mark an engagement, but not always. Sometimes Greeks gave these “betrothal rings” to signify friendship so they were seen as a casual gift and not one exclusively reserved for engagements.
Although the Romans valued diamonds because they believed diamonds held supernatural powers, they did not use them in engagment rings. As a symbol of their engagement, Roman men gave their future brides rings decorated with a carved key. A romantic may argue that it was meant to symbolize the key to her husband’s heart, but in some cases it served as an actual key to unlock half of her husband’s fortune. See engraved rings
The Romans also decided which finger an engagement ring should be worn on. They believed that the vein that runs through that ring finger was the vein of love, because it flowed straight to the heart. By wearing a ring on the finger with the ‘Vena Amoris’ two people’s hearts would be linked.
Right around the Middle Ages, the church got involved in the engagement ring story. In 860 BCE, Pope Nicholas declared that to make an engagement official, an engagement ring had to be presented to signify the groom’s financial commitment. The ring also had to be made of gold to be considered valid.
In 1215, Pope Innocent III added to this and proclaimed that a waiting period had to be observed before marriage and that the engagement period could not be skipped to avoid the engagement ring.
The medieval Italians were especially fond of setting engagement rings with diamonds, but not because they thought diamonds were beautiful; on the contrary, they thought diamonds were devoid of beauty and color but they were valuable because they were believed to be created in the flames of love and maintained harmony between a husband and wife. See Vintage Ring Designs
Victorian engagement rings had their own tradition where the first letter of each stone set in the ring would spell out a message. Some examples are the ‘Regards’ ring or the ‘Dearest’ ring. For the Dearest ring, the stones that were used were a diamond, an emerald, amethyst, a ruby, another emerald, sapphire, and topaz. Another popular example was simply ‘Love’ in which case lapis lazuli, an opal, vermarine, and an emerald were used.
Since the Puritans were keen on marriage yet not fond of lavish material possessions, they refused to wear fine jewelry but still wanted a something to represent an engagement. As a result, a thimble was often given. The gift was practical since the future bride would need it as she sewed up the linens that would be given for her dowry. Once she completed her task, the top of the thimble was cut off to make a rudimentary ring.
DeBeers and “A Diamond is Forever”
In the 19th century, diamonds were desired for engagement rings, but were usually not used due to a limited supply. Only the richest and most powerful people and royalty had access to diamonds until around 1870 when the rich Kimberley deposit was found in Africa.
Suddenly diamonds began to enter the marketplace in huge numbers and since they were no longer as rare as before, prices plummeted. Plus, with the Great Depression looming, the world was starting to lose interest. It was at this time that DeBeers launched a marketing campaign to cement the belief that a diamond was needed for an engagement. With the help of some Hollywood placements (“Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”) and the infamous slogan “A Diamond is Forever” diamonds once again entered the public consciousness and established themselves as a lasting symbol of love.
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Now thimbles and engraved keys are rarely given, but there are other places in the world that do things a little differently. In Germany and Norway for instance, engagement rings are worn on the right hand instead of on the left. In some South American cultures, both the bride and groom wear plain bands during the engagement.
Some traditions require the engagement ring to be worn on one hand, until the person is married, then the ring switches to the other hand. In Brazil, both husband and bride wear an engagement ring on the right hand while they’re engaged and transfer it to the left at the wedding. In Argentina and some European countries, the tradition is similar but backwards. At the wedding, the wedding band is transfered to the right hand where it will hopefully stay.