The cherished custom of signifying betrothal with an engagement ring has evolved a great deal since traditions began centuries ago. From generation to generation, this emblem of everlasting love and commitment has taken many forms, evolving into the grand expression of love we commonly refer to as the engagement ring.
The idea of signifying the union of man and woman with a ring can be traced back over 3,000 years ago to the ancient Egyptians, who viewed the circle as a symbol of endless love. Couples exchanged rings made of braided reeds that were worn on the fourth finger of the left hand, as it was believed that a vein, later known as the vena amoris, ran through it and led directly to the heart. This is thought to be the origin of wearing engagement and wedding rings on the “ring finger.”
The Roman civilization was the first to exchange rings as a prelude to marriage instead of the customary giving of money or other valuables. The ideology behind the ring, however, was far less romantic. According to Pliny the Elder, the man would give his future bride a metal ring, typically gold, to be worn during special occasions and at the wedding. This also came with a ring typically made of iron, to be worn in the home. Both tokens were attached to small keys, and were intended as a constant reminder of her legal obligations and status as her husband’s “property.”
As the custom of giving an engagement ring spread, the designs of these jewelry creations became more elaborate. The traditional simple gold bands were soon adorned with various gemstones, including sapphires, rubies and emeralds, which were more widely seen amongst the upper class. The diamond, however, would soon dominate engagement ring designs for centuries to come, thanks in part to Archduke Maximilian of Austria, who gave the first recorded diamond engagement ring to Mary of Burgundy in 1477. With the greater availability of diamonds after their discovery in South Africa in the mid-1800s, combined with clever marketing by such companies as DeBeers and Tiffany & Co., the diamond’s popularity only grew. Soon, the diamond ring had taken center stage and was quickly recognized as a symbol of eternal commitment.
Diamonds are still integrally tied to the ideas of purity, strength and unity, but the tradition of selecting from the world’s array of rare and precious colored gemstones to adorn one’s ultimate symbol of love never wavered, especially amongst royalty and high society. When Napoléon Bonaparte proposed to his beloved Joséphine, he did so with a brilliant blue sapphire engagement ring. It was also the jewel of choice at the center of the elegant Princess Diana’s famed engagement ring, which is now worn by Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. Monaco’s Prince Rainier III selected the jewel of wisdom, love and immortality – the ruby – for his first engagement ring to the illustrious Grace Kelly. In 1953, when President John F. Kennedy proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier, it was with a ring showcasing a rich green emerald.
This practice is alive and well, as many couples today are selecting stunning and important colored gemstone engagement rings, diverging from the traditional diamond and delving into antique rings in a veritable rainbow of rarities to symbolize their love and devotion. Though the concept of the engagement ring has come a long way from braided reeds, one thing has remained constant, and that is the desire to express one’s adoration for another with an object as rare and elegant as the wearer.