The Wonderful History of The Engagement Ring
Are you in the mood to propose?
Engagement bands and wedding rings are so entrenched in today’s society that we probably don’t even think about where they came from!
Unlike today’s Diamond engagement ring, centuries ago there wasn’t one ring style that symbolised marriage. In fact, Diamond engagement rings have been seen as the ultimate choice in the past 70 years!
Giving a ring as a sign of love and commitment actually dates back to Ancient Egypt. From the ownership rings of the Roman period to the sickly sweet medieval poesy rings and Georgian Diamond eternity bands, the engagement ring has taken many forms over the years, let’s take a look at their fascinating story!
Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman Engagement Rings
The custom of the engagement ring actually officially dates to the Roman period, marriage was an institutionalised part of law. That being said, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that engagement and wedding bands existed before this.
Both in Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece, rings, like any other form of jewellery, was given as a gesture of love, business and friendship. So it certainly wouldn’t have been uncommon for bethrothal jewellery to be a part of this. In Ancient Egypt, the marriage ceremony that we recognise today didn't exist, but there is surviving evidence from texts to suggest that romantic love, as well as personal advancement and stability was at the core of marriage. So much so that that lovers would craft circular bands from simple organic materials like reeds, ivory and leather and wear them on their hands as a sign that they were bonded to one another. However, in Ancient Greece, marriage was purely for the procreation of children, and was seen as a social agreement between two families rather than one of love and desire. That being said, rings of devotional and romantic manner were commonplace amongst lovers, with signet ring intaglios of cupids and cherubs.
Ancient Egyptian Signet Ring, c.1353-1323 BC from the reign of Akhenaten, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
This idea of marriage being a pre-contracted agreement remained well into Ancient Rome, where under the rule of Augustus, he made it law that every man from the age of 20 to 65 and every woman from the age of 20 to 50 be married. Just like in Ancient Greece, marriage was purely one of procreation, and was a strictly monogamous institution. Significantly, the woman’s possessions would be owned by her father or her husband, so it became custom that a Gold band was exchanged from the future husband to the brides father in replacement of money. It also was the norm in Ancient Rome for married women to not only wear these Gold bands in public but to also wear an Iron band at home when doing domestic tasks.
Ancient Greek Gold Ring with Hellenistic Engraving of a Woman, c.400-300 BC, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Ancient Roman Snake Rings, c.1st Century AD, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Due to this the Ancient Roman engagement ring were most likely to be plain Gold bands, but it wouldn't have been unlikely to have pretty carvings, engravings and motifs like snakes or portraits. That being said there were also Fede rings. These were carvings or shapings of two hands clasped together, a symbol of both love and agreement.
Engraved Gold Roman Fede Ring, c.2nd-3rd Century AD, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Byzantine, Medieval and Renaissance Engagement Rings
After the fall of the Roman empire, the large majority of Europe was thrown into turmoil, but early Christianity took quite a shining to the Roman institution of marriage, and soon took it under its wing!
There is numerous parcels of evidence that support how marriage and specifically engagement and betrothal rings were viewed in post Rome Europe. One of these was that in the mid-7th century, the Visigothic code was established by King Chindasuinth who governed south-western France and the Iberian peninsula. One of the laws in the Visigothic code was:
“that the ceremony of betrothal has been performed… and the ring shall have been given or accepted as a pledge, although nothing may have been committed to writing the promise shall, under no circumstances be broken.”
A 15th Century Fede Ring, c.1607, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
The Byzantine period combined Ancient Greco and Ancient Roman styles, but there was main distinct aesthetic difference. The intaglio of the ring would be carved with a minute portrait of the man and wife, and as Christianity’s influence strengthened, this would appear with a sign of the cross or Jesus.
In 850, Pope Nicholas I declared that the official engagement ring would be one of Gold because it clearly showed a man’s intent to marry. But, it wasn’t until 350 years later in the early 13th century during the Fourth Council of the Lateran that the banns of Christian marriage were instituted, which reinstated the ring as a sign of marriage and a financial bond.
Early 14th Century Sapphire and Emerald Ring, c.1300, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
In the 14th and 15th century France, the beautiful poesy rings emerged. These originally were ornate bands with flowers and words of adoration, but they actually simplified to plain Gold bands with intricate statements of love written on the inside of the band, turning the engagement ring from one of transaction into one of love.
Medieval Poesy Rings, c.1400-1500, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
As mentioned previously, Diamond rings are part and parcel with engagement and wedding bands today, but it is believed that the first Diamond engagement ring was given in 1447 by the Archduke Maximillian of Austria to Mary of Burgundy. During the 15th century, it was common for a gift of jewellery to be sent from the father of the bride to the father of the groom, and as Diamonds weren’t uncommon in Renaissance jewellery, it is likely that Diamonds rings were exchanged anyway! But as these aristocratic nobles were the 15th century influencers of their day, Diamond engagement rings then swept across Renaissance Europe, and were soon worn by the fashionable elite.
The "Darnley" Ring (This ring is known to be the supposed wedding ring of Mary Queen of Scots and Henry Lord Darnley), c.1500-1600, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
15th Century Diamond Ring with Ave Maria inscription, c.1400, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
A popular engagement ring style that emerged during the 16th and 17th century is the gimmel ring. Gimmel rings were beautiful, complex and heavily detailed rings that were crafted from 2-3 interlocking bands. It is believed that up until the wedding day, the bride and groom would each wear these rings and when married these rings would interlock and worn by the bride. The shank and the ring head would be heavily decorated enamel, flowers and hearts.
17th Century Diamond Marriage Gimmel Ring, c.1600-1650, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian Engagement Rings
Despite engagement rings and wedding bands being worn for thousands of years, it wasn’t really until the Victorian era that it became mainstream. The main reason is because gemstones and precious metals were quite scarce, so bejewelled rings and jewellery could only really be enjoyed by the upper classes. That being said, this lead to some fabulous and fantastical Diamond studded rings in the Georgian period.
Georgian Gold and Diamond Cluster Ring, c.1760, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Georgian engagement rings were explosive in their glitter and sparkle, with heavily foliate details, foiled rose cut Diamonds and elaborate engraved ring shanks. The fashion for Diamond eternity rings also were popular amongst the regency crowd, but it wasn’t until 200 years later in the Art Deco era that they really became the popular pieces brides and grooms shop for today.
Floral Diamond Georgian Giardinetti Ring, c.1760, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
During the Georgian, and in the Victorian period, engagement rings and wedding bands were also studded with colourful gems and painted with glossy enamel. This is because, up until 1870, Diamonds were very rare to find, so it was far more affordable to use Paste or colourful gems. And, the major marketing strategy of De Beers was 100 years later, so it wasn’t the norm to have Diamonds, you could have whatever gemstone concoction that you wanted.
Late Georgian Ruby Snake Ring, c.1800-1830, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Late Georgian to Early Victorian Paste Enamel Ring "A votre ami", c.1819-1838, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Plus, it wasn’t unusual to have symbols like snakes, floral clusters or buckles as engagement rings. In actual fact, Queen Victoria’s engagement ring from Prince Albert was a Ruby and Emerald coiled serpent ring, making them the must-have piece for blushing brides in the 1840s and 1850s.
It actually wasn’t until the late 19th century where the solitaire Diamond took over the engagement ring market. At this point, advancements in lapidiary technology from the Industrial Revolution, the discovery of the Brazilian Diamond mines in the 1870, and the boom of the middle to affluent classes made buying rings more commonplace. Tiffany & Co patented their revolutionary six-prong Diamond setting in 1886, a visually discerning yet different style from the cluster rings and literal motifs prior. Today, the solitaire Diamond ring is one of the most popular engagement ring styles, an infinitely wearable classic.
Victorian Emerald Diamond Ring, c.1850, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Antique French Enamel Floral Ring, c.1830-1860, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
The solitaire style and five stone Diamond was just what the Edwardians wanted. The Edwardians gravitated towards the old glamour and romance of Victorian and Georgian rings, but they also sought the modernity that the new century brought. Unlike the Victorians, the Edwardians had an almost exclusive colour palette of pale hued gemstones in bezel and buttercup settings, exuding femininity and fashion. Gemstone cuts like Old Mine Cut, Old European Cut and the round brilliant were taking over the market.
Victorian Ruby Diamond Ring, c.1840, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Art Deco and Mid-Century Engagement Rings
Glamorous, sophisticated and above all else, super stylish, Art Deco engagement rings were wildly different to their predecessors, with their signature style still super popular today. Art Deco rings piled high on the finger with brilliant cut and baguette Diamonds, Emeralds, cabochon Sapphires and Platinum settings. They were bold and daring, complimenting the fingers of the flapper girls who wore them.
The Art Deco style was all about modernity, mirroring the shimmering New York sky-scrapers and monochromatic metallic aesthetic. At this point, engagement rings were the norm, and with the boom of the stock market, many aristocratic Americans afford outlandish rings from the biggest jewellery names in the business.
After depression era of the 1930s, and the second world war in the 1940s brought a dramatic change to the flashy rings of the decade before. Precious metals were prioritised for the war effort, and hardly any people could afford the over-the-top designs. Plus, in a world that was so grey, the bold designs didn’t resonate with the general sombre mood. There was still plenty of romance though. Simpler more refined pieces like smaller few gemstones and slim bands were all the rage.
But as all designs ebb and flow, the middle of the 20th century saw the return to flash engagement rings with a bang! The jubilant post war mood and the healthier economy saw beautiful gems. Almost to make up of the decade before, it was fashionable to have big gemstones and lots of colour. But of course, there was still the demand for the classic Diamond solitaire. This was also the time that the Diamond industry was at its peak. In 1947 the De Beers Diamond company launched their “Diamonds are Forever” slogan monopolising the Diamond industry and changing the face of engagement rings forever. The Mid-century also saw a revival of the antique cuts like rose cuts, but they were artfully offset by bright Rubies, slim baguette cuts and round brilliants.
The Engagement Ring of Today
Today, engagement rings can take any form! As jewellery making is becoming mainstream, you can go from unusual to classic within a few simple steps on the internet. From the pigeon claws of Tessa Metcalfe to the refined organic shapes of Emma Aichson and Diana Porter, and the more mainstream jewellers like H.Samuel there is something out there for everyone.
Today, as a product of post-war consumer culture, engagement ring styles are hugely shaped by trends. For instance, there is a growing trend for sustainability in the jewellery industry, which has led to many wanting vintage and antique rings. People spend within the £2000 to £5000 mark on an engagement ring, so they want something that will stand the test of time. This is why Diamonds have always been a popular choice, however, other hard gemstones like Emeralds, Aquamarines, Sapphires and Rubies have also been a prime choice.