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Symbols of Love: The Captivating History of Engagement Rings

History of Engagement Rings | Our two-tone gold vintage-inspired diamond engagement ring, crafted in 14ct rose and white gold
Our two-tone gold vintage-inspired diamond engagement ring, crafted in 14ct rose and white gold

A Brief History of Engagement Rings

The history of engagement rings is both fascinating and captivating and may actually surprise you.

We all know engagement rings as the classic symbols of love and commitment they are today. These precious pieces of jewellery representing the highest form of love had their debut in Ancient Rome a good many centuries ago. Roman women wore the first bone and flint rings and then copper, silver, and gold in the 2nd Century.

History of Engagement Rings | Roman Gold Finger Ring | By The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum
Roman Gold Finger Ring
By The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

Although the ancient Egyptians are sometimes credited with inventing the engagement ring, and the ancient Greeks with adopting the tradition, the history of the engagement ring can only be reliably traced as far back as ancient Rome.

The Ancient Romans were very similar to the Greeks in matters pertaining to jewellery and marriage. They had a preference for gold dressed in colourful gemstones and glass. The Roman bride-to-be was given two rings, a gold one which she wore in public, and one made of iron, which she wore at home while attending to household duties.

The Ancient Greeks had a simple notion for engagement and wedding rings – the engagement was symbolized with a plain gold band worn on the left hand, and then once married moving the same band to the right hand.

The history of engagement rings in Ancient Egyptian culture had a wonderfully romantic interpretation. The shape of the ring itself, the circle, symbolized eternal life, while the opening in the centre was believed to be a portal to a future between two newlyweds.

History of Engagement Rings | An Ancient Egyptian Rings | Walters Art Museum: Gift of the children of Robert Garrett, 1964
Walters Art Museum: Gift of the children of Robert Garrett, 1964

In Ancient India, gold was the most adored form of jewellery. The love for jewellery in India is still prominent today, but back in Ancient India, it most likely stems from the culture’s belief in the mystical qualities of certain pieces and the thought that they can protect the wearer from evil.

A SYMBOL OF MARRIAGE

While ancient cultures did use circles of precious metal, glass, gemstones, and even bone to declare and symbolize love, it wasn’t until 850 that the engagement ring as we know it was given an official meaning.

Pope Nicholas I declared that the engagement ring represented a man’s intent to marry with gold as the most popular material for betrothal rings at the time.

Renaissance  

The first well-documented use of a diamond ring to signify engagement was by the Archduke Maximilian of Austria in the imperial court of Vienna in 1477, upon his betrothal to Mary of Burgundy. According to the GIA, the ring featured long and narrow diamonds mounted in the shape of an “M.”

This then influenced those of higher social class and of significant wealth to give diamond rings to their loved ones.

Enlightenment  

During the Age of Enlightenment, both the gimmal rings and posy rings were popular, although the latter was more often used as an expression of sentiment rather than to indicate a formal engagement.

 The Victorian Era

In South Africa, diamonds were first found in 1866, although they were not identified as such until 1867. By 1867, the output of the diamond mines exceeded one million carats per year. As production increased, those of lesser means were able to join in on this movement. However, diamond engagement rings were for a long time seen as the domain of the nobility and aristocracy, and tradition often favoured simpler engagement bands.

The famous slogan, “A Diamond Is Forever”, coined by Frances Gerety, ignited the popularity of engagement rings and altered the history of engagement rings dramatically. The slogan, ought to persuade the consumer that an engagement ring is indispensable, and that a diamond is the only acceptable stone for an engagement ring.

The sales of diamonds in the United States rose from $23 million to $2.1 billion between 1939 and 1979. Diamond engagement rings skyrocketed in popularity with the help of glamourous Hollywood stars like Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor.

History of Engagement Rings | A collection of images showing Grace Kelly's engagement rings
Grace Kelly had two engagement rings – a “temporary” engagement ring of diamonds and rubies while her real engagement ring was being made.
Princess Grace’s engagement ring was a 10.47 carat emerald-cut diamond set in platinum. She wore it on film during “High Society”.

21st Century   

Today, diamonds continue to symbolize love for hundreds of millions of couples around the world. Romantic love is universal to all cultures and times, but the expressions of love are different in different cultures – some are explicit and others are implicitly understood without words and big gestures.

Diamonds as symbols of love address both the explicit and the implicit expressions of love through the choice of designs, occasions, and presentations.

The expressions of modern romantic love are manifold. Engagement and marriage are no longer the only ways to show romantic love. It is increasingly expressed in relationships before and outside marriage, and in celebrations during married life.

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