Engagement Rings – Basics
Proposing marriage with a ring is a generational tradition. From simple circlets in ancient Rome to designs dripping with diamonds in New York, engagement rings have come a long way, baby.
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Can you tell the difference between a solitaire setting, a pavé setting and milgrain? See various Engagement Ring Styles here.
The Story of Engagement Rings
The ancient Romans were the first to detail legal requirements for engagement, marriage and divorce. It may come as no surprise that rings symbolizing marriage can be traced back to that society.
Roman women wore rings made of various materials, from bone, flint and ivory to copper and iron to affirm mutual love and (in those days) obedience. Iron is thought to have been replaced by gold in the second century AD, although gold rings were discovered in the ruins of Pompei, which fell in 79 AD. Some Roman brides were provided with two rings: a ring of gold to wear in public and a second ring of iron to wear while tending to household duties. Couples in the Roman Empire were also the first to place betrothal rings on the fourth finger of the left hand; believing that a vein in that finger, the ‘vena amoris’, runs directly to the heart.
850 AD – Let’s Make It Official
In the Middle Ages, a man would keep a betrothal ring suspended from the band of his hat, ready to give to a chosen maid. Wedding rings started to be set with colored gemstones. These ‘Posy Rings’ were inscribed inside with poems or love messages. The habit remained popular through Victorian times and inscriptions inside wedding bands endure to this day.
In 850 AD Pope Nicholas I declared that the ring represented a man’s intent to marry with gold, giving engagement rings official meaning.
1477 – The First Diamond Engagement
In 1477 the Archduke Maximilian of Austria gave Mary of Burgundy a diamond engagement ring. He married her the following day. Little did he know his diamond engagement tradition would be wildly popular around the globe centuries later. Affluent people like Archduke Maximilian could afford diamonds during the Renaissance, but the only known diamonds came from India, and the common man didn’t have access to such wealth.
Metal rings continued to be popular and evolve. The gimmel, made of interlocking rings joined by a pivot to slide together into one, was often exchanged between lovers about to separate for long periods of time. The fede, or faith ring, was a gimmel with the hoops ending in clasped hands. This style is still seen in modern claddegh rings. Jewish wedding ceremonies of the period featured rings of elaborate detail, often with bezels worked in the shape of a synagogue or Solomon’s Temple.
1600-1900 – Creative Embellishment
Detailed engraving and the use of motifs such as hearts occurred during the Romantic era of the 17th and 18th centuries. Crosses, stars, leaves and branches were all in style and wealthy Europeans showed a taste for diamonds and rubies, symbolizing eternity and love. The discovery of diamonds in Brazil increased the supply in Europe and as they became more available rings grew more elaborate, set in fleur-de-lys, rosettes, bows and stylized letters. Diamonds were even set in natural, rough form. In 1761 King George III presented a second diamond band as a ‘guard’ to Queen Charlotte. This was the predecessor of our modern day wedding anniversary band.
The Victorian Era saw the continued use of intricate metalwork and a rise in colored gemstones as the choice for engagement. In 1870, a plentiful supply of diamonds was discovered in South Africa. This, coupled with the wealth generated by the Industrial Revolution, made the ultimate symbol accessible and affordable for the public, and diamonds quickly became the rage.
1886 – The Tiffany Solitaire
In 1886 Tiffany introduced the six-prong diamond solitaire engagement ring. For over 100 years the Tiffany-style solitaire has been a favorite choice due to its elegant simplicity.
Early in the 1900s the ‘princess ring,’ featuring three to five large diamonds in a row became fashionable in the US. Three and five stone rings are still quite popular today. The 1920s and 30s saw wedding bands engraved with orange blossoms and wreaths. The chosen metal for engagement rings in the early 1900s was platinum, because of its durability. However, during WWII platinum usage became restricted to military purposes, and there was a rise of gold used in bridal jewelry. WWII also saw the revival of an old European custom where the groom and the bride both received wedding bands – another tradition which continues today.
1947-now – A Diamond is Forever
In 1947 DeBeers introduced a marketing slogan that vaulted the diamond engagement ring into ultimate prominence. The slogan “A Diamond is forever” resulted in a diamond movement that is still growing today. An estimated 78% of all engagement rings sold are set with diamonds. Rings have also shown incredible growth in form, variety, setting approaches and ornaments surrounding the diamond. Antique, classic or modern, any choice today is correct as long as it is a reflection of the wearer’s personal taste and style.
The ring has been a symbol of love and commitment between two people since ancient times. The diamond ring, while a newer innovation, is now present in many cultures: Whether a simple circlet or a design dripping with diamonds, the durable engagement ring symbolizes the everlasting qualities of the bond of matrimony.
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