When did rings become a symbol of marriage, and how has it changed?

When in love, put a ring on it! From the gift of the engagement ring to the exchange of wedding bands, rings and their symbolism have become so ingrained in contemporary culture that it’s easy to take for granted. But at what point did rings become associated with marriage, and how has that changed over the years?

We’re going to take a little educational journey through the history of wedding rings. From noble courtships in Ancient Egypt to diamond-studded starlets in magazines, here is how the tradition of wedding rings started and continues to evolve to this day.

The First Wedding Rings

It is believed that the tradition began with the Egyptian pharaohs, who used rings to symbolize eternity, as a circle is a shape with no beginning or end. When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, the Greeks adopted the tradition of giving rings to represent love and devotion. Although, on a less romantic note, it was mostly done to demonstrate ownership of one’s wife.

How Wedding Rings Evolved

In many cultures around the world, engagement and wedding rings are worn on the fourth finger of the left hand. This stems from a belief held by the Romans that this ring finger contained the “vena amoris” or “vein of love,” which led directly to the heart. While we know this is not anatomically correct (every vein connects to the heart, of course), it’s a tradition that’s stuck around in many parts of the world.

From the 3rd and 4th centuries onwards, gold rings became the wedding ring of choice. This was partly due to their luxurious style and partly to flaunt the giver’s wealth. Wedding bands began to be set with precious gems in the Medieval period and were thought to convey different meanings, such as passion, devotion, heaven, and strength.

Engagement Rings vs. Wedding Rings

The Christian church became involved in the tradition of marriage around the 12th century. It was declared that marriage was a holy sacrament and established a church ceremony that involved exchanging rings. From that point forward, the rule was that no man should place a ring on a woman’s finger unless he meant to marry her.

Before this rule, rings were still not exclusively related to marriage ceremonies. They could be given as tokens of devotion or as a symbol of a betrothal. It’s possible that the dual ring tradition emerged when the church officially codified marriage leading to a personal engagement ring and a church-sanctioned wedding ring.

The First Diamond Engagement Ring

The oldest known example of diamond jewelry dates to 300 BCE. Diamonds at that time were uncut and predominately valued for their strength rather than sparkle.

While the first recorded diamond wedding ring dates to the late 1300s, the first famous diamond engagement ring was seen in 1477 when Archduke Maximillian of Austria commissioned one for his intended, Mary of Burgundy. This ‘celebrity’ engagement sparked the trend of diamond engagement rings among the European aristocracy.

Diamond engagement rings continued to gain popularity during the Victoria era thanks to Queen Victoria’s well-known love for diamond jewelry. Still, it wasn’t until the 1940s that diamonds took the cake as the top choice for engagement rings. This is owed to the diamond giant De Beers who coined the famous phrase “a diamond is forever.” Following the economic downturn of the 1930s, De Beers launched a massive advertising campaign featuring Hollywood actresses in films and posters. This cemented the diamond as a symbol of glamour and romance, and in 1953 Marilyn Monroe polished it off with “diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” which became a household phrase.

While diamonds are far from the only option, they remain tremendously popular throughout Western culture and in countries around the world. Wedding rings may have begun as a mark of ownership, but the tradition has since evolved to symbolize the eternal love and devotion shared between spouses.

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