Although rings had great significance in Ancient Egypt and Classical Greece, the engagement ring was a refinement of the Romans. A Roman fiancée was presented with a golden engagement ring to display in public, and an iron one for domestic use. Whether the golden ring was part of the ‘bride price’ the prospective husband’s family paid to the prospective wife’s, is a matter of debate.
Making Betrothal Public
To prevent clandestine marriages and the social embarrassment they incurred, the giving of an engagement ring to the bride-to-be became common practice in Western Europe between the 7th and 13th Centuries. This practice was particularly favoured by Pope Nicholas I, not that he presented any himself of course.
Diamonds Set in Engagement Rings
In 1477, Archduke Maximillian of Austria gave Mary of Burgundy, his fiancée, a diamond engagement ring. This was so impressive that other nobles and courtiers followed suit. And so the tradition began which we still see today as beautifully crafted engagement rings are adorned with brilliant diamonds.
Offensive Ornamentation: A Puritan Myth
It is said that the good puritans of colonial New England were shy of public displays of opulence and shunned ornaments such as jewellery. This may well be so. However, current historical opinion is that the wearing of a humble thimble with its cap filed off in lieu of an engagement ring is highly unlikely.
Gimmal Bands and Posie Rings
Between the 15th and 17th Centuries, inscriptions on engagement bands became popular and lines of love poetry or popular proverbs about fidelity were engraved on them. These were called poesy or posie rings. An intriguing refinement of the posie ring was the gimmal ring. A gimmal ring has two or three hoops which fit together like a simple puzzle ring. The couple would wear each band separately (a witness bore the third, if required) and would link them together when they married. Inscriptions on gimmal rings were only fully revealed when the hoops were fitted together.
Claddagh Rings – It’s The Way You Wear Them
The traditional Irish lovers’ ring since the 17th Century, the Claddagh, depicts a crowned heart presented by two hands. Its message is: Accept My Heart, Crowned With My Love. The finger on which the Claddagh is worn and the direction in which the heart points have significance. Wearing it on the left ring finger with the point of the heart towards your fingernail means you have found your life partner, and have made an initial commitment.
The Modern Engagement Ring
Since commercial diamond mining has made these beautiful stones available to more than just the aristocracy, diamonds are the gemstones couples prize most for their bridal jewellery. The Tiffany mount, a secure setting for a single large diamond, has made the Solitaire ring the classic engagement ring style since 1886. A carefully chosen cut of diamond on a complementary gold band is strikingly elegant. Another popular modern style is the Trilogy or Trinity ring which is set with three large diamonds to tell the story of your past and present together with your lustrous future. As the jeweller’s art has been aided by advances in tools and equipment, the ornamentation of engagement rings has become increasingly more intricate. The engagement ring has come a long way from its humble beginnings as an iron band on a Roman hearth.