The concept of the engagement ring begins in Ancient Egypt, almost 5,000 years ago. The Egyptians pledged their love to each other with rings made of leather or reeds; the circular form to signify eternal love and the negative center space to manifest a gateway to new life. The Vena Amoris, or Vein of Love was believed to run through the fourth finger of the left hand, and while engagement rings have been worn all over the world on all fingers since then, this ancient placement is what we still wear today.
It was not until around 200 BCE that the concept of the engagement ring was made eternal by the Ancient Romans, who forged rings of gold & iron to formally represent their unions.
Photo courtesy of Peter Szuhay, 3rd-4th century Roman gold ring with enamel lettering and heart.
These evolved into “fede rings,” which symbolized marriage quite literally, often carved with two hands clasping in love/agreement. Does this look familiar? It's the where our contemporary claddagh rings evolved from!
3rd century Roman gold and onyx "OMONOIA" (harmony) fede ring.
By the 2nd century CE, gold was the metal of choice. The ruins of Pompeii — buried by a volcanic eruption in 79 CE — proved that gold rings were the haute couture of the ancient day. Ever the fashionable empire, the ladies of Rome were also known to have two rings; an iron ring to wear at home (like today’s travel ring), and a fine gold ring to wear out and about.
In the centuries that followed, engagement rings became more intricate and personalized. Carvings featured the faces or figures of the couples themselves and then following the rise of Christianity, crosses & Jesus icons were added to bless the union.
Photo by Richard Goodbody, Inc. courtesy of the Met Museum of Art, 6th-7th century Byzantine "OMONOIA" (harmony) gold marriage ring.
Pope Nicholas I officially indoctrinated engagement rings into Western lore in 850 CE, when he announced that a “betrothal ring” would represent a man’s intent to marry and his consequential financial sacrifice. Diamonds, however, do not appear in the historical record of engagement rings until 1477, when Mary of Burgundy married Archduke Maximilian of Austria. He proposed with a gold engagement ring of long & narrow diamonds set in the shape of the letter “M.”
Source: unknown. Engagement ring of Mary of Burgandy, gifted to her father Charles the Bold by Archduke Maximilian of Austria in 1477.
During the 15th century, silver “posy” rings,” or flower-motif bands, were commonly given as engagement gifts. Often engraved with love ballads or prose on the inside, such silver posy rings could be upgraded and exchanged at the wedding ceremony for finer gold bands. Inscriptions included:
“providence divine hath made thee mine,” “love me and leave me not,” and “two bodies, one heart.”
Over the years, band designs became simpler & plainer, while the engravings became more personal, as marriage became more based on love and less contractual.
Following the discovery of diamond deposits in the Cape Colony in South Africa in 1867, diamonds become a less uncommon choice of stone. By the time DeBeers launched their now-renown “A diamond is forever” advertising campaign in 1940’s, engagement ring sales in the United States were at an all-time high.