As a piece of jewelry, rings are prehistoric (Nerudova, Liesowska). They can be made of bone, stone, or ivory. Probably wood, twine, and a host of other things too, though most of those don’t last long enough for the archaeologists to dig them up. What archaeology generally can’t tell us is why they were worn. It’s entirely possible that they were gifts from a man to his lady love, or vice versa, and it’s also entirely possible that none of them had anything to do with that. We just don’t get to know.
Even in the later cultures which I am about to discuss, it’s often unclear whether the ring was given at the proposal or at the wedding or both. So I will be wandering back and forth between engagement rings and wedding rings. That’s just the way it is.
Roman Wedding Rings
The first culture that I can find which absolutely used rings for wedding purposes was the Romans. Sadly that is the most definitive statement I can find, even for them. Pliny the Elder, writing in approximately 77 CE, said that in his day women were given an iron ring as a betrothal present (Pliny, Book 33, chapter 4). Sounds very austere.
But many have been quick to point out that Roman rings (including many from Pliny’s century) have gems, are made of precious metals, and have carved clasping hands, which some historians interpret as love, joining, betrothal, marriage (Hersch, 41). So not so very austere after all.
Then again other historians say that hand clasp is about funeral art. So not a betrothal ring. (Hersch, 42)
But maybe Pliny was just a skinflint grump, for he does say elsewhere that “the worst crime against mankind was committed by him who was first to put a ring upon his fingers,” which is just a trifle over the top (Pliny, Book 33, chapter 4). I’m not really a jewelry fan either, but I can think of a lot of worse crimes than jewelry making.
After that, there’s not much in the sources on the subject until in the early 600s, Isidore, sometimes called the last scholar of the ancient world, wrote that the ancients (no clarification on who exactly he means by that) wore rings on the “fourth (i.e., third) finger from the thumb, because a certain vein reaches from it to the heart, and the ancients thought this vein should be noted and adorned by some sign” (Isidore, 392). I find this to be anatomically dubious both about veins and also about fingers. What does fourth (i.e., third) mean anyway? Not a clue when I look at this particular translation, but other sources that don’t actually have the quote insist this reference is why our current ring finger is the ring finger, so I guess it means that one.
And that’s about all we get for Roman engagement ring advice and etiquette. But the Roman period also brings my absolute favorite engagement ring story. So here we go:
The year is 450 CE, more or less. There’s a lot of barbarians circling Rome like ravening wolves, Rome has in fact have been sacked, which was a bit embarrassing for the mighty empire, but the Theodosian dynasty has been in control for over 70 years, provided you overlook the time when a British soldier got himself proclaimed emperor. And the time when a senior Senator got himself proclaimed emperor. And the time when a senior civil servant seized power. But, you know, apart from that all was well and good for the dynasty.
The latest family scion sitting in the top job was Valentinian III, and he had a remarkably long reign: 30 years on the throne, which was no mean feat at a period when most emperors were not dying of natural causes. Valentinian needed every ally he could find, and a time-honored way of making allies is to look around your family for any reasonably attractive females you can marry off. Even unattractive ones will do, if you can dower them well enough. Valentinian had an unmarried sister named Honoria, so he chose a senator for her named Bassus Herculanes. Bassus was a safe choice. Which in this context means Valentinian didn’t think Bassus would use the marriage as a pretext to seize power. The less kind appraisal was that Bassus was as dull as dishwater, and this did not suit Honoria at all. No, not one little bit.
Honoria saw no reason not to look for allies of her own. Someone who would teach her snotty little brother a lesson. Maybe give him a spanking or something. Having looked around her, she selected her ally. Someone who was most definitely neither safe nor dull. His name was Attila the Hun.
Honoria sent one of her eunuchs, a man named Hyacinthus, to ask Attila for assistance against her brother. She also sent a gift of money and her personal self-identifying ring to assure him that the message was no hoax. This was legit.
Attila received the message and must have grinned a particularly evil smile. He was well aware that Romans used rings at their betrothal ceremonies. He was undoubtedly aware that the ring was given by the groom to the bride. He was surely also aware that betrothals were not the only time Romans used rings. They had lots of rings, some of which were used for identification, just like Honoria’s. Nevertheless, Attila chose to interpret Honoria’s plea for help and her ring as a proposal of marriage. Why, yes, he would be delighted to marry the Roman princess, and he would like half the western empire as her dowry, thank you very much.
It is one of many similar tragedies that we don’t have Honoria’s memoirs about this. Many historians have agreed that Honoria did not mean she wanted to marry a non-Christian barbarian who, incidentally, already had not one, but several living wives. Romans had never been polygamists, even before they were Christians, and by this point they had been Christians for a while.
But it was far too late to retreat. Attila had been looking for a pretext to take on Rome, and now he had one.
As you can imagine, Valentinian was livid. Hyacinthus spilled all the juicy details under torture and then died because a servant in that situation really can’t win. Honoria might well have suffered a similar fate at Valentinian’s hands, but she escaped it only because their dying mother intervened.
Meanwhile, Attila invaded Italy, proclaimed himself her knight in shining armor, rode to her rescue, and brandished her ring as proof that yeah, see? We really are engaged.
Attila’s campaign failed over the next couple of years, and he died without ever rescuing his princess. Honoria’s ultimate fate is unknown, but she and her ring have gone down in history. Rome was saved that time, but the fall of the western empire was already inevitable (Bury).
Medieval and Early Modern Rings
The Christians were the successors of many things Roman, including the betrothal rings. Rings even received papal sanction in 866 when Pope Nicholas I wrote that giving a ring was how a betrothed man joins the bride to himself (Pope Nicholas I).
By the way, having an engagement ring didn’t necessarily mean you wore it all the time. Indeed, if it was truly valuable, a part of the financial deal that was marriage, you probably didn’t wear it all the time, but often kept it locked up with the other valuables.
In 1477, Archduke Maximilian gave his bride Mary of Burgundy a diamond engagement ring. It’s the first recorded link between diamonds, rings, and getting hitched, and in the picture created some years after the wedding, the ring is absurdly large because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to see it.
But diamonds still had a long way to go before they became a girl’s best friend. They just weren’t that common in Europe, which didn’t yet own the parts of the world where diamonds are to be found.
The more realistic choices were gimmel rings or posy rings. Gimmel rings were hinged links that fitted together to make one ring. So both bride and groom could wear one link until the wedding day when they were joined together to make one ring. Very sweet.
The posy ring was also just a band of metal but inscribed with a quote. Something like “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.” Okay, maybe not those exact words, but Tolkien’s one ring is a posy ring. That’s exactly what they looked like.
The real words engraved on it ranged from the beautifully romantic to the faintly nauseating. Here are some examples from the Victoria and Albert Museum.
I am yours KS— Posy ring from Victoria and Albert Museum
I am assuming that KS are initials, so all well and good. That one’s fine. Then there’s this one from England, early 16th century:
My worldly joy and all my trust,
Heart, thought, life and lust— Posy ring from Victoria and Albert Museum
So close, and yet so far. I really hope the word lust had different connotations back then. Because I know how hard it is to find a rhyme, but with modern connotations, he really blew it with that last word. Let’s try French, 17th century:
Loyalté ne peur— Posy ring from Victoria and Albert Museum
This one’s interesting because I would have translated that as Loyalty fears not, which is fine. But the notes on the museum website translate it as Loyalty, not fear. Interpreting peur as a noun, not a verb, is totally different in the context of a gift to your future wife. Be loyal or else? Not fine at all. My French was not learned in the 17th century, so let’s be charitable and not go by my translation.
Then there’s my personal favorite, 14th century, maybe French, maybe English, but definitely written in archaic French, pardon my pronunciation here:
Io sui de druerie ne me dune mie— Posy ring from Victoria and Albert Museum
That translates to “I am a love gift, do not give me away.” So obviously this man thought his lady love needed specific instructions on that point. Sort of like those notes you put on things when you’re moving: “To Stay” “To Go” “To Trash” “To Donate.” He had to make sure his beloved knew which category this ring belonged in, just in case she thought of Marie Kondoing it.
To be honest, I can’t imagine the pressure of trying to select the right quote for such a ring. Talk about writer’s block. It must have been tough.
But it is probably this type of ring (or a gimmel ring, or just a plain band) that the English used when their local priest said the words from the Book of Common Prayer at a wedding ceremony:
With thys ring I thee wed: Thys golde and silver I thee geve: with my body I thee wurship: and withal my worldly Goodes I thee endowe. In the name of the father, and of the sonne, and of the holy goste. Amen.
And then the groom was instructed to put the ring on the fourth finger of the woman’s left hand (Cranmer).
A posy ring was far more within reach than anything with gemstones, so it was more common than diamonds or any other gem for that matter. Even so, posy rings were too frivolous for the Puritans, who tried to get rid of them, calling them “a token of malignancy” (Howard, 37). They didn’t succeed, though. Rings never really disappeared, and they malignantly snuck back in even while the Puritans were still in power. At various points, Methodists, Amish, and Seventh Day Adventists also chucked the rings (Howard, 37). But most people liked them.
The Rise of the Diamond
One person who liked them was Prince Albert, who said yes when Queen Victoria of England proposed to him. He gave her a ring shaped like a serpent with rubies for eyes, diamonds for a mouth, and an emerald in the center of the head. A snake sounds distinctly unromantic and possibly sinister to us, but not so to Victoria. Snakes had been a symbol of fertility and love in Roman times and were common (if I can use that expression in a paragraph about royalty) during the 1800s (History Press).
That century saw a general rise in prosperity in much of western Europe and North America. More people had disposable income for things like rings. By the later part of the century, etiquette books were just starting to instruct people in the proper use. One of them told engaged women to wear their new ring on the right finger of their right hand (Howard, 40), so you can see certain things were not yet fully entrenched. The diamond certainly wasn’t.
Diamonds were reasonably popular as engagement stones in the US, but by no means mandatory and in other wealthy countries there was no association at all between diamonds and engagement. It was a good thing too because marriage is common and diamonds were not. That was about to change.
In the 1870s diamonds were discovered in Kimberley, South Africa, on the farm of a man named Johannes De Beers. By 1888 De Beers Consolidated Mines, headed by the English Cecil Rhodes, controlled 90% of the whole world’s diamond production. There were, quite suddenly, a lot of diamonds available, but De Beers certainly wasn’t going to let the world know that. When you have essentially no competition, there’s no reason not to jack the price up for the supposedly rare commodity.
And it was just in time too, for in 1886, Tiffany introduced the diamond solitaire ring that would become the default stereotypical style for an engagement ring (Howard, 39). Until then, if a ring had a gem at all, it was probably embedded into the band. Tiffany’s innovation was to put it on prongs and allow light under the diamond, so everyone could say Ooh! Sparkly!
De Beers and their jewelry retailing cohorts got to work reshaping the culture around rings. A host of early 20th century pop histories assured the public that the wedding ring dated back to Jews, Greeks, or Egyptians while being curiously nonspecific about the details or sources (Howard, 35). Jewelers began pushing platinum precisely because it cost more than gold (Howard, 403) and your girl is worth it, isn’t she? Of course she is. In the 1920s they sponsored Hollywood movies in return for wedding scenes prominently featuring their rings (Howard, 41).
Hard times in the 1930s led to lower sales, therefore excess stocks. DeBeers looked to a Philadelphia advertising agency called N.W. Ayers to get things moving again (Howard, 49). The agency got to work in the early 1940s, playing up the notion that our brave boys on the front were dying to protect American traditions and American women and the absolute best way to honor both was with a diamond ring (Howard, 56). The De Beers account was assigned to one of their female marketers by the name of Frances Gerety. Marketing was a man’s world, but the agency did need someone who could handle the women’s products. Which certainly included jewelry.
In 1947, Frances made a series of ads for De Beers, but she forgot to create a signature line for it. She realized that just before heading to bed one night, so she scribbled something (anything) on a scrap of paper before nodding off. The next day she presented it to the boardroom, which was 100% male, of course. The new slogan said A diamond is forever. To which the board said “Meh.”
And to be fair, it is kind of unusual for an ad slogan. It’s passive. And also, technically false as a scientific statement.
But Gerety prevailed and her slogan was a phenomenal success. De Beers has never let go of it. They use it everywhere, and in 1999 it was awarded the Slogan of the Century award (DeBeers Group). Second place was Nike’s Just Do It.
Ayers agency was not done with one slogan. They soon had an entire diamond staff whose mission was to educate retailers and consumers on the important link between a diamond and a real, true, legitimate wedding. Their promotional films were shown in clubs, schools, and churches. Millions of future brides and grooms were told about the diamond ring tradition, probably without being fully aware that while diamond rings were not new, the idea that they were traditional was. De Beers saw a very gratifying rapid rise in sales (Howards, 58-60). They had successfully sold Americans on the idea that you weren’t really engaged if you didn’t have a diamond ring. Gotta love advertising.
They were less successful in their attempts to convince everyone that brides should also buy an ornate engagement ring for her man. They did try. They had styles named “The Executive,” “The President,” “The Ace,” and perhaps the least romantic of all “the Stag.” (Howard, 43-47). I am happy to say that this invented tradition didn’t really catch on, at least not in the US (Howard, 48).
Advertisers were much more successful with the groom’s simple wedding band, as opposed to the ornate engagement ring. The bands first appeared in the 1920s and suddenly became traditional in the 40s and 50s (Howard, 60).
The now traditional diamond engagement ring seems unlikely to go anywhere any time soon. It’s become very popular even in places like China, where rings of any sort were not part of a traditional betrothal. But the most famous modern engagement ring was not a diamond. Or at least it wasn’t just a diamond.
Lady Diana Spencer chose an enormous blue sapphire surrounded by small diamonds for hers.
It caused a bit of a stir in the royal social circle because it was from the jewelry company’s general line, so any floozy on the street might have bought the same one. Or at least any floozy with $60,000 to spare. Diana continued to wear that ring after her divorce. After her death, it went to Prince William, who used it to propose to Kate Middleton (Ochler). It will be interesting to see what happens to it in the future, and if it turns out that a sapphire is also forever.
My sources are again all over the place on this one, so let’s go with Vicki Howard’s Brides, Inc., which chronicles the rise of the bridal industry. As usual, check out the website herhalfofhistory.com for more sources, a transcript, and pictures. I am on Twitter @her_half. I’m on Facebook and Instagram and Patreon as Her Half of History. Reviewing, rating, or recommending the pod are also worth their weight in diamonds. Next week we get to the really important question about any wedding: What did the bride wear? Don’t miss it! Thanks!
Bury, J. B. “Justa Grata Honoria.” Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 9, Nov. 1919, pp. 1–13, penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/JRS/9/Justa_Grata_Honoria*.html, 10.2307/295986. Accessed 12 Dec. 2021.
Cranmer, Thomas. The Book of Common Prayer. Church of England, 1549, justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1549/Marriage_1549.htm. Accessed 14 Jan. 2023.
De Beers Group. “A Diamond Is Forever.” http://Www.debeersgroup.com, http://www.debeersgroup.com/about-us/a-diamond-is-forever.
Hersch, Karen K. The Roman Wedding : Ritual and Meaning in Antiquity. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010.
History Press. “Royal Engagement Rings through the Centuries.” http://www.thehistorypress.co.uk, http://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/royal-engagement-rings-through-the-centuries/.
Howard, Vicki. Brides, Inc: American Weddings and the Business of Tradition. Univ Of Pennsylvania Pr, 2008.
Isidore of Seville. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Translated by Stephen A Barney, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2010, sfponline.org/Uploads/2002/st%20isidore%20in%20english.pdf. Accessed 10 Jan. 2023.
Liesowska, Anna. “Treasure Trove of Palaeolithic Jewellery, Made at Least 45,000 Years Ago, Found in the Denisova Cave.” Siberiantimes.com, 2023, siberiantimes.com/other/others/news/treasure-trove-of-palaeolithic-jewellery-made-at-least-45000-years-ago-found-in-the-denisova-cave/. Accessed 13 Jan. 2023.
Nerudová, Zdeňka, et al. “One Ring to Interpret. Bone Ring-Type Adornment from the Epigravettian Site Bratčice (Moravia, Czech Republic).” Quartär, vol. 66, 2019, pp. 187–200, 10.7485/QU66_9. Accessed 13 Jan. 2023.
Oehler, Christina. “Why Princess Diana’s Engagement Ring Caused Controversy within the Royal Family.” Brides, 2018, http://www.brides.com/story/why-princess-diana-engagement-ring-was-controversial. Accessed 10 Jan. 2023.
Pliny the Elder. The Natural History of Pliny. Tufts University, 1855, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=urn:cts:latinLit:phi0978.phi001.perseus-eng1:33.4. Accessed 10 Jan. 2023.
Pope Nicholas I. “The Responses of Pope Nicholas I to the Questions of the Bulgars A.D. 866 (Letter 99).” Sourcebooks.fordham.edu, Internet History Sourcebooks, 1998, sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/866nicholas-bulgar.asp. Translated by William North.
Royal Collection Trust. “George III (1738–1820) and Queen Charlotte (1744–1818).” http://Www.rct.uk, http://www.rct.uk/collection/themes/trails/music-in-the-royal-collection/george-iii-1738-1820-and-queen-charlotte-1744-1818.
Victoria and Albert Museum. “Victoria and Albert Museum Catalog.” Victoria and Albert Museum: Explore the Collections, collections.vam.ac.uk/. Accessed 13 Jan. 2023.
I am very pleased to tell you that when I designed my own wedding ring 18 years ago, I chose to go against the stupid diamond “tradition”. I didn’t get an engagement band and then a wedding ring to add to it. I chose one band with an aquamarine. Very “plain jane”, as the jeweler put it. But it goes well with most costumes and outfits I wear. And no, it’s not anyone’s birthstone. I just love it.
My favorite here was Attila the Hun’s story. This episode is particularly funny. Thank you for the chuckles.
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Kudos to you for bucking the tradition! That’s great that you designed your own.