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Since ancient times, the engagement ring has persisted as a vibrant symbol of love and commitment. Rings exchanged between lovers and partners certainly haven’t always looked like they do today, though.
From ancient times to the 21st century, engagement rings have wildly progressed into what we see online and in jewelry stores. Once simple bands, you can now find engagement rings in almost any style, color, shape, and design.
Check out this fascinating history of how engagement rings have evolved over the centuries. At the end, find more resources for designing your own special ring.
Dating back to ancient Rome and Egypt, engagement rings were given to women as a representation of a mutual love and commitment, or as a contract that the woman was betrothed to the man.
Ancient rings were often made of bone, copper, flint, ivory, and iron. Oftentimes, a fancier ring, such as one made of gold, was worn in public places and at events, while an iron ring was worn at home.
As complete circles, these rings were a sign of eternity, of being together forever. Rings were worn on the left hand ring finger, as they often are today. It was believed that there’s a vein that runs directly to the heart from that finger called the “vena amoris.”
Some ancient rings featured engravings, such as chariots or animals, to designate a family symbol. During this period, gemstones in rings were mostly reserved for and available to royalty and wealthy individuals. Instead, most rings were straightforward, with the plain iron betrothal ring popular in ancient Rome as a symbol of lasting love and commitment, according to the GIA.
In 850, Pope Nicholas I designated the engagement ring as a man’s intent to marry. Most rings were made of gold and alloys, though some were crafted of silver and bronze.
Throughout the Medieval ages, rings continued to be popular symbols of love and were exchanged at wedding ceremonies. They often included imprints of doves or linked hands, though many were plain bands. According to National Jeweler Magazine, signet rings, which often featured designs and initials, started to become popular during the 14th century.
Couples began stacking rings during this time as well, with some wearing rings stretching from their palms to their fingernails.
Diamonds made their grand debut in engagement rings during this century when Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy with a diamond engagement ring in 1477. The ring featured several diamonds set in the shape of the letter “M.”
According to the American Gem Society, following this proposal, diamond engagement rings became popular in elite social groups. However, diamonds didn’t become widespread in engagement rings until the 1940s. The pear shaped diamond cut was also created in this century.
A unique ring design emerged during the 16th century: Gimmel rings. Constructed of two or three hoops that fit together to form a single ring, Gimmel rings were worn by both the man and woman prior to the wedding. At the wedding ceremony, the two bands would be connected together and the wife would wear the one connected ring throughout the marriage.
What new ring style showed up during this century? Silver poesy rings. These rings, popularized by Shakespere stories, usually included an engraved message such as a poem or ballad. Sometimes the silver poesy rings were exchanged for gold ones at the couple’s wedding ceremony.
New diamond cuts also emerged during this period, such as the Old Mine Cut which was reprised in a more modern diamond shape called the Cushion Cut.
Popular rings of the 19th century included detailing with hearts and clasped hands, along with rose cut diamonds. Engagement rings arrived in the United States for the first time in the 1840s, though diamond rings remained uncommon and reserved for those with wealth and status.
A large discovery of diamonds in the Cape Colony (a province in South Africa) boosted the world’s diamond supply considerably, making them more accessible and affordable.
Engagement rings transformed considerably during the 20th century, due to modern designs, manufacturing, and availability of jewelry. Each decade of the 20th century boasted their own styles and tendencies. From the Edwardian era of the early 1900s to Art Deco designs which captured the 1920s and 1930s, a myriad of stunning ring styles emerged — many of which are still popular today.
In 1947, De Beers launched their famous “A Diamond is Forever” campaign which led to the skyrocketing of diamond sales. From that year on, diamonds have remained the most popular gemstone for engagement rings.
Throughout the century, engagement ring styles expanded to include halo designs and fancy diamond shapes such as the Princess Cut and Asscher Cut. Colorful gemstones also rose in popularity, including the emerald, ruby, and sapphire, partly due to Princess Diana receiving her sapphire and diamond ring from Princes Charles in 1981.
With more and more options, couples began to be able to express their personality and relationship in new ways through their engagement rings and wedding bands. While modern designs became prevalent, many vintage rings and antique styles have remained popular for those looking for a timeless or ornate style.
While still early in the 21st century, it’s clear that personal style and taste in engagement rings remains ever-important. Fancy color diamonds, colored gemstones, colorless diamonds, and even lab-created diamonds are at the forefront of designs. Couples often craft a ring or set of rings that match their special history and personal taste.
While the progression of engagement rings has expanded and exploded, one constant remains: the rings we choose for our partners carry immense love and meaning.
Want guidance in selecting a ring for your partner? Check out these other resources from our diamond experts:
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