One of my favorite things is learning about customs and the meanings behind them. So it isn’t surprising that after years of working with fingerprints and such, that I would wish to learn more about customs with fingers, particularly when it comes to rings and marriage.
Why do most customs use the left ring finger for engagement and wedding bands? At one time, the Egyptians believed the ring finger of the left hand contained a vein (the vena amoris) which was said to led directly to the heart. The concept was also made popular in Europe by Henry Swinburne in his book, A Treatise of Spousals, or Matrimonial Contracts, which was written in 1686. Therefore, if it was the finger with the blood flowing directly to the heart, of course it was to be the finger of love.
Engagement rings and wedding bands have been around since the ancient Romans, though it is also thought that either the ancient Egyptians or the ancient Greeks were the ones to come up with the custom.
When it comes to engagement rings, some theories were that the engagement ring was part of man purchasing the woman, which goes well with the legal issues of a husband owning his wife. It brings to mind some conversations I have heard men commenting “that ring on her finger means that she is mine”. So there are still men who believe that an engagement ring “buys” his woman. Sorry guys, but I don’t accept that you own anyone. It also answers the question of why we expect gorgeous engagement rings that cost a fortune. What difference does a huge diamond ring make? Does it mean he loves you more than if he gave you a diamond chip? What about some other gemstone? Or a ring made of different metal than gold? It is sad to see how many people who fall for the trap of “if you love her, you will buy the biggest and best”. This was part of an advertising campaign by the De Beers in the 1930’s to 1940’s. Personally, I believe that the ring should match the personality of the couple, not be the biggest and best possible (though if any man wants to give me a 5 carat diamond, I won’t argue, as long as he knows that he does not own me).
In the second century BC, it is said that the Romans gave their wives 2 rings, one of gold which was worn in public, and the other ring was made of iron, which she wore at home while she did housework. Iron was common metal used for rings of Roman citizens, and gold rings were for ambassadors for official use when they were away from their homes. So gold rings were a privilege given to a few. Over centuries things changed, allowing first the elite class to use gold for rings, until it was allowed for anyone to wear a gold ring in public. But the use of iron rings was continued when the people were at home. Gold was a rarity, and was expensive, therefore, it was not for everyday use.
The first diamond ring given in betrothal, and was well documented was in 1477. Archduke Maximilian of Austria bestowed the ring to his betrothal, Mary of Burgundy. After seeing this ring, the higher society latched on to the notion and it was used as a sign of wealth and status.
During the Age of Enlightenment (1685-1815) gimmal rings and posie rings were given, though posie rings were more like a pre engagement ring rather than a betrothal. A posie ring was usually made of silver and had a poem inscribed or a posie engraved. A gimmal ring was one with two or three hoops or links that fit together to make one complete ring. The man and woman would each have one of the hoops, and at the wedding, they would be reunited for the woman to wear. One of the most common gimmal ring I found photos of were Claddagh or versions of Claddagh, with the hands being separate bands that came together to form the ring.
In the United States, during the time frame of World War I and the Great Depression, the diamond market collapsed, as no one could afford them, and researchers showed that engagement rings were going out of fashion, that is, until 1938, when the De Beers diamond cartel decided to make a revolutionary impact on the market. During this time, they educated the people on the 4 C’s of diamonds: cut, carats, clarity, and color. In 1947, the slogan came out declaring “diamonds are forever”, helping make people believe that diamonds were the only acceptable stone for an engagement ring, as the marriage was to be forever.
In the United States, only a woman wears an engagement ring, though other countries, both parties wear a similar ring.
The estimated cost of an engagement ring in 2012, in the US, was $4000, in the UK, 1200 to 2000 pounds.
I do love the tradition that if the man causes the engagement to be ended, the woman doesn’t have to return the ring, as it is considered her “compensation” for the broken engagement causing damage to her reputation. In modern day court cases, many of the judges tend to follow the thought of rings given at Christmas or Valentine’s Day as gifts, which the recipient is not obliged to return to the man, whether he caused the breakup or not. Other judges try to keep a “no fault”, where the ring should be returned to the giver no matter what happened.
The history of wedding bands dates back over 6,000 years to Egyptians. They used reeds or hemp, braided, as symbols of their love.
In the 1662 Book of Common Prayers for the Church of England, the man would recite “with this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow. In the name of the father (the ring would touch the tip of the thumb), the son (ring would touch the tip of the index finger), and the holy ghost (ring would touch the tip of the middle finger), Amen (ring would be placed on the ring finger).”
Well, this is just a brief history of engagement and wedding rings. Hope you enjoyed learning about some of the meanings behind certain rings.