Putting a Ring on It: A Whimsical Tour Through Engagement Ring History


After many years of answering questions about why people wear engagement rings, what hand to wear them on and whether the wedding ring or the engagement should be worn first on the finger, and why we should wear them on the left hand, I am writing this blog post.

Ancient times

Although the ancient Egyptians are sometimes credited with having invented the engagement ring, and the ancient Greeks with having adopted the tradition, the history of the engagement ring can only be reliably traced as far back as ancient Rome.

In most countries, women place their engagement rings on the ring finger of the left hand.

In ancient times, there was the belief that the ring finger on the left hand contained a vein (la vena amoris) that went from the finger all the way to the heart.

Vena amoris is a Latin name meaning, literally, "vein of love". Traditional belief established that this vein ran directly from the fourth finger of the left hand to the heart.

This idea came to the public eye from Henry Swinburne, in A Treatise of Spousals, or Matrimonial Contracts (1686). The story seems to be rooted in the ancient Roman book Attic Nights by Aulus Gellius

In the second century BC, and for several centuries after that, the Roman wife owned two rings, a gold one which she wore when out in public, and one made of iron for home while attending to household obligations, Romans always kept two rings, iron rings for home, gold rings while out in public.

At one time Roman citizens wore rings made of iron. In later years senators who served as ambassadors were given gold seal rings for official use when abroad.

Later the privilege of wearing gold rings was extended to other public officials, then to the knights, later to all free-born, and finally under Justinian, to freedmen. 


Middle ages

The mid-7th century Visigothic Code (Gothic times in Southern France & Spain) required "that when the ceremony of betrothal has been performed, and the ring shall have been given or accepted as a pledge, although nothing may have been committed to writing, the promise shall, under no circumstances, be broken."

In 860 AD, Pope Nicholas I wrote a letter to Boris I of Bulgaria in reply to questions regarding differences between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox practices. Pope Nicholas describes how in the Western church the man gives his betrothed an engagement ring.

At the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215, convoked by Pope Innocent III, the banns of marriage were instituted, prohibiting clandestine marriages and requiring that marriages be made public in advance. Some legal scholars have seen in this a parallel with the engagement-ring tradition described by Pope Nicholas I.


The first well-documented use of a diamond ring to signify engagement was by the Archduke Maximilian of Austria in the imperial court of Vienna in 1477, upon his betrothal to Mary of Burgundy. This then influenced those of higher social class and of significant wealth to give diamond rings to their loved ones.



During the Protestant Reformation, the wedding ring replaced the betrothal ring as the primary ring associated with marriage. In Catholic countries, the transition took place somewhat later.


During the Age of Enlightenment, both the gimmal rings (a ring with two or three hoops or links that fit together to form one complete ring) and posie rings (gold finger rings with a short inscription on their surface) were popular, although the latter was more often used as an expression of sentiment than to indicate a formal engagement.


                 Gimmal Ring                                            Posie Ring

    (sometimes spelled gimmel ring)      (sometimes spelled posy, posey or poesy)


Victorian era

In South Africa, diamonds were first found in 1866, although they were not identified as such until 1867. By 1872, the output of the diamond mines exceeded one million carats per year. As production increased, those of lesser means were able to join in on this movement. However, diamond engagement rings were for a long time seen as the domain of the nobility and aristocracy, and tradition often favored simpler engagement bands.

20th century

In the United States, the popularity of diamond engagement rings declined after World War I, even more so after the onset of the Great Depression.

In 1938, the diamond cartel De Beers began a marketing campaign that would have a major impact on engagement rings. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the price of diamonds collapsed. At the same time, market research indicated that engagement rings were going out of style with the younger generation. Before World War II, only 10% of American engagement rings contained a diamond. While the first phase of the marketing campaign consisted of market research, the advertising phase began in 1939. One of the first elements of this campaign was to educate the public about the 4 Cs (cut, carats, color, and clarity). In 1947 the slogan "a diamond is forever" was introduced. Ultimately, the De Beers campaign sought to persuade the consumer that an engagement ring is indispensable, and that a diamond is the only acceptable stone for an engagement ring.



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