Proposing with an engagement ring just seems like a fact of life – the sky is blue, the grass is green and when you want to marry someone you buy a big beautiful ring and propose. But this hasn’t always been an accepted tradition and derives from symbolic gestures of eternity and ownership in different ancient cultures.
So, why do we offer a ring to the person we want to spend the rest of our lives with? When did the tradition begin and what does it mean? How has it become such a widespread and accepted tradition?
It all dates back to Ancient Egypt. The Ancient Egyptians saw circles as a symbol of eternity, so newly wedded couples would create rings out of braided reeds to exchange as a token of commitment. These rings were worn on the left-hand ring finger, due to the fact this finger contains a vein that runs directly to the heart (named the Vena Amoris at a later date) – the heart was also a symbol of love even in Ancient Egypt. This is the oldest documented use of rings being exchanged as an engagement ritual.
In 2nd Century B.C., the Ancient Romans are believed to have started the use of betrothal rings as an offering to the bride instead of money or other valuables. The symbolism involved here is distinctly less romantic than in Ancient Egypt or in modern times – this was about signalling the man’s ownership of the woman. The woman would wear a gold ring during the wedding ceremony and while attending other significant events. Then, while at home, the woman would wear an iron ring as a reminder of her binding legal agreement i.e. that she has agreed to be owned by her husband.
So far we have seen modest woven rings to symbolise eternity together, gold rings to signal ownership in public facing ceremonies and iron rings to remind wives of their legal agreement. When did diamonds and other glitz come into the equation? Diamonds didn’t come into play until many centuries later, as late as 1477, when the Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy with a ring that had flat pieces of diamonds spelling out the letter “M”. After this, the rest of the European nobility had to follow suit and began adding more extravagant jewels as a way to show their prowess. There are also documented uses of romantic rings in the Middle Ages called “posey rings.” These rings had romantic poems engraved on them and would be exchanged between couples.
The use of diamonds became widespread after 1880, following the DeBeers Mining Company’s exploits in South Africa. The company adopted the slogan “A diamond is forever”, and told men they should spend two months wages on a ring. Somehow, this advertising venture became embedded into our culture, and by the 1940s it was widely accepted in Western Culture that you had to propose with a diamond. Nowadays we are flooded with wonderful engagement ring options, such as tiffany engagement rings, and have more choice than ever on how we propose.