It’s almost a de-facto part of life. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Boy buys girl an engagement ring. Even if we’re put off by the story or we feel that our unconventional relationship bucks the trend, pretty much all of us still celebrate this ceremonial aspect of courtship with some sort of ring-giving activity or ceremony.
But did you know that, historically, engagement ring symbolism spoke more to ownership than love, and they didn’t often feature diamonds until about the 1940s. In fact, some trends suggest that couples today are choosing to eschew the diamond for other types of stones such as rubies and sapphires, though many of these rings are heirlooms and artifacts in their own right.
For the rest of us, engagement ring symbolism is heavily intertwined with the brilliance and light-bending properties of diamonds, and even today it’s still rare to come across a Western couple that doesn’t see a diamond ring as a symbol of love and affection.
The History of Engagement Rings
While diamonds are a relatively new addition to the significance of engagement rings, engagement ring usage stretches all the way back to ancient times. According to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), engagement rings were worn by ancient Roman women as far back as 200 BCE to signify business contracts or to signify love and obedience. Early rings were made of flint, bone, copper or silver, though gold quickly became the metal of choice.
In Pompeii, archaeologists have discovered evidence of betrothal rings dating to 79 BCE, with an iron ring commonly worn at home and a gold ring worn out in public. However, it wasn’t until the year 850 that engagement ring symbolism really kicked off with Pope Nicholas I’s declaration that a gold ring signified a man’s intent to marry. The ring given by a man was supposed to represent a kind of financial sacrifice, and gold rings exploded in popularity worldwide.
The first recorded use of diamonds on an engagement ring was in 1477 when Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy with a ring featuring long and narrow diamonds in the shape of an “M.”
By the 1500s, gimmel rings were all the rage, featuring two hoops that would fit together to form a ring. After engagement, the bride and groom would wear one part of the ring, reconnecting their bands for the bride to wear at the wedding. Not to be outdone, Martin Luther married Catherine Bora with such a ring in 1525.
By 1600, silver posy rings became the hottest trend in engagement ring symbolism, with engravings of poems, ballads and other meaningful inscriptions on the inside. Even Shakespeare would go on to frequently mention posy rings in his works, which further fueled interest in these trendy artifacts. Often, the silver posy rings would be exchanged for gold posy rings during the marriage ceremony.
By about the mid 1800s, diamond engagement rings started to make an appearance in the United States, though it would take another hundred years to become a common engagement practice. However, it was the discovery of diamonds in Cape Colony, a province in South Africa, that really kicked off the diamond rush, increasing the diamond supply worldwide and bringing diamonds to every corner of the globe.
In the 1940s, department stores started their own diamond rush with a trendy double-ring engagement practice where grooms and brides both take a diamond ring from 15% up to 85% of all ceremonies. During the decade, engagement rings would become the most popular and lucrative line of jewelry in just about all department stores.
In another landmark moment, the DeBeers mining company in 1947 introduced their “A diamond is forever” tagline with various celebrities and movie stars brandishing their diamond rings both onscreen and off, increasing the popularity of diamond rings in the West.
Today, engagement ring symbolism runs deep, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any engagement or wedding that doesn’t prominently feature diamond rings.
Engagement Ring Symbolism
While the engagement ring origin story has had many twists and turns throughout the years, it’s undeniably intertwined with contemporary engagements, weddings and partnership ceremonies in the U.S. and around the world. Typically, in Western cultures, an engagement ring is worn by the female in the relationship though men have worn them in the past and some still do today, especially with same-sex partnerships where both might wear an engagement ring or a diamond ring of some kind.
When it comes to engagement rings and the meaning of stones, diamonds are an overwhelming favorite, adorning the top and center focal point of the ring. That said, colored gemstone rings such as sapphires, emeralds, moissanite, aquamarine, morganite and even lab-created colored diamonds are becoming more popular, giving an almost limitless number of options to couples that want to think outside the box.
Often worn on the left finger, an engagement ring symbolizes a link straight to the heart, which was driven by an old, Ancient Egyptian belief that said the left ring finger contained a special vein that ran directly to the heart. Ancient Romans also adopted the symbol of an engagement ring as a promise and commitment to their partner.
However, some choose to wear a ring on their right hand, though this can be more a matter of personal preference than a reluctance to follow convention. Sometimes men will opt to wear a ring on their right finger during the engagement, switching hands after the ceremony. It’s all up to you, and if you decide that you’d rather wear a ring on your right or left hand, or even if you’d like to wear a ring on a different finger than your ring finger, go for it!
Lab-Grown or Mined?
For many, where a diamond comes from is yet one more piece of the diamond puzzle. With exploitive practices and extraordinary costs, mined diamonds were the only way to get a beautiful diamond for much of human history. But today, real diamonds can be made in a lab under the same kinds of pressures and forces that create “real” diamonds out in nature.
Unlike fake diamonds (i.e., Cubic Zirconia) that merely approximate the look and feel of “real” diamonds, lab grown diamonds are every bit as real as mined diamonds with all the same characteristics of cut, color, clarity and carat except they’re often 30% cheaper. That means you get the same diamond for a lot less, and there’s the added benefit of avoiding the whole moral issue.
To browse our collection of beautiful, lab-grown diamonds, start with our ring builder.