When Did Wedding Rings Start?
Wedding rings have a long and storied history. The first instance we have of a ring exchange similar to our modern day custom begins its journey in ancient Egypt. Historians have found Egyptian writings more than 3000 years old (some even say as much as 5000 years old), showing couples exchanging rings they had made from materials like reed, sedges, rushes, and hemp.
Since these materials were fragile, eventually new bands replaced these rings, made from stronger materials like bone, ivory, or leather. The prevailing belief of this time was the more expensive the ring and what it was made of, the more the wearer was loved by the giver and the stronger the commitment. Wearing a ring was also considered a sign of wealth during that time and indicated a person's net worth.
When Did People Start Wearing Wedding Rings?
Based on translations of hieroglyphics, it's believed the Egyptians also considered an exchange of a promise ring symbolic of eternal love and commitment, which might make them the first real wedding band. The interlocking bands have neither a beginning nor an end and the center of the ring is thought to symbolize an open door into a couple's future. This symbolism still holds true even today, which may be one of the reasons eternity bands are so popular. That means that technically, the Egyptians were the first people to start wearing wedding rings.
A little further along in history, ancient Rome also exchanged rings, except their rings were made from much sturdier stuff. Romans came up with the idea to use iron to make their band, as it was considered representative of strength and permanence. Wedding rings today are often also made of iron. Usually the iron is mixed with some other type of metal to create a new material, like steel.
Sometimes rings were used as symbols of ownership, which definitely sucks the romance right out of that! Women weren’t given much choice in the matter; they were mere chattel to the Roman men. In ancient Rome, a man could find a woman, put a ring on her finger, and declare she was his, whether she wanted to be or not. Thankfully, us humans have evolved a lot since then.
Exchanging rings called signet rings became popular in Roman history, with two hands clasping each other. Some say they clasp hands in agreement, others say they clasp hands in love. The signet ring was also called a fede ring, although signet ring sounds much cooler. The Irish eventually adopted a version of the fede ring, except the two hands were made to come together and hold a heart with a crown above it. These were called Claddagh rings, and are about 13 centuries younger than their fede ring brethren.
Some believe that Ancient Rome was the first to incorporate engravings on a wedding ring too, as a way to add a personal, creative touch. Some rings were carved with the faces of the bride and groom, while others were carved with a full-figure representation of the couple. Eventually, when the official religion became Christianity, engravings started to also feature Jesus or the representation of a cross on the ring.
So, thank the Romans for those cool fingerprint and heartbeat engravings that are so popular, because who knows where rings would be today without such artwork?
Wedding Ring Traditions
It's thought that the custom of placing a wedding band on the fourth finger of your left hand is because of what’s known as “vein of love” location. Both the ancient Romans and the Greeks held this belief and followed this tradition, believing that there was a vein in the fourth finger that went straight to the heart. Though this isn’t actually true, and science has now confirmed it, the tradition seems to have stuck.
Others believe the custom of a wedding band on the fourth finger of the left hand originated from the Christian marriage ceremony. The first three fingers are representative of the Holy Trinity, or the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. During the ceremony, the priest would touch the first three fingers as he named the members of the Holy Trinity, and then he would touch the fourth finger, say, “Amen,” and then place the wedding band on that finger to seal the deal.
Why are wedding rings worn on the left hand? If you’re more practically minded, you might resonate better with the theory that people chose the left hand because most of the population is right-handed. Therefore, it only makes sense to wear something valuable on the less dominant hand to try to prevent unforeseen damage, loss, or griminess.
After the Greeks and Romans, history entered the Renaissance age in the 16th and 17th centuries. During this time period, unique rings called gimmel rings were all the rage. The rings were made from two interlocking pieces that the bride and groom wore during their engagement period. On the wedding day, the groom gave the bride his half so that she wore the reunited, completed set after their vows were exchanged.
Posy rings were also on the rise during this time, made from ornate, sterling silver. These rings first appeared in the 15th century. A posy, also known as a pose, was an engraving of a short poem or verse. These engravings were bold and eye-catching, but eventually transitioned to simpler designs. Inscriptions eventually started to be engraved on the inside of the wedding band to keep them private, because the messages became more personal, not for all eyes to see.
Meanwhile, over in Colonial America, men were giving women thimbles instead of rings because of the prevailing thought that jewelry was frivolous. Of course, this didn’t stop the women from fancying up that practical token of commitment by cutting off the top of the thimble and making a ring out of it.
Some cultures exchanged other rings too, including wrist bangles and toe rings, mostly in Indian cultures. The Jewish, however were not nearly as flashy. Plain wedding bands made from solid gold or silver were preferred in the Jewish tradition, as a sign of the everlasting marriage covenant, free from complications, drama, and distractions.
Some of the earliest instances of the Jewish wearing wedding rings can be traced all the way back to the 10th century! Of course, like everything, those designs evolved, and Jewish rings eventually got more intricate, featuring a locket of sorts with a Hebrew inscription inside, and a top that looks like a roof to symbolize a home or the Jewish temple. These rings were given by the groom to the bride during the wedding ceremony.
When Did Men Start Wearing Wedding Rings?
An interesting tidbit to note is that it was typically always the woman that wore a wedding ring in many cultures, including American culture and the U.S. Right up until the 20th century. During World War II, specifically. Men began wearing wedding rings during World War II to symbolize their commitment and love for a woman.
It also served as a reminder that they had someone home waiting for them when they were stationed overseas. During the peak of the war, some 85% of marriages had become ceremonies where both the bride and groom exchanged rings, just like marriages today. When the Korean War started, men and women continued this tradition and before long, it became popular not just among the military, but among civilians. Soon, the concept of matching wedding bands was introduced, and the current wedding band culture we enjoy today became the norm.
Wedding Rings with Diamonds
Though it might surprise you to learn it, given how popular diamond wedding bands are today, they weren’t very popular at first. Not until around the 1930’s, when large diamond mines were discovered in South Africa and a huge marketing campaign was launched to pitch diamonds as a commodity that was precious and rare, so that their long-term value withstood the test of time.
The phrase “a diamond is forever” originated during this time period as a byproduct of the diamond campaign. However, that doesn’t mean diamonds were never used. In fact, the ancient Greeks thought of diamonds as splinters of fallen stars, imbued with powers of protection from evil forces, while ancient astrologers thought they were good for warding off nightmares and witchcraft. Since their discovery, diamonds have been associated with all sorts of things, including sexual allure and forever commitment.
History is so cool! However, there is a lot of information out there trying to answer the question, “When did wedding rings start?”. The truth is, rings have been used in some form or fashion throughout the ages. Eventually, they evolved into the exchange of engagement and wedding rings between a couple that we are familiar with today.