When Mr. Big proposes to Carrie Bradshaw in their penthouse closet at the end of the Sex and the City film, he slips a blue Manolo Blahnik shoe onto her foot in the absence of a ring. “See, this is why there’s a diamond,” he says, while down on one knee. “You need to do something to close the deal.” People have been flaunting rocks on their fingers as a symbol of their promise to get married since long before engagement ring selfies were ever a thing. But while the engagement ring tradition origin can be traced back to ancient times, it has evolved quite dramatically over the centuries.
The Egyptians were the first to use engagement rings as a formal agreement between spouses-to-be. These rings were typically constructed out of braided reeds, and just as they are today, were worn on the fourth finger of the left hand. The circular shape of the ring, which has no beginning or end, represented eternal love.
Centuries later, the Romans continued to carry on the custom of gifting engagement rings. However, the tradition took on a somewhat less romantic meaning, symbolizing a binding legal agreement. The ring was typically made of iron and was offered to the bride during the betrothal ceremony, a formal event including both families at which the couple committed to marry. For the Romans, this ring essentially served as a security deposit for the bride-to-be — a token of reassurance, given that a woman’s reputation could be severely damaged if her fiancé broke off the engagement. According to the American Gem Society, however, some of these rings were attached to small keys, representing the groom’s ownership of the bride (woof, I know).
But it wasn’t until 1477 that the tradition of diamond engagement rings began, and you have Archduke Maximillian of Austria to thank for setting the trend. He offered his love, Mary of Burgundy, a dainty gold band with diamonds that formed the first initial of her name, “M.” Romantic AF, right? Needless to say, his grand gesture totally worked, and she said “yes.” And he also set a new precedent for engagement rings — before long, diamonds became the norm for expressing a life-long commitment, primarily among nobility and aristocracy. Still, diamonds weren’t widely available for several centuries after that.
During the latter half of the Middle Ages, lovers exchanged “posy rings,” which could serve the same purpose as engagement rings, or merely to symbolize a commitment. What distinguishes these rings is that they were engraved with personal messages, which could be merely romantic in nature, or could have a religious connotation. Initially, the inscriptions were typically on the outside of the ring, but over time, it became more common to include them on the inside — where they were closer to the wearer’s skin. If the ring had an inscription on the inside, the outside was often decorated with stones or jewels, or even engraved imagery. Some examples of the messages found on real posy rings include: “You never knew a heart so true,” “As gold is pure, so love is sure,” “In love abide till death divide,” and “My heart is thine.”
During the Victorian era, “regard rings” became increasingly popular. These rings featured a row of five stones that spelled out the word regard with their first letter (ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst, ruby, and diamond). It’s believed that the rubies represented passion, emerald stood for love, garnet symbolized truth, amethyst exemplified honesty, and of course, diamonds were seen as a symbol of love.
But everything changed at the end of the 19th century, when massive diamond mines were discovered in South Africa. Cecil Rhodes co-founded the DeBeers Mining Company in 1888, and before long, that company controlled a vast majority of the world’s diamond production. Then, just as the Great Depression came to a close, DeBeers collaborated with the agency N.W. Ayer & Son on a famous ad campaign that would completely change the game. The slogan? “A Diamond is forever.” And just like that, diamonds became the ultimate symbol of undying love and commitment. Diamond sales increased by a whopping 50% over the next three years, and by the 1940s, engagement rings were the top sellers at many department stores around the U.S.
Flash forward to today, and open-minded couples are embracing a range of other gemstones on engagement rings, but diamonds remain synonymous with romance and eternal love. According to a Brides survey, the average amount spent on engagement rings was $7,829 in 2018, which is quite a jump from $5,023 just one year prior. Not only that, but the study revealed that couples tend to spend far more on engagement rings than wedding bands, proving that this tradition has taken on some serious significance today.
Nowadays, couples are now taking that tradition and making it their own. Some are getting tattoos on their fingers in lieu of wearing rings for a more permanent expression of their love. Others are going for rings with unusual stones, or opting for a necklace or other token entirely.
An engagement ring can definitely be brag-worthy eye candy on the ‘Gram, but it’s so much more than that. For centuries, it has represented an intention to commit to your life partner, and as such, it should reflect your own romantic sensibilities, unique relationship, and personal style. But if you do choose to wear an engagement ring, remember: There’s a pretty sweet reason it’s worn on your fourth finger. The Ancient Egyptians believed that there was a vein in this finger that connected directly to the heart.