Most girls think about that day with anticipation: the handsome man of their dreams drops on one knee. Pulling a ring out of his pocket, he asks her to marry him. For days, and weeks and months the newly engaged young woman shows off her diamond engagement ring to friends and family.
As common and anticipated as this may be, it makes us ask one important question: whose idea was this? In other words, what are the origins of men proposing marriage to a woman, and then giving her a ring? There are a few debates on the exact origin of this tradition, but everyone agrees that its origins are in the ancient world. Let’s take a look at various ancient examples of this tradition, and then consider how it changed over the years.
Some scholars trace the use of a ring for signaling that a woman is committed to a man all the way back to cave men. According to this theory, cave men would braid grasses into a rope. These ropes would be tied around her ankles, wrist and waist. Nobody knows how long the ropes were worn, but this was more like a marriage ritual than an engagement tradition. Although they weren’t worn on a finger, the ropes nonetheless signified that a woman and man were in a committed relationship.
Our first major example of an engagement ring proper comes from ancient Egypt. When Egyptian couples got married, they would exchange crude “rings” made out of reeds. These were worn on the third finger of the left hand, because they believed that this finger had a vein going directly to the heart. Because Egyptians believed that circles represented eternity, this combination of symbols suggests the meaning that a couple would love each other forever. Rather than the ropes of cavemen, the Egyptian model demonstrated true affection.
Later on, the ancient Romans would develop engagement rings as a precious object. Prior to this point, engagements were typically agreed to by giving anything of value to the future bride. Now, the Romans forged a tradition of making that a ring. It was a romantic gesture, but also signified that the woman “belonged” to a man. Why was it romantic? Roman engagement rings would often have a “key” attached to it, symbolizing that the woman had the responsibility of running the household. More romantic still, some of these rings would have an inscription praising the beauty of the woman in question. Rings were also included in wedding ceremonies. Typically, wealthier women would have two of these rings: one was made of iron or other inexpensive metal. The other would be made of a precious metal, typically gold. While the cheap copy was worn while doing housework, the gold one served as jewelry to wear in public.
Many of the Roman traditions carried on into later centuries. For instance, the Roman style engagement ring evolved beyond the “key” ring. Rings began to include intaglios, which are detailed carvings into stone or precious metal. One popular variety was the Fede ring. These have a raised image of two right hands interlocking, reflecting the sentiment of partnership and romance. Many experts believe that this is the origin of the Irish Claddagh rings, which are sometimes used as engagement rings.
It wasn’t until much later that the tradition of wedding or engagement rings recovered the popularity they had in Rome. In the 11th century, wedding rings became mandatory for proper marriages in a church. For centuries, most were plain because only the nobility could afford precious stones, or later, diamonds. By the end of the Middle Ages, however, rings set with stones were more commonly used for engagements. The more modern concept of an engagement ring had arrived. Today, in most countries around the world one person of a couple is expected to give a ring, usually a Diamond or Gem stone such as Sapphire or Ruby while proposing for them to spend the rest of their lives together.