One of the features of this blog will be posts regarding various wedding traditions. In these posts I will explain the origin and meaning behind these traditions which are often based on old customs and superstitions that may seem slightly antiquated in our modern world. The first post regarding wedding traditions is about engagement and wedding rings.
In centuries past, a prospective groom would customarily ask the father of the potential bride for “her hand in marriage”. It has been said that perhaps this phrase refers to the ancient tradition of hand fasting that was part of the marriage ceremony which literally joined the bridal couple hand in hand with the “tying of the knot”. Marriages were often arranged between two families for a variety of reasons and were rarely a love match between two individuals. A formal marriage contract was agreed upon by both families and a betrothal ring was exchanged with the original purpose of representing an initial monetary amount placed on the union with more money promised upon the actual wedding. In some cases, the amount paid for a betrothal was negotiated through lengthy discussions and a mutual settlement was reached to benefit both families or sometimes the amount paid was predetermined by the laws of the country.
In regards to wedding rings, this particular piece of jewelry has changed throughout the centuries taking on new meanings according to the customs of the different countries. Regardless of the style of the ring, the overall shape is a circle (with no beginning or end) that is meant to symbolize the eternal bond of marriage. The rings style and design have also changed in appearance depending on the various metals, gemstones or the different types of manufacturing technics used or the rings were designed in a style attributed to a particular time period, such as the Victorian or Edwardian era.
During the time of the Ancient Egyptians, amulets were worn as necklaces, bracelets and rings. One specific design was the scarab ring which featured an image of the scarabaeus sacer, more commonly known now as the dung beetle. The Egyptians used the scarab to symbolize the cycle of life or rebirth. Scarab rings were often carved from stones, such as lapis lazuli or amethyst. The stone of a scarab ring featured two sides; one side was carved with the image of the scarab and featured a dome surface while the other side was flat with hieroglyphs engraved. The stone was then attached to some type of metal frame that could swivel allowing for either side to be seen, the item could be worn as a ring or attached to a necklace to be worn as a type of pendant. (Historical Note: The scarab ring once again came into style during the Victorian era. In the mid-1860s work had begun on building the Suez Canal and as a result many Egyptian artifacts and other treasures were seen worldwide in various exhibitions for the first time outside of Egypt. The Victorians became fascinated by anything Egyptian and this trend was reflect in jewelry and home decorations)
Egyptian style scarab ring from the Victorian Era
made from lapis lazuli and gold (photos from faycullen.com)
The Ancient Greeks used rings as tokens of affection and love which were frequently engraved with images of Eros (the god of love) or Aphrodite (the goddess of love and beauty representing procreation) engraved on gold signet rings. But it wasn’t until the time of the Ancient Romans that the custom of exchanging rings became associated with marriage.
Ancient Greek ring featuring the images of Eros and Aphrodite
(photo from metmuseum.org)
So, the exchange of wedding rings was popularized during the Roman Empire. The Romans thought that the vena amori (the Latin translation literally meaning the “vein of love”) located on the fourth finger of the left hand lead directly to the heart of a person. For this reason, and perhaps throughout the centuries, the wedding ring was traditionally placed on this finger of the bride. It is a very romantic thought but it is factually inaccurate and in medical terms all the fingers on either hand have a similar vein structure eventually leading to the heart.
The most common style of a wedding ring used during the time of the Romans was the signet ring which was most often made in gold, another version known as an intaglio ring featured images carved into a gemstone. Frequently these signet rings would depict images of the bridal couple or other images pertaining to the wedding ceremony, such as the ritual of hand fasting
Examples of two signet rings dating back to Ancient Rome
During the time of the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern Orthodox Church tradition was to wear the wedding ring on the right hand. Byzantine rings were made of gold with religious engravings depicting the marriage ceremony and the images often showed Christ uniting the bride and groom, usually the groom was shown on the left which was customarily the position of greater importance.
A gold ring from the Byzantine era
During the Middle Ages wedding rings sometimes had other functions. Key rings were designed with the dual purpose to represent the wearer belonging to a specific household and sometimes these rings also functioned as an actual key to allow access to household goods locked away in storage areas.
An example of a key ring
Signet rings remained a popular style into the Middle Ages and were designed sometimes with letters, symbols or family crests used to identify a specific family. Not only did the rings serve this purpose but, much like the key rings, it granted permission or authority for the wearer to obtain goods or services in the name of a specific household. To prove ownership of the items purchased, the seal on the ring could be stamped onto hot wax to mark the items as the property of a particular person or family.
A signet ring featuring a family crest (photo from britishmuseum.org)
In England and France, dating back to the 15th century, rings were sometimes engraved with religious inscriptions written in Latin, Old English or Old French on the outside of the ring, these items are often given as tokens of love or affection. Then, later in the 16th century the custom had evolved into engraving more personal and romantic messages written on the inside of the ring so only the person giving the gift and the person receiving the ring would know the hidden message. Regardless of where the inscription is placed, this style is often referred to as a posey ring and the name is derived from the French word poesie meaning poem.
An example of a posey ring from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London
Although wedding rings with gemstones had been used for centuries, the first documented diamond engagement ring dates back to 1477. Maximilian I of Austria presented to Mary of Burgundy a gold ring in the shape of an “m” set with small diamonds.
Mary of Burgundy’s engagement ring
Another style of ring gaining popularity during the medieval period in history was the fede ring, the name is derived from the Italian phrase mani in fede which when translated means “clasped in faith”. This phrase in likely in reference to the tradition of hand fasting that was part of the marriage ceremony which literally joined the bridal couple hand in hand. To represent this ritual, the fede ring featured separate parts that when joined together formed two hands clasped together with a hidden heart. At the time of a couple engagement and one part of the ring was worn by the bride, one by the groom and a third part by a witness. Then, during the wedding ceremony all the parts of the ring were joined and the bride would wear the fede ring as her betrothal ring.
An example of a fede ring
As mentioned previously, gemstones were sometimes used for engagement or wedding rings. One style which used gemstones in a very romantic way was the toi et moi ring, the translation from French means “you and me”. The ring became a popular style because it symbolized two people joined in marriage and this was usually represented by the choice of the birthstones of the bride and groom. A famous example of a toi et moi ring is the engagement ring given by Empire Napoleon Bonaparte to his first wife, Josephine de Beauharnais, in 1776. The ring featured two gemstones, a diamond and a blue sapphire, mounted in a gold setting.
The engagement ring given by Napoleon to Josephine
The Edwardian era was a time of extravagance and opulence so the popular style for an engagement ring featured gemstones mounted in ornate filigree platinum settings, the use of this precious metal was because it was proven stronger than gold and allowed for more intricate designs. At this time women customarily wore their engagement rings on the right hand and the wedding ring on the left hand.
An example of an Edwardian ring featuring a sapphire in a platinum setting (langantigues.com)
In 1886, the famous Tiffany jewelry store introduced the classic Tiffany engagement ring. The innovated ring design featured a six-prong platinum setting that allowed the diamond to be positioned above the band to maximize the brilliance of the diamond. Very quickly the “Tiffany Setting” became popular worldwide and has endured throughout the following decades as the ultimate engagement ring.
The classic Tiffany engagement ring
Today, engagement and wedding rings are available in a seemingly unlimited choice of styles ranging from simple bands to elaborate settings. The cost can vary greatly and will depend on the style chosen, in particular the type of metal or the size and quality of the gemstones selected.
There are a couple of general rules to gauge the anticipated price of the engagement or wedding rings. The first rule is that the cost is determined by the monthly income, on the more extravagant end it would be equal to three months or on the more conservative end it would be only one month’s salary. Another alternative rule is that the cost should be approximately three percent of the total wedding budget.
For more information, specifically on the British Royal engagement and wedding rings of five Queens and one famous Duchess, please click on the link.