History of Wedding Rings
By Ashley Bailey , Wednesday, October 04, 2006
In 1477 the Archduke Maximilian of Austria gave Mary of Burgundy a diamond ring. He married her the following day. Little did he know his diamond ring tradition would be wildly popular around the globe centuries later.
Maximilian’s gesture may be the first recorded diamond given for betrothal, but the exchange of wedding rings dates back much further. The ancient Romans gave each other iron bands to signify marriage. Iron changed to gold in the second century AD. Couples in the Roman Empire were the first to place betrothal, or ‘truth’ rings on the fourth finger of the left hand; believing that a vein in that finger, the ‘vena amoris’, runs directly to the heart.
In the Middle Ages, a man would keep a betrothal ring suspended from the band of his hat, ready to give to a chosen maid. Wedding rings started to be set with colored gemstones. ‘Posy Rings,’ inscribed inside with poems or love messages, were a Middle Age invention and continued to be popular through Victorian times. Inscriptions inside wedding bands endure to this day.
The choice of the diamond to symbolize eternal devotion was engendered by affluent people like Archduke Maximilian during the Renaissance, but the only known diamonds came from India, and the common man didn’t have access to such wealth. Metal rings continued to be popular and evolve. The gimmel, made of interlocking rings joined by a pivot to slide together into one, was often exchanged between lovers about to separate for long periods of time. The fede, or faith ring, was a gimmel with the hoops ending in clasped hands. This style is still seen in modern claddegh rings. Jewish wedding ceremonies of the period featured rings of elaborate detail, often with bezels worked in the shape of a synagogue or Solomon’s Temple.
Detailed engraving and the use of motifs such as hearts occurred during the Romantic era of the 17th and 18th centuries. Crosses, stars, leaves and branches were all in style and wealthy Europeans showed a taste for diamonds and rubies, symbolizing eternity and love. The discovery of diamonds in Brazil increased the supply in Europe and as they became more available rings grew more elaborate, set in fleur-de-lys, rosettes, bows and stylized letters. Diamonds were even set in natural, rough form. In 1761 King George III presented a second diamond band as a ‘guard’ to Queen Charlotte. This was the predecessor of our modern day anniversary wedding band.
The Victorian Era saw the continued use of intricate metalwork and a rise in colored gemstones as the choice for engagement rings. In 1870, a plentiful supply of diamonds was discovered in South Africa. This, coupled with the wealth generated by the Industrial Revolution, made the ultimate symbol accessible and affordable for the public, and diamonds quickly became the rage. In 1886 Tiffany introduced the six-prong diamond solitaire engagement ring.
Early in the 1900s the ‘princess-cut ring,’ featuring three to five large diamonds in a row became fashionable in the US (three-stone rings are still quite popular today). The 1920s and 30s saw wedding bands engraved with orange blossoms and wreaths. The chosen metal for engagement rings in the early 1900s was platinum, because of its durability. However, during WWII platinum usage became restricted to military purposes, and there was a rise of gold used in bridal jewelry. In the past 10 years platinum alloys have made a dramatic comeback. WWII also saw the revival of an old European custom where the groom and the bride both receive wedding bands. This tradition continues today. In 1947 DeBeers introduced a marketing slogan that vaulted the diamond engagement ring into ultimate prominence. The slogan “A Diamond is forever” resulted in a diamond movement that is still growing 60 years later. Today an estimated 78% of all engagement rings sold are set with diamonds.
In recent decades engagement rings have shown incredible variety in form, shape, setting details and ornaments surrounding the diamond. Antique, classic or modern, any choice today is correct as long as it is a reflection of the wearer’s personal taste and style.
The ring has been a symbol of love and commitment between two people since ancient times. The diamond tradition, while younger, is present in many cultures and represents the durable, everlasting qualities of the bond of matrimony.
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