Skip to content

The Incredible history of engagement rings

Engagement rings are given as part of a surprise proposal of marriage. We've done some research into the history of the pre-marital gifts - from ancient times to the modern...

Traditionally, engagement rings are given by a man to his fiancée when he asks her to take his hand in marriage.

The rings symbolise the upcoming union between the two people and this tradition is largely historical. In ancient times, Egyptians would twist plants into small circles to wear around the finger. For those who were wealthy, ivory or leather would be used as an alternative. Placed on the fourth finger of the left hand, the ring was seen to be connected to the heart by the vena amoris.

It was the Egyptian pharaohs who also first used rings to represent eternity, due to the fact that a circle has no beginning and no end and reflects the shape of the sun and the moon, which the Egyptians worshipped. The Egyptians also thought that the open space in the middle of a ring represented a gateway to the unknown.

Today, engagement rings are most often given as part of a surprise proposal of marriage –between a man and woman or a same-sex couple. Take a look below to learn more about the history of these pre-marital gifts- from ancient times to the modern day.

Ancient Rome
Image-conscious Roman women were often given two rings on their wedding day – one made of gold which would be worn in public to show their status, and one made of iron one for everyday wear inside the home. Wedding bands symbolised a man’s ownership of his wife, as well as eternal love.

Starting from the Medieval Times, wedding rings began to be set with precious gems. Medieval Europeans used rubies to symbolise passion, sapphires to symbolise the heavens and diamonds to symbolise steadfast strength.

Middle Ages

In 1477 in Vienna, the Archduke Maximillian of Austria gave Mary of Burgundy a betrothal ring on their engagement. This was widely viewed as the model for all future engagement rings, where others in the royal court were influenced to do the same. As the wealthy travelled, this tradition of engagement rings quickly spread around Europe.

During the Enlightenment period, gimmal rings were given to symbolise love. Gimmal rings typically have two or three hoops, which join to create one complete ring when worn together. The rings often have a clasped hand design, showing the union of two people. Poesy rings were popular between the 15th and 17th centuries in England, made from gold with a short inscription on their inside face, usually from the courtship stories or chapbooks.

When the ring was worn, its message was hidden, making wearers feel as if they were keeping a secret and heightening the romantic qualities of the piece.

Victorian times
Engagement rings were viewed as the domain of the upper classes in the Victorian times. The discovery of diamond mines, combined with the industrial revolution, created a perfect environment for jewellery production.

Diamonds were found in 1866 in South Africa. They were identified in 1867, and five years later, the output of diamonds in South African mines exceeded one million carats per year.

Perhaps due to the culture of marriage in the Victorian times, with dowries acting as a popular means of securing an engagement, simple bands were the most common way to display an engagement. They were often worn on the right hand before being transferred to the left hand during the marriage ceremony.

Diamond engagement rings also became increasingly popular at this time due to Queen Victoria’s famed love for diamond jewellery.

20th century

In the USA, the popularity of diamond engagement rings declined after WW1 and they became even less relevant to the general population as a result of the Great Depression. The prices of diamonds collapsed, and they weren’t popular with younger generations. In 1939, the diamond mining company De Beers launched an advertising campaign: ‘a diamond is forever’, a slogan that’s still famous to this day.

This campaign was successful and by the early 1940’s, engagement rings were leading lines of jewellery in many department stores around the world. The market was buoyant again. The relationship dynamic between men and women, as well as contemporary gender stereotypes, meant that the engagement ring had a similar purpose to the dowries of the previous century.

In the UK, women could sue men for breaking off a marriage until 1970 under a Breach of Promise, whilst they could change their mind without penalty. For the majority of the 20th century, middle and upper-class women would not have worked. Working class women would often have to give up work to get married. If their engagement or marriage fell apart, a woman could be left in ruins. An answer to this turmoil was the fact that women could keep their engagement rings to sell so they could live off the money whilst their reputation recovered.

21st century

Since the turn of the century, the culture of engagement has evolved significantly, partly because of the recent reforms of marriage laws regarding same-sex marriage. Generally, most marriages are now love matches rather than arranged pairings, meaning there are two types of proposal: the surprise proposal and the planned proposal: a trend that has emerged on the premise that every relationship is different.

In recent decades, engagement rings are viewed as statements of individuality and partnership which can be worn by both genders. Both wedding rings and engagement rings are now wedding staples, not just in Western countries, but in any country where couples wish to have an outward token of their love, as well as welcoming more sparkle to their wardrobe.  


Your cart is currently empty.

Start Shopping

Select options