An engagement is a special milestone in a couple’s life. An engagement ring is presented to symbolise the commitment of their journey to come. This scene is played out repeatedly in film, TV, and advertising. But when did the practice of giving engagement rings begin? What is the history of engagement rings?
The word engagement comes from the French ‘engager’, which means to pledge and was predominantly used in the seventeenth century to refer to battles or fighting. The word ‘engagement’ joined the modern lexicon in 1742 with the definition we recognise today: the promise of marriage or betrothal.
Today we will examine the origins and history of diamond engagement rings, how engagement rings have changed over the centuries, and the vintage engagement ring styles that never go out of fashion. Let's begin with the history of engagement rings...
Early Betrothal Rings
Engagement rings, sometimes referred to as betrothal rings, can be dated back to the ancient Egyptians so the history of engagement rings begins there. The circular shape of the betrothal ring represented eternal love, with no beginning and no end. Some of the earliest examples of Egyptian betrothal rings came in the form of snake rings or ouroboros. These rings depicted a snake devouring its tail. This ancient symbol represented the unending cycle of life and love.
Greeks and then Romans continued the tradition of gifting rings to their betrothed. These early Roman betrothal rings were usually crafted from iron. As time went on, wealthier citizens began gifting their betrothed with gold rings to be worn outside of the home or on formal occasions, with iron rings remaining for daily household wear. Many of these early betrothal rings were engraved with messages of love. One such early Greek example in the collection of the British Museum is engraved with the name ‘Honey’. Another example is inscribed with the sentiment ‘I rejoice in the gift because of the affection of the giver’.
A diamond was added to the betrothal ring in the 15th century. While the metal hoop symbolised eternity, the diamond represented conjugal fidelity. Continuing the tradition from the past, posies or little poems were inscribed on the rings, often inside the hoop. These were secret messages of love.
Diamond engagement rings started to become increasingly popular with the discovery of diamonds in Brazil in the early 1700s. Diamond polishing techniques improved and the design of the rings evolved to reveal and highlight the sparkle of the diamonds. With the 1870 discovery of diamonds in Africa, the market was able to supply this sparkling gemstone to more engaged couples.
Gemstone Engagement Rings
While diamond engagement rings may be the go-to choice for brides today, that has not always been the case. Before the 1800s, diamonds were only mined in India, making them exceptionally rare and available only to the wealthiest tiers of society. Gemstone engagement rings, with their bright colours and spiritual symbolism, made an ideal choice for expressing love and devotion. Sapphire engagement rings were thought to symbolise faithfulness and honesty and were believed to have protective properties. Rubies were considered the “gem of nobility” and represented the passion and devotion of the giver. Verdant green emeralds were often used to symbolise hope and new beginnings, making them an ideal choice for marking a couple’s engagement.
Gemstones have been used in the earliest engagement rings to represent passion, honesty and undying love.
Victorian Engagement Rings
The Victorian era was one of industry and exploration. The discovery of South African diamond deposits led to a surge of availability and brought diamonds to the masses. The Victorian middle class was growing, and with them came more disposable income to buy lavish jewellery and ornate engagement rings. Victorian engagement rings reflected this newfound prosperity and featured a wide variety of styles that incorporated a mixture of diamonds and gemstones set in elaborate gold settings.
The official engagement ring of Queen Victoria in the 1830s looked back to ancient symbolism, which continued to be a favourite symbol in the 19th century - she chose a snake ring. The snake ring represented eternity with the coils wound round into a circle.
Edwardian Engagement Rings
The Edwardian engagement rings are characterised by delicate designs in white metal and set with glittering white diamonds. Platinum became more widely available after 1900 and quickly became the favoured metal of the Edwardian era. Platinum strength and ductility made it ideal for creating thin settings, delicate floral motifs and designing cluster rings of glittering diamonds.
Art Deco Engagement Rings
The Art Deco engagement rings of the 1920s and 1930s were known for their bold geometric designs, exotic influences and unique use of colour. Plaque and cluster rings gained popularity with many Art Deco engagement rings featuring bold coloured accents that emphasised the geometric aspects of their design. Unusual gemstones such as jade, onyx, aquamarine and citrine were favoured to contrast with the all-white backdrop of platinum and diamonds. With their distinctive design, Art Deco engagement rings make a sophisticated and instantly recognisable choice.
Modern Engagement Rings
Modern engagement rings have streamlined vintage styles into chic contemporary creations. Ranging from elaborate clusters to minimalist solitaires, the modern engagement ring reflects the wearer’s style. Contemporary engagement rings put an emphasis on the central stone, often a diamond. Solitaire engagement rings have remained a favourite due to their simplicity and timeless design. Highlighting the colour and quality of the central stone, solitaire engagement rings may also feature shoulders set with smaller accent diamonds or engraving. Three-stone engagement rings also provide a stylish choice. Symbolising the love of the past, present and future, three-stone engagement rings make a sentimental choice for the modern couple.
We hope you have enjoyed this guide to engagement rings through history.
The History of Engagement Rings FAQs
What was the original purpose of an engagement ring?
- Engagement rings have been used for centuries to symbolise the promise of marriage or betrothal. Early betrothal rings consisted of a simple ring made of iron, bronze or ivory, with gold rings reserved only for the wealthiest tiers of society.
How much should I spend on an engagement ring?
- You have probably heard that you need to spend two to three months' salary on an engagement ring, however, budget comes down to you and what you can comfortably afford.
What is the most popular style of engagement ring?
- Solitaire engagement rings and three-stone engagement rings remain among the most popular styles today. Solitaire rings feature a single, central stone with either a plain band or a band with diamond accents. Three stone rings feature a central stone flanked by a diamond or other gemstone on either side. Available in a combination of styles and metal choices, both solitaire and three-stone engagement rings make for a timeless choice.
What is the difference between an engagement and a wedding ring?
- An engagement ring is presented as a promise of marriage and marks the betrothal or engagement of the couple. Wedding rings are exchanged on the day the couple is wed, either in a civil or religious ceremony.
What are the most popular gemstones in engagement rings?
- Diamonds remain the most popular choice for engagement rings, while gemstones such as sapphire, aquamarine, emerald and ruby have gained popularity. The sumptuous colour, large sizes and unique design possibilities add to the appeal of gemstone engagement rings. Blue sapphires are the second most popular gemstone choice for an engagement ring and are often a favourite with royalty. The hardness of sapphire makes it an excellent choice for a ring to be worn every day.