Throughout the ages, different cultures have adapted their own unique wedding traditions. One of the longest of these traditions, with roots in ancient Egypt, is the exchanging of wedding rings. Today, the practice of exchanging wedding rings is synonymous with romantic unions the world over.
So, keep reading to discover the origin of wedding rings and how the history of wedding rings has influenced the evolution of rings styles over the centuries.
Origin of Wedding Rings
We can date the tradition of exchanging wedding rings all the way back to the ancient Egyptians. Rings were powerful symbolic tokens representing the infinite circle of life and everlasting love. Worn on the fourth finger of the left hand, the ancient Egyptians believed that this finger held the vena amoris, or vein of love, which connected directly to the heart.
Following Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt, the practice of gifting love rings continued in Greece, with many early examples engraved with sentimental messages. The Romans formalised the tradition of giving wedding bands. Wedding contracts were solemn, binding agreements, and a ring was used as a physical symbol of this contract. Most Roman rings were made from iron, with wealthier citizens sometimes having two rings: one made of gold, and one of iron for everyday wear.
Medieval and Renaissance Wedding Rings
The practice of exchanging rings was formalised once more in the Middle Ages. At this time, wedding ceremonies did not have direct oversight by either the state or the church, so it was difficult to determine the legitimacy of many weddings. By the 12th century, marriage was made a holy sacrament. The church would oversee the newly established wedding ceremony, including the exchanging of wedding rings. While previously rings were not always used to signify marriage, now men were prohibited from presenting a ring to a woman unless they intended marriage. The medieval period is also when we see the emergence of two distinct rings: an engagement ring to mark the betrothal of a couple and a church-sanctioned ring presented at the wedding ceremony.
Similar to the ancient Greeks, medieval and Renaissance couples favoured wedding rings inscribed with notes of love and affection. 17th-century wedding rings often consisted of a gold band, engraved with a “poesie”, or romantic inscription in either Latin or French. Some popular inscriptions from these medieval engraved wedding rings included ‘mon cuer avez’ (you have my heart) and ‘amor vinicit omnia’ (love conquers all).
The Renaissance was a period of renewal and rebirth for the arts and sciences. Goldsmiths of the Renaissance borrowed from ancient techniques to create unique wedding rings with striking new embellishments. Engraving and filigree decoration in floral motifs gained popularity, while advances in lapidary technique made new gem cuts available. As a result, 17th-century wedding rings often included gemstone elements, primarily set in engraved settings of yellow gold.
18th-century Wedding Rings
The 18th century, often known as the enlightenment period, was one of new discoveries. As new and exotic materials were brought back from far-flung locales, the fashion for wedding rings made with glittering gemstones and diamonds flourished. Georgians used elaborate jewellery to display wealth and class. The 18th-century saw the introduction of the eternity ring when King George III of England presented his wife, Charlotte, with a diamond-encrusted ring on their wedding day in 1761. Classical antiquity provided another source for 18th-century wedding ring inspiration. The ‘Grand Tour’ saw many wealthy young men travel to the continent to explore the ancient ruins of the Roman and Greece empires, bringing back with then a passion for antiquity. 18th century wedding rings were often engraved with neoclassical patterns and laurel wreaths that reflected the styles of the ancient past.
London Victorian Ring Co Scroll Engraved Platinum Wedding Ring
19th-century Victorian Wedding Rings
19th-century wedding rings were highly influenced by the reigning monarch, Queen Victoria. Victoria and her husband Prince Albert had a legendary romance that influenced all aspects of 19th-century art and design. This romanticism led to a fashion for elaborate wedding rings with their own romantic twist. Flowers were used to convey messages of love and admiration, with different flowers having different meanings. For example, ivy represented fidelity, while the forget-me-not signified true love. This language of flowers was extended to wedding rings, with many 19th-century wedding rings featuring decorative floral elements.
London Victorian Ring Co floral engraved wedding rings, based on original designs from the 19th Century
Edwardian Wedding Rings
The Edwardian period from 1901 was the transition between the heavier styles of the Victorian era and the lighter styles of the post World War I era. Substantial gold men’s wedding rings in either 18ct yellow gold or 22ct yellow gold were still popular. Women’s Edwardian wedding rings were often made of gold towards the beginning of the era and became slimmer and lighter with the increasing use of platinum for wedding rings.
London Victorian Ring Co men's and women's matching 18 carat yellow gold wedding rings
Art Deco Wedding Rings
Platinum wedding rings were now a popular choice. Slim Art Deco wedding bands appeared that could be set with round or square diamonds. Alternating gemstone and diamond rings were offered by jewellers. Square sapphires or rubies would alternate with round diamonds in a platinum band. Gold wedding bands continued to be worn and gold has never gone completely out of fashion since.
London Victorian Ring Co platinum and diamond wedding rings
Modern Wedding Rings
Wedding rings have been worn by men as well as women since WWII. Rings acted as a memento of their loved ones, far away on the front, as well as a way of affirming loyalty to their beloved.
Today, men’s wedding rings often have a stylish finish, with many men opting for engraved or diamond-set wedding rings. While some may prefer the understated style of plain bands, there are a plethora of styles available for the modern groom, from two-tone or bi-metal creations to diamond wedding rings and minimalist bands set with a single diamond. As a result, grooms have more choice than ever when it comes to selecting the perfect men’s wedding ring.
London Victorian Ring Co men's platinum and rose gold wedding rings
Modern weddings continue the tradition of exchanging wedding rings as a symbol of eternal love between two people.
Wedding Rings Around the World
While today in the UK and the US wedding rings are universally worn on the second to last finger of the left hand, this is not true for all cultures. Wedding rings are traditionally worn on the fourth finger of the right hand in Austria, Latvia, Russia, Poland, and Norway. In other countries, like Germany and the Netherlands, wedding rings are worn on the right hand, while engagement rings are worn on the left hand to signal the change in marital status.
While the way you wear your wedding ring may vary from country to country, the sentiment behind it remains the same. Explore our edit of vintage wedding rings to find the perfect wedding ring for you and your partner today.
Lauren and Alex's wedding at the Victoria Gallery & Museum
What is the origin of the wedding ring?
- The tradition of exchanging wedding rings has been practised since antiquity, with Ancient Egyptians exchanging the first wedding rings. Ancient Greeks and Romans continued the practice, with the tradition formalised in Europe by the church in the 12th-century.
What does a wedding ring symbolise?
- A wedding ring symbolises the unending cycle of life and love. Wedding rings are presented at the wedding ceremony as a formalised symbol of the couple’s endless love for one another as well as an outward symbol of a person’s married status.
What finger do you wear your wedding ring on?
- Wedding rings are traditionally worn on the fourth finger of the left hand. Ancient Egyptians believed this finger contained the vena amoris, or vein of love, a vein that connected directly to the heart.
Do men and women wear matching wedding rings?
- While matched wedding rings are a popular option, there are no rules requiring couples to have matching bands. Men and women are free to choose a wedding band that best suits their personal style. Many women opt for a wedding band that matches their engagement ring. Many men prefer plain gold or platinum bands, while other prefer engraved or diamond-set bands.
What is a wedding ring set?
- A wedding set is a pair of matching rings of a similar design for a couple to exchange on their wedding day. Wedding ring sets are a fantastic way to show the bride and groom’s everlasting bond to one another and have a physical token that matches your soulmate.