In the United States, circa 2009, a circular metallic object at the base of the fourth finger of the left hand generally connotates conjugality. The modern tradition goes thus: Man gives woman diamond ring as indication of marriage proposal; woman accepts; said ring is placed on the fourth finger of her left hand; man and woman don bands upon formal wedding never to be removed for all time. However, today’s “tradition” is actually a fairly recent manifestation. The deeper history of marital rings is not so conventional and, rather, defined by the individual whims of the wearer…
A ring, being circular with no beginning or end, is an age-old symbol for eternity (a likely suspect for expressing lifelong commitment!). Very early rings were actually made from non-metallic materials—the ancient Egyptians made them out of twisted and knotted papyrus. The ring finger was designated by the Ancient Romans, who believed a large vein (vena amoris or “vein of love”) flowed directly from the fourth finger to the heart. The Romans fashioned wedding rings out of iron, a practical and symbolic material utilized for its incredible strength. As of the 2nd Century A.D., the Romans were making engagement rings out of gold.
During the Middle Ages, gem-set engagement rings were only acquired by the very wealthy. At this time, diamonds were extremely rare and costly. A diamond’s unique properties were acknowledged very early on in history and the rarity only added to the allure. However, before the development of more advanced faceting tools, they were prized for their strength and magic rather than their beauty. The first known diamond engagement ring is attributed to the betrothel of the Archduke Maximillian of Austria, given to Mary of Burgundy in 1477.
Throughout history, rings were commonly exchanged for reasons other than marriage, such as friendship or love. The convention of wearing the engagement and wedding ring on the finger it was originally placed is of recent origins. Married ladies used to wear their wedding rings on various fingers. It was even fashionable during the reign of King George I (1714-1727) for women to wear their wedding ring on their thumb!
Prior to the discovery of the large diamond mines in the 18th and 19th centuries, non-diamond engagement rings were very popular: a young lady might receive an impressive sapphire or ruby as her engagement gift from her new fiancé. After the discovery of diamonds in Africa in 1867, the increased availability of diamonds yielded more engagement rings featuring diamonds. In 1938, DeBeers launched a huge ad campaign establishing the diamond as the only choice for an engagement ring. Non-diamond stones were still rather common up until this campaign and its effects are still seen today.
At Doyle & Doyle, we see couples who do all sorts of things when it comes to the selection and wearing of marital jewelry. By doing something untraditional by today’s standards, you might actually be referencing a custom with roots much deeper than our current fashion. So if you really want to be historically accurate, reference our ancestors and pick something you love and wear it however you like!
*image from A History of Jewelry, J. Anderson Black
**images from Victoria & Albert Museum online database: http://www.vam.ac.uk/