“Engagement marks the end of a whirlwind romance and the beginning of an eternal love story”, and we usually celebrate this new beginning by presenting the bride/groom with a ring.
In modern times the engagement ring is either a diamond or a gemstone, set in a precious metal such as platinum or gold.
The style or design of the ring is a matter of personal choice; some prefer the simple, classic look while others might go the non-traditional way.
Either way, a lot of thought and planning goes into choosing the right ring. One might have a clear picture of exactly what ring they would like to wear, hopefully forever, or shop around until they find one they fall in love with. Everyone eventually finds their perfect ring.
As I come across so many beautiful rings every day at Burrells, my idea of the perfect ring has changed over the years. However, the sentimental value attached to the one I was proposed to with by my husband remains the same.
The tradition of presenting a ring to propose marriage is a common practice now, almost everywhere around the globe, but how did it come to be?
In this blog post, I'm going to take you through the history of the engagement ring; from its Egyptian origins to the De Beers diamond phenomenon.
ANCIENT EGYPT and greece: Symbolism
Historians believe that the tradition of rings started at weddings, not engagements.
The ancient Egyptians were the first to adopt the ritual, believing that circles represent infinite love, as they have no beginning or end. Wedded couples exchanged rings made out of hemp or leather.
The Egyptians would place the ring on the third finger of the left hand as they believed the vena amoris (vein of love) runs directly from this finger to the heart, thus joining the couple’s hearts to infinity and beyond.
The Greeks adopted the custom from the Egyptians, and they gave lovers rings featuring depictions of Eros, the god of love.
Ancient Greek ring from the second half of the 5th century BC, featuring the Greek god Eros
The Roman Era: Key Rings
The tradition was then passed on to the Romans. Rings, however, didn’t carry the same affectionate meaning that they did for the Egyptians. For the Romans, rings were more about ownership than love.
According to the Roman Philosopher Pliny the Elder, brides were given two rings; a gold one on their wedding day, which would be worn on special occasions, and an iron or bronze ring, which would be worn day to day (while doing chores around the house).
Some of these rings were attached to small keys, also symbolising a man’s ownership of his wife.
Bronze key ring, 3rd–4th century AD. Source: Met Museum of Art
Romans wore their engagement ring on the fourth finger of the left hand, as they believed a nerve ran directly from this finger to the heart. This tradition has continued up until today.
The Fede ring was also a common Roman engagement ring style. The word ‘Fede’ comes from the Italian phrase "mani en fede", meaning hands that unite in faith or loyalty. This design was composed of two hands joined together and continued to be popular all over Europe in the Middle Ages.
Fede Ring in gold, 16th century. Source: Met Museum of Art
The Middle Ages: Gemstones
During the Middle Ages, the wedding ring was made a legal requirement. It was 860 AD and Pope Nicholas I decreed a gold ring must be given upon marriage.
Gold bands were exchanged during the marriage ceremony and were often decorated with doves, lyres (a small harp), or two linked hands.
But in the 1300s the Christian Church put an end to these designs, considering them “heathenish,” and couples instead exchanged plain, unadorned gold bands.
The very first well-documented reference to an engagement ring dates back to the 9th century in a letter from Pope Nicholas I to Boris I of Bulgaria.
During the Middle Ages, the practice of engraving and adding gemstones to engagement rings became prevalent. Rings were adorned with an array of precious stones.
Sapphire ring which belonged to The Duchess of Lancaster, circa 1360-1400 AD. Source: 1stdibs
Usually though, only those well off financially were able to present their bride to be with rings that featured gemstones.
The Posey ring was a favourite ring style during medieval times. Exchanged as lover’s gifts and symbols of loyalty, these rings were inscribed on the inside and outside with posies – small poems from the heart. The short sayings were written in Latin, Old French or Old English.
Some of these rings are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Gold “I Like My Choyse” Posey ring, circa 1600. Source: Met Museum of Art
The Renaissance: Diamonds
The first documented use of a diamond in an engagement ring was in 1477 when Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy. The ring was set with small diamonds, arranged in the shape of her initial, M.
Mary’s ring sparked a major trend to include diamonds in engagement rings. For years diamonds were only a luxury that wealthy people could afford, however, so other precious gemstones, like sapphires and rubies were used.
Mary of Burgundy's engagement ring
The Victorian Era: Extravagant designs
During the Victorian era, the rose cut diamond was developed and became very fashionable. This old style has gained popularity again in recent years. Justin Theroux proposed to Jennifer Aniston in 2012 using an 8-carat antique rose cut engagement ring.
Rose cut diamond ring, circa 1760. Source: The Met Museum of Art
Up until the 1880s diamonds were very rare and not accessible to the majority of people. However, everything changed with the discovery of diamonds in South Africa in 1867.
The De Beers Group, a British mining company, started mining diamonds in the late 1800s, taking full ownership and control of the world diamond trade.
Diamond cutters advanced their techniques and started producing brilliant and round diamond cuts. Rose and old mine cut diamonds were most commonly used in engagement rings, however.
Gemstones were also popular with the Victorian's and using the bride’s birthstone was common. Rings were adorned with bold designs. Popular motifs included snakes, butterflies, flowers and Celtic engravings.
In 1840, Prince Albert proposed to Queen Victoria with an emerald ring, starring a unique snake design.
Emerald was Victoria’s birthstone, and the snake symbolised wisdom, loyalty and commitment. The serpent design became all the rage after this and enjoyed years of popularity.
Queen Victoria's engagement ring
The British Royal family have had some beautiful engagement rings. Queen Elizabeth’s three-stone ring has a large round cut large diamond, with two stones on either side. Designed by Prince Philip, it is a very classic and timeless ring.
Princess Diana’s sapphire and diamond engagement ring, which now belongs to Kate Middleton, is one of the most famous engagement rings in history.
Gold was used for engagement rings up until 1900. At the turn of the century, white gold and platinum were introduced.
Cartier is credited with pioneering platinum jewellery. It was found that the white metal accentuated the white of the diamond beautifully, and this led to white gold and platinum dominating engagement ring designs from then on.
De Beers: A Marketing Campaign that changed the diamond industry
Diamonds rose to popularity slowly and steadily over history, but they weren’t a pre-requisite for an engagement ring until after World War I.
This changed though when The De Beers Group was founded and sought to popularise diamonds to increase their value.
In the 1940s they paid a small ad agency in New York, N.W. Ayer, to convince young men that diamonds were the only way to express the depths of their love and commitment.
The advertisement appeared everywhere, and celebrities were paid to wear bigger and bigger diamonds. It is even believed that lecturers of the company would go into girls’ schools to teach them all about the diamond engagement ring.
The media played a big part in this, and songs such as Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend, and films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, added to the aura surrounding diamonds. Suddenly, diamond rings were the only way to propose.
1958 De Beers diamond advert
Engagement Rings Today
Over the years our perception of what an engagement ring should look like has slightly shifted again, and now there is more variation in engagement rings, with coloured gemstones rising in popularity again. The majority of couples’ first choice is a diamond ring though.
Within diamonds rings, however, there is lots of variety and choice available, from fancy cut diamonds and three stone trilogy diamonds to coloured diamonds.
Burrells Engagement Rings
Here at Burrells, we have a beautiful collection of engagement rings. Our Buyer Adam Gillary DGA (which means he is a qualified diamond grader), only chooses diamonds coloured H and above, and we take pride in stocking diamonds of a high-quality cut and clarity.
If diamonds are too traditional for you, we carry an extensive range of coloured gemstone engagement rings, featuring beautiful stones such as ruby, sapphire and emerald.
Coloured diamonds are also part of our collection, set in gold or platinum. In simple words, we have something for everyone.
We stock the prestigious American diamond brand Hearts on Fire, which offers The World's Most Perfectly Cut Diamond. Hearts On Fire diamonds are all cut by hand in perfect proportion to ensure maximum fire and brilliance.
Hearts On Fire diamond engagement ring
Adding to our versatility is the in-house workshop and our brilliant jewellery designer and Head Goldsmith Sarel Du Plessis, who will happily sit with you to design and make the ring of your dreams.
You can choose the metal, setting and even your own stone. We will advise on the look and practicality of your choice and provide you with an excellent diamond guarantee.
If you would like us to help you find your perfect engagement ring, or if you would like to design your own ring, you can pop into one of our beautiful stores to talk to one of our diamond experts.