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copyright Rachel Sanfordlyn Shreckengast of

Many couples are interested in the tradition of the engagement ring. In many cultures, it has become the ultimate symbol of love, devotion and commitment. It's extremely common to have a diamond engagement ring, and for some this stone is the only one that they will accept. Yet, the tradition of a diamond engagement ring isn't very old and throughout much of history, diamonds didn't even enter the picture.

It's obvious that the shape of a ring is a circle. A circle has no beginning and no end. It's the shape of the sun and of the full moon. It's no wonder that ancient cultures used it as a symbol of unity, perfection and eternity. It's believed that the circle is where the tradition of the wedding ring might have gotten it's start.

The first engagement symbol probably wasn't a ring, but it's likely that the shape was translated into later versions of engagement symbols...including rings. According to most sources, the tradition started with the caveman (which cavemen is not specified). It's thought that the first engagement symbol was actually a woven cord of rushes (grasses, reeds) or leather. It's said that this cord was used to tie the hands and feet of his mate so that she could not get away. Once he thought she would stay, he tied it around her hands (and presumably took it off her feet). Finally when fully assured she would stay with him, he tied a cord only around her finger. This is one theory of the use of rushes. The other theory is that the two people were tied together with the corded rushes in the circular symbolism of unity. Though I much prefer the latter, I can't say with any certainty whether either is true.

Though the idea may be distasteful, slavery is not an uncommon theory. In fact, another theory is that the ring was like a miniature "slave band", which denoted that the woman was the man's property. This was done, but it isn't likely that this started engagement rings in the Roman culture as it came about later. Slaves were forbidden to wear rings throughout the Roman Republic (449-31 BC), but in later years iron rings denoted their status. Silver was worn by freed slaves. The wearing of gold rings was restricted in early years, but eventually they could be worn by all who were free. It wasn't until Emperor Justinian that the restrictions on who could wear rings were lifted.

Another theory talks of the dowry and/or bride price. Once upon a time, marriages were arranged...for a price. This much is a fact, there are documents (marriage/sale agreements or contracts) that speak of this exact practice. A number of them list the exact terms of the agreement and include the livestock, fabrics and other items that were traded for the bride. You can occasionally find some of these on Ebay if you are truly interested. It's thought that a ring may have been given as part of a bride price or dowry. Some of the documents mentioned above do include jewelry, rings and/or gold. Yet a determination of validity can't be based on this alone, especially when you consider that it is the bride that receives the ring. Which brings us to another theory. A ring may have been given to bride, either as a symbol of unity or perhaps as a bribe.

Though the exact start of the engagement ring is in question, it is known that later cultures adopted the ring and/or circle symbolism. The ancient Greeks probably started the tradition as we know it today. Their engagement ring was called a betrothal ring. In many cases it was given before the marriage itself and was considered a token of affection. In some circumstances though, the betrothal ring might have been like the "promise ring" of today. Marriage wasn't always the end-result, and I've seen a few sources that mention it as a token of deep affection rather than a definite engagement ring. Betrothed is a word said to be derived from the word (Anglo-Saxon) "troweth", which means truth. Many sources further interpret this word as pledge or a pledge of truth. I suppose it's all in the interpretation as truth might also be interpreted simply as the word "true". All kinds of things can be associated with the word true, including both true love and true friendship.

Roman rings have been found as well. Things are a bit clearer in this case. The earliest examples of Roman engagement rings might have been rings with a carved key. There are two theories behind this particular style. The romantic version states that this key was a symbol that allowed the bride to "unlock her husband's heart". This is romantic, but doubtful. The second theory is much more likely. A woman received a share of her husband's riches when they married. Most sources say that it was 50%. Supposedly, the key allowed her access to her share of the goods. Not as romantic, but certainly more practical and logical.

A probable fore-runner to the Claddagh ring, the "fede" was a ring with two hands clasped together. The symbolism seems pretty obvious, and it's very likely that this was an engagement or marriage ring of some type. The earliest Roman rings were made of iron. There's a very neat page listed in the "Engagement Ring History Links" section, showing drawn graphics of rings from the Viking Age. One of those rings is a later "fede" ring. Roman examples of the "fede" ring have been found as early as 4 AD. It's also thought that Romans started the tradition of wearing the ring on the third finger of the left hand. This was believed to be the "vena amoris", which translates to "vein of love". This "vein" was thought to lead directly to the heart, and the theory itself is generally attributed to the Egyptians.

Celtic cultures may have used the hair of their loved one for their rings. The hair was "braided" and then worn as a symbol of commitment. Some sources mention hair bracelets rather than rings. The "Gimmel" was created during the Middle Ages and is also called the bond ring. It is comprised of two or three hoops attached to the base of the ring. When put together, it looks like a single ring. Some sources suggest that these were broken apart at the marriage ceremony. Despite this, I can't believe it due to logistics. It leaves me with one simple question. How would it be possible for two (bride & groom) or three (bride, groom & witness) people to have the same ring size?

Since the "fede" may be the fore-runner to the Claddaugh ring, we'll note a few variations of it through history. The "fede" ring has also been called the faith ring or truth ring. You'll note that I've used both spellings of the Claddagh/Claddaugh ring. Claddagh is the small fishing village that the ring was named after, and is probably the most accurate (but both spellings are very common). Cladagh and Claduh or Claddugh are less common spellings. The Viking example of the "fede" can be seen on the Rings of the Viking Age page mentioned on the "Engagement Ring History Links" page. It has two hands clasped over a heart. The hands cover the heart in this case. Other cultures have had similiar designs (Spain is one of them), and the heart held by two hands (rather than covered by them) was around prior to the Claddagh ring.

As mentioned above, the origins of the Claddagh ring may lie in the design of the Greek "fede" ring. The unique design element of the Claddagh ring is found in the crown above the hands holding the heart. Of course, there are variations on the story of the origin of the Claddagh ring. Some stories seem to suggest that the design is Spanish in origin while others suggest that it has possible Moorish (quick explanation - Arab and/or Berber tribes from northern Africa that conquered Spain, identified with the Barbary Coast in North Africa) design inspiration as a result of it's creator being captured by the Moors. I won't go into the details, but you can find pages with the variations of origins and legends in the "Engagment Ring History Links" section if you are interested.

If you're seeking information specifically on diamond engagement rings, you have to go back in history a bit. The year was 1477 when the first RECORDED diamond engagement ring was given. While 1477 is the first recorded incidence, there may or may not have been instances before this date. It's important to realize the difference as we can only date instances if they have been recorded. Instances that were not recorded can not be dated. Regardless, the Archduke Maximillian of Hamburg gave the ring to Mary of Burgandy. By this date, engagement rings of various types were probably fairly common, while diamond engagement rings were not. The popularity of engagement rings in general, may be a result of Pope Innocent III's order (in the 12th century) that a wedding ring be included in the wedding ceremony. This is the same Pople who also decreed that weddings had to be held in a church.

Throughout history, diamond engagement rings did enjoy popularity among those who were wealthy and those who were royalty. Many sources mention that Archduke Maximillian of Hamburg and Mary of Burgandy made the wearing of diamond engagement rings popular in 1477. It is highly doubtful that Maximillian and Mary started the trend of diamond engagement rings, though it is possible they started the trend among the wealthy or those who were royalty. After all, they were rather expensive and could not become common if the "common-folk" could not afford them. A true trend involves more than just a small section of the society and this is why I find the possibility highly doubtful. As a matter of fact, diamond engagement rings were not to become "traditional" until hundreds of years later.

The De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd. was created in 1888 in order to protect the investment of diamond mine investors. A new mine was discovered in South Africa in 1870. Since only a small amount of diamonds had been found prior to this, the discovery flooded the market and cut into the profits of investors. The De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd. was created in order to regain control of the supply of diamonds. After they gained control of the supply, they then needed to control the demand for diamonds.

This attempt began when Harry Oppenheimer (son of the De Beers founder) visited New York in order to meet with Gerold M. Lauck. Gerold was the president of N.W. Ayer, which was a leading advertising agency at the time. You see, diamond sales had declined since 1919 by 50%, and something had to be done to increase the demand for them.

The year of the advertising campaign was 1939. That's right, the tradition of diamonds as THE engagement the only correct option, started slightly over 60 years ago and was the main result of an advertising campaign. While the diamond did enjoy periods of popularity in times prior to this (Victorian era for example), this was the factor that made the diamond engagement ring the ONLY choice that was acceptable. You don't have to take my word for it though. Feel free to research on your own.

The reason that I decided to delve into the history of engagment rings is quite simple. I have a collection of old engagement and wedding photographs that range in age from the Victorian era to the 1940's. The majority of the photographs show no ring or a ring that is obviously not a diamond. In most cases, all that you see is a simple gold band with no stones on it. That's what actually inspired this article. I found it a bit odd that there were so few diamonds, so delved into researching the subject. This article shows the results, and I hope you've enjoyed reading it!


NB. No one actually seeks to sell gold jewelry for cash unless itís absolutely necessary, or the jewelry pieces no longer holds any meaning to them.



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