The History of Wedding Rings and Traditions Through Time

A deep dive into the significance of your newest accessory.
A Brief History of the Wedding Ring
Photo: bigshot01 / Shutterstock
Elle Cashin headshot
Elle Cashin
Elle Cashin headshot
Elle Cashin
The Knot Fashion Contributor
  • Elle writes for The Knot online with a focus on fashion, covering gown design trends and shoppable accessories.
  • Elle is a contributor to wedding publications across the country, including Brides, The New York Times Vows and Modern Luxury Weddings.
  • Prior to shifting to weddings, Elle covered lifestyle, culture and celebrity across Chicago as the editor of the Chicago Tribune’s SPLASH magazine, where she interviewed cele...
Updated Nov 14, 2023

The history of wedding rings is vast and complex: There's a wealth of information out there, and everyone seems to have different opinions (none of which are technically incorrect). One thing all experts agree on, however, is that the tradition has been around for a long time—as far back as the BC days. But just as there isn't one singular type of marriage or relationship, there isn't a sole wedding ring origin story.

To help us sift through it all, we turned to the experts: Kate C. Waterman (M.Ed., GIA G.J.G., A.J.P.) is an instructor of gemology at the Gemological Institute of America, and has spent her career studying and teaching the ins and outs of jewelry and gemstones. Sharon Khazzam is a prolific designer of unique jewelry collections and bespoke pieces and a member-at-large of the American Society of Jewelry Historians.

In this article:

The History of Wedding Rings

Here, we dive into not just the history of ancient wedding rings but when rings became the pieces that we know today: with diamonds, separate wedding bands, and more.

Where and When Did Wedding Rings Start?

Anecdotal credit for beginning the wedding ring tradition has been given to various ancient groups around the world. "Through my research, I found credit given to the ancient Egyptians for inventing the engagement ring using braided hemp, reed, or even hair; the ancient Greeks adopted the tradition using materials like bone or ivory," Waterman says. "However, reliable data traces back to the ancient Romans, who used the ring as a tangible symbol of a business contract." She continues: "It was not a romantic gesture, but rather it signified handing over control of the household goods and was an outward sign that one was spoken for."

Rings became displays of fashion (and wealth) before they became symbols of romance. The Romans' ancient wedding rings were typically made of iron. "But by the 2nd century AD, brides-to-be from wealthier households were often given two rings: an iron band to be worn at home, and a gold one to wear in public to show off their wealth," Waterman explains. "By the 4th century, both elaborate and simplistic inscriptions were etched inside the band, adding an ornamental aspect to the otherwise contractual band. By the 9th century, gold became the material of choice."

When Did Diamond Wedding Rings Start?

The first evidence of diamonds in an engagement ring didn't pop up until the 15th century. "At this time in history, few diamonds had been discovered in India, so only the wealthiest possessed them," Waterman says. "In 1477, Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy, presenting her with a ring encrusted with tiny diamonds set into the shape of an M—and influencing those of high social class to follow suit when proposing marriage themselves."

Khazzam offers another point of reference. "Diamonds had been used upon occasion as far back as the late 14th century, but they were certainly not popular," she says. "Queen Victoria famously loved diamond jewelry, and diamonds began to feature a bit more often in wedding jewels."

It would be another 500 years before diamonds became the engagement ring standard—and it was all thanks to marketing. "Diamonds did not surge in popularity until De Beers began their massive marketing campaign for diamonds in the late 1940s," Khazzam says. You know the one: The tagline "a diamond is forever" rolled out in 1947 and changed the industry for good.

It was around this time, fittingly, that a standard bearer took up the torch: The GIA was founded in 1931. "For more than 90 years, the Institute has protected consumers' trust in gems and jewelry by offering independent, science-based gem evaluation backed by robust research," Waterman says. The institute is the creator of the 4Cs of diamond quality scale (color, clarity, cut, carat), and in 1953 it introduced the International Diamond Grading System, which is still used worldwide as the standard for diamond quality.

"There is a good reason why a diamond is the perfect gemstone to be worn on the hand day-in and day-out for a lifetime of marriage, and then get passed on to a new generation to cherish," Waterman says. "The durable aspects of a diamond allow it to hold onto its beauty throughout the decades, showing very little wear and tear."

The History of Wedding Bands

For a long time, weddings were simply contractual exchanges. In the 12th century, however, the church got involved—largely to cut down on confusion and plausible deniability (without witnesses and paperwork, either spouse could simply say the wedding never happened)—and gave the wedding band meaning. "During the 12th century, the Christian church established the wedding ceremony," Waterman says. "This was perhaps how the tradition of an engagement ring and a separate wedding band came to be." At the now sacramental ceremony, the groom would give the bride a second, church-sanctioned, band.

When Did Men Start Wearing Wedding Rings?

Still, the exchange was one-sided—and it remained that way until very recently. "Although there are accounts of men wearing wedding bands dating far back into antiquity, this tradition was not popular until World War II, to remind the soldiers overseas of their love at home," Khazzam says. "It is somewhat sad, as they were not sure they would ever be reunited." Eventually, civilians began donning bands as well.

Wedding Ring Traditions

With a ritual so engrained in history, there are sure to develop a multitude of traditions over time. Here are a few of the most notable and interesting.

The Ring Finger

One of the most prominent traditions related to wedding rings is the finger on which they are worn. "According to Marcobius, a 5th-century Roman writer, the wedding ring should be worn on the fourth finger of the left hand because it was believed that the vena amoris, or 'vein of love,' ran directly to the heart—although we know now that all of our veins eventually connect to our heart," Waterman explains. Once again, the church further instilled the tradition. "During betrothal ceremonies in the 7th century, a Christian priest would touch the wedding band to three fingers in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, sliding it onto the third finger."

There were—and still are—variations on this tradition. Ancient French tradition had rings worn on the right middle finger; in 17th century England rings were worn on the thumb because they were so elaborate and heavy with gemstones. Even today, there are varying traditions. "In India, Russia, and many Scandinavian countries, as well as some East European and South American countries, the engagement ring is worn on the fourth finger of the right hand," Waterman says.

Symbolic Rings

While today most engagement rings feature a solitaire, trio, or other arrangement of diamonds, there have been trending rings over time and space that weighed heavy with symbolism. Waterman outlines a few: "The fede ring–two hands clasped together–dates back to Medieval and Renaissance Europe and is a symbol of pledging vows of eternal friendship. The simple posy band, particularly popular in the late 16th century and frequently mentioned by Shakespeare, has a short love poem or ballad engraved inside as a secret message to your loved one. Finally, toi et moi, French for 'you and me,' rings of the late 19th century showcase two gems set side by side and symbolize two souls entwined." Another symbolic ring stands out to Khazzam. "The Turkish puzzle ring was a ring the husband gave to the wife, and he would know if she was being unfaithful: If she removed it, it would fall apart."

What Do Wedding Rings Symbolize?

Tradition indicates that, though they began as contractual symbols, wedding rings took on popularity—particularly among women—as symbols of love (and fashion!) earlier than later. "One story I find particularly intriguing is from the mid-17th century, when Puritans repealed the idea of the engagement ring because it was linked to church ritual and frivolousness," Waterman says. "Instead, it is said that women would be presented with a thimble, most likely because it was a very practical tool. But apparently, many women would find a way to cut the basket from their thimble, leaving them with the band, which they would then wear as a ring. To me, this shows the strong desire we have for the tradition of the wedding ring and its symbolism."

The shape, of course, is also symbolic. "[A ring] is a complete cycle of harmony," Khazzam says. "The full circle symbolizes eternity—no start and no finish."

However they came to be, wedding rings are imbued with symbolism unique to each wearer. "I have worked in the gem industry for over twenty years, and I have to say, there is no object more meaningful than the wedding band," Waterman says. "Simple or ornate, silicon or gold, gemstone or not. It is a private representation and reminder of the love one has for the person who gifted it to them."

Can You Update Tradition?

One of the most special parts of wedding planning is making the event your own, incorporating your personality and that of your partner, and presenting something that in its own unique ways defies tradition. Rings are no different. Khazzam encourages couples to make their rings their own. "[They can do this] through design, involving different stones, and including secrets only they are privy to." In fact, she adds, "I think that there should be fewer rules to wedding rings. This is the most important, and very often the first and most symbolic piece of jewelry shared between a couple. It should be special and truly belong to them, without the rules created by marketing campaigns and society."

Even for those who aren't married, rings can hold meaning. "I am not married but I do have two wedding rings," Waterman says. "One was passed down to me and originally belonged to my great-grandmother who wore it in the early 1900s. This ring symbolizes my connection to the past and my heritage. The other is a black rose-cut diamond set in platinum, which I purchased for myself and represents my strength of independence."

And while putting your own spin on it is highly encouraged, honoring or at least understanding the past is important. "Overall, I believe that the tradition of the wedding ring has remained strong throughout the centuries because we all want to believe in a love that has no end," Waterman says, "and wear a tangible representation of a love as special as each of us is."

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