What Is a Promise Ring? The Real Meaning and Purpose

From which finger to wear it on to the cost, read our guide to promise rings, including meanings, traditions and more.
Couple holding pinky fingers wearing promise rings
Design: Tiana Crispino,Photo: Getty
Claire Coghlan
by Claire Coghlan
Updated May 23, 2024
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From promise rings to purity rings, engagement rings and beyond, there are so many reasons to put a ring on your finger. Confused? We don't blame you. Luckily, if there's one thing we know all about, it's bling. Keep reading to find out what a promise ring is, how to go about giving one, and the meaning and history behind the tradition. We're breaking down everything you have questions about, from which finger to wear it on to the secret behind the perfect promise ring proposal (spoiler: there isn't one). Plus, find out the best places to buy promise rings, starting with your local jewelry store.

In this article:

What Is a Promise Ring?

A promise ring is a ring given from one partner to another in a romantic relationship to signify commitment. But what's the history behind this special tradition? And what does it mean for relationships today? Find out the full definition of a promise ring below.

In this section:

Meaning | History | Purpose | Style

promise ring definition
Design: Tiana Crispino

What Does a Promise Ring Mean?

First things first: What does a promise ring mean, exactly? The true meaning of a promise ring is commitment. It's given by one partner as a token of their fidelity, and in turn worn by the other to show that the commitment is mutual. Something that often trips people up is the difference between a promise ring vs. a purity ring. When you talk about abstinence—and a ring is given by a parent to a child, or to oneself—it's called a purity ring. Promise rings, on the other hand, are typically given as a symbol of commitment within the confines of a romantic relationship.

What Is the History of Promise Rings?

According to Brooke Brinkman, vice president of marketing and communications at Simon G. Jewelry, the idea of giving a ring as a promise of love and affection dates back several hundred years—and the tradition of wearing a ring to demonstrate loyalty and fidelity dates back to ancient times. There's evidence that Roman brides wore engagement rings in the 2nd century BC. Posy rings, engraved with romantic poems, dating back to 16th-century England, while Acrostic rings—spelling out a word in gemstones —were popular in the Georgian and Victorian eras. For example, a ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst, ruby and diamond spells "regard" and a diamond, emerald, amethyst, ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst, ruby, sapphire and topaz spells "dearest".

Modern promise rings have only resurfaced as a mainstream trend within the last decade or so, largely thanks to the publicity surrounding celebrity promise rings.

What Is the Point of a Promise Ring?

Knowing the official definition and history of promise rings is great, but what does a promise ring mean for couples today? And how will it impact your relationship? The specific, personal meaning can differ from couple to couple. "The appeal of the promise ring is derived largely from the many meanings it can represent," says Kimberly Kanary, vice president of public relations and social media at Kay Jewelers. "Many couples give or wear promise rings specifically to signify a future engagement, while others do so as more of a general symbol of devotion to one another."

"You're promising yourself to each other," explains Brinkman, who received a promise ring from her now-husband a year and a half before they got engaged. While in Brinkman's case, the ring was a promise there'd be an engagement in the future, that's not always the case. "I often think of promise rings as similar to the mid-century tradition of giving your high-school sweetheart your class ring or pin," says Elizabeth Woolf-Willis, GG, AJP, marketing coordinator at Simon G. Jewelry. "Now you're more than just 'dating'—there's a physical symbol of the relationship to show the outside world."

What Does a Promise Ring Look Like?

In terms of types of promise rings, anything goes. Seriously, there are no rules or requirements here. Popular promise ring styles and themes include hearts, an infinity symbol or intertwined designs to represent a couple's union, Claddagh rings and eternity rings, as well as precious metal bands with a birthstone, mosaic or composite of stones. It can also be a simple band made from sterling silver or gold with an engraved message. Diamond promise rings are popular, too, although they tend to be a small carat size and set in a cluster or row versus the classic solitaire diamond engagement ring.

How Do Promise Rings Work?

There's no formal set of rules you have to follow when it comes to who gives a promise ring and when. A promise ring can be given by either partner in a relationship. Because both individuals will typically wear a promise ring as a symbol of their commitment, couples can even gift them to one another. Basically, anyone can buy or wear a promise ring in a romantic relationship.

In this section:

How to Give One | When to Give One | Promise Ring Cost

How Do You Give Someone a Promise Ring?

Like we said, there's no hard-and-fast rule for how to give a promise ring to your loved one. "It doesn't come with the same traditional expectations of an elaborate, planned proposal where the proposer gets down on one knee. Promise rings are most often given as a birthday, Valentine's Day or holiday gift", says Kelly McLeskey-Dolata, founder of event planning and design company A Savvy Event in the San Francisco Bay Area. Even a romantic dinner for two is the perfect place for this meaningful exchange. "In the case of a promise ring, it's more of a conversation about the meaning behind it, and the promise that's being made," Brinkman explains. "Whereas for an engagement, the focus is on the ring and the 'moment.'"

When Do You Give a Promise Ring?

Promise rings are given often (but not always) preceding an engagement. Although they aren't synonymous with wedding rings, they shouldn't be treated lightly. "A promise ring should be given after a couple has dated for a significant amount of time—a year or more—to show how serious they are about their relationship," McLeskey-Dolata says. So, it goes without saying that you should only give or wear a promise ring when you're ready for the commitment.

Brinkman has noticed the rise in popularity of promise rings echoes a growing trend for couples to happily cohabit and/or marry later in life. While they may not be ready—or even want—to commit to marriage, a promise ring denotes that their commitment extends beyond casually dating or just living together.

How Much Does a Promise Ring Cost?

Just like the cost of an engagement ring, there are no official guidelines around how much to spend on promise rings (but before you break a sweat, it's usually significantly less than an engagement ring). At Simon G. Jewelry, promise rings typically range from $500 to $2,000; at Kay Jewelers, they range from $199 to $599. "Remember, often people purchasing promise rings are younger and don't have the financial means to be spending a lot of money," McLeskey-Dolata says.

What Finger Does a Promise Ring Go On?

Where do you wear your promise ring? The questions of "What finger does a promise ring go on?" and "What hand does a promise ring go on?" come up all the time. Ultimately, which finger—or even which hand—you wear your promise ring on is entirely up to you. Promise rings can be worn on any finger, Brinkman says, adding that they're sometimes even worn on a chain around one's neck and these days, pinky promise rings are a popular style trend. The most common way to wear a promise ring is on the ring finger—on the left hand if you're not married, and on the right hand if you are married. The reason they're typically worn on the ring finger of the left hand comes from the ancient superstition (that's unfortunately not anatomically correct) that there's a vein that runs directly from that finger to the heart.

The Best Places to Buy Promise Rings

Your local jewelry store is the best place to start your search for a symbolic sparkler for your significant other. That said, if you're just in the mood to browse or you want to broaden your horizons, these are some of the best places to buy promise rings online, from unique promise rings for couples to classic and understated designs. (P.S. Here are some tips on how to measure ring size.)

Blue Nile

Blue Nile requires a slightly bigger budget, but the quality and craftsmanship are stunning. You can even design your own custom promise ring to gift your other half. There are so many setting styles and gemstones to choose from, which makes creating the perfect promise ring easy.

Pandora

Pandora's heart-shaped promise rings are iconic. What says "I'll love you forever" quicker than a duo of sparkly hearts? The best part is that you don't need a huge budget and there are even options for under $100.

Zales

Zales has an impressive selection of promise rings ranging from Disney-inspired pieces to romantic infinity and Claddagh rings. They offer jewelry at a variety of price points too—the amount you spend is ultimately up to you.

Kay Jewelers

In search of something sparkly? Kay has an excellent selection of diamond promise rings to choose from at lots of different price points.

Etsy

If you're looking for something a little more personal, Etsy has lots of meaningful (and inexpensive) jewelry to choose from. Gift your S.O. a sleek band stamped with your initials or pick up a set of coordinating promise rings you can both wear.

Brilliant Earth

When it comes to celebrating relationship milestones, Brilliant Earth is one of our go-to retailers. They have a wide selection of diamond and gemstone jewelry for every stage of your relationship, including engagement, wedding and anniversary rings. Plus, each of their pieces goes above and beyond conflict-free industry standards, so you can feel good about gifting a promise ring from Brilliant Earth.

More Promise Ring FAQ

Still have questions? Consider us your promise ring experts. Read below to find out what to do with your promise ring if your relationship status has changed.

What Happens to the Promise Ring If You Break Up?

While promise rings are intended to signify a lifelong vow, things happen and relationships change. In this case, even if the pledge is rescinded, promise rings aren't always returned. In short? "It depends on the nature of the breakup," Brinkman says.

What Do You Do With a Promise Ring If You Get Engaged?

If you get an engagement ring, there are several options for what to do with your promise ring. You can wear your promise ring on your right hand, on a different finger, on a chain or keep it as a fashion piece. Alternatively, the wearer can embrace the stacked ring trend and ultimately wear all three rings—a promise ring, diamond engagement ring and wedding band—on your ring finger.

For many couples, promise rings do precede an engagement. If you're ready to upgrade from a promise to a marriage proposal, check out these romantic proposal ideas. You can also check out How They Asked for real proposal inspiration and even a proposal idea generator.

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