What Is a Promise Ring? The Real Meaning

Read The Knot guide on what a promise ring means, what finger it goes on and how you should give one.
by Claire Coghlan
Promise ring on couple holding hands
photo by Getty Images

Promise ring, purity ring, commitment ring, pre-engagement ring—oh my! There's been a lot of confusion around promise rings. What does a promise ring mean? What finger does a promise ring go on? How do you get one, give one, buy one, return one? We interviewed expert jewelers to demystify the meaning behind this post-modern, pre-matrimonial trend.

What Is a Promise Ring?

The definition of a promise ring varies between couples, but promise rings are widely used as a symbol of commitment. "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. "While many couples use the symbol as a way to signify a future engagement, others simply wear the ring as a means of reflecting devotion to one another."

As the name suggests, promise rings signify that a promise is being made, but the meaning of a promise ring differs from couple to couple. At its most essential, it symbolizes a partner's love and commitment to the relationship. "You're promising yourself to each other," explains Brooke Brinkman, vice president of marketing and communications at Simon G. Jewelry, who received a promise ring from her now husband a year and a half before he proposed. While in Brinkman's case, the ring was a promise that an engagement would ensue, that's not always the case. "I often think of promise rings as similar to the mid-century tradition of a guy giving a girl his class ring or pin in high school," says Elizabeth Woolf-Willis, GG, AJP, marketing coordinator at Simon G. Jewelry. "Now it's more than just 'dating'—there's a physical symbol of the relationship to show the outside world." Brinkman has noticed that 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 wanting to commit to marriage, a promise ring shows that their commitment does extend beyond merely sharing bills.

History of Promise Rings

According to Brinkman, the idea of giving a ring as a promise of love and affection dates back several hundred years. Posy rings—so named because they were engraved with romantic poems—date back to 16th-century England, while Acrostic rings—spelling out a word in gemstones, for example, a ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst, ruby and diamond spelling "regard"—were popular in the Georgian and Victorian eras.

It's only in the past decade that promise rings have become a mainstream trend, largely thanks to the publicity surrounding famous owners of such rings like the Jonas brothers and Miley Cyrus. Though, thanks to the young celebrities' public declarations—in 2008, Joe Jonas told Details that the brothers' rings symbolized "a promise to ourselves and to God that we'll stay pure till marriage"—promise rings became synonymous with purity rings. "Some people have gotten the terminology confused," Brinkman says. “When you talk about abstinence, and a ring 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 token of commitment within the confines of a romantic relationship.

The tradition of wearing a ring to demonstrate loyalty and fidelity dates back to ancient times, says Brinkman, who states there's evidence that Roman brides wore engagement bands in the 2nd century BC. The reason they're typically worn on the ring finger of the left hand, she says, is because there's a vein that runs from that finger to the heart.

Promise Ring Etiquette

Although it doesn't carry the same levity of an engagement ring, a promise ring should not 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 you are about the relationship," says Kelly McLeskey-Dolata, founder of Bay Area event planning and design company A Savvy Event.

In terms of style, anything goes when it comes to promise rings. Common themes include hearts, intertwined designs to commemorate the idea of a couple's union, Claddagh rings and eternity rings, as well as bands with a mosaic or composite of stones. "Engagement rings have such a sacred nature; promise rings are often viewed as more of a fashion piece," says Brinkman, who cautions against choosing a style that might compete with an engagement ring, if that's your eventual intention. "They both serve a purpose," Brinkman says. “You want to make sure they don't look the same—or even close." For ideas, browse The Knot roundup of promise rings you can buy now.

Unlike with engagement rings, there are no rules or guidelines around how much to spend on promise rings, but it's usually significantly less. At Simon G. Jewelry, promise rings typically range from $500 to $2,000; at Kay Jewelers, they range from $199 to $599. "Remember, most people purchasing promise rings are younger and don't have the financial means to be spending a lot of money," McLeskey-Dolata says.

There's also no right or wrong way to give a promise ring. It doesn't require the same "on bended knee" tradition as engagement rings, and they're most often given as a birthday, Valentine's or Christmas gift, McLeskey-Dolata says. A romantic dinner for two is sufficient to set the scene. "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.'"

Which finger does it go on? It's entirely up to the individual. Promise rings can be worn on any finger, Brinkman says, adding that they're sometimes even worn on a chain around the neck. But usually promise rings are worn on the ring finger of the left hand (if not married) or the right hand (if married).

While promise rings are intended to be a lifelong vow, we all know that things don't always go according to plan. Even if the pledge is rescinded, promise rings are not always returned. "It depends on the nature of the breakup," Brinkman says.

For many couples, promise rings do precede an engagement. If you're ready to upgrade from a promise to a proposal, check out these swoon-worthy proposal ideas for popping the question in the most unforgettable fashion. You can also check out How He Asked for real proposal inspiration and even a proposal idea generator

Not sure where to begin with your wedding planning? Take our Style Quiz and we'll pull together a custom wedding vision and vendors to match, just for you.


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He Gave Me a Promise Ring -- Does That Mean We're Pre-Engaged?

A few months ago, my boyfriend gave me a promise ring as a token of our commitment. Lately we've been discussing the ideal month to get married in, and I'm certain he's going to propose soon. I don't want to miss out on having my wedding on the date I've always dreamed of, so is it okay to send out save-the-dates even though we're not officially engaged yet?

by The Knot2 min read