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.
by Claire Coghlan
Promise ring on couple holding hands
iStock

Between promise rings, purity rings, commitment rings, pre-engagement rings and beyond, the confusion around what a promise ring means is totally understandable. What’s the purpose of a promise ring? What finger does it go on? Are they just for women, or are there promise rings for men too? How do you get one, give one, buy one, return one? So. Many. Questions. That’s why we tapped jewelry experts to break down everything you need to know about meaning of promise rings.

What Is a Promise Ring?

A promise ring is a ring given from one person to another in a romantic relationship to signify their fidelity and commitment, often (but not always) preceding an engagement. At its most essential, giving a promise ring symbolizes one partner's devotion to the relationship, and accepting the ring does so for the recipient.

Promise Ring Meaning

As the name suggests, promise rings represent a promise made between two people, but 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 devotion to one another."

"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 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."

A 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—and the tradition of wearing a ring to demonstrate loyalty and fidelity dates back to ancient times, and there's evidence that Roman brides wore engagement bands in the 2nd century BC. Posy rings, 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.

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 (think: the Jonas Brothers and celeb couple Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth).

Is a Promise Ring the Same as a Purity Ring?

Sometimes, but not always. When Joe Jonas told Details in a 2008 interview that he and his brothers’ rings symbolized, "a promise to ourselves and to God that we'll stay pure till marriage,” promise rings became synonymous with purity rings.

But Brinkman wants to make a distinction: "Some people have gotten the terminology confused. 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 token of commitment within the confines of a romantic relationship.

Promise Ring Timing and Etiquette

Although promise rings 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," says Kelly McLeskey-Dolata, founder of event planning and design company A Savvy Event in the San Francisco Bay Area. 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.

Are They Just for Women—Or Are There Guy Promise Rings Too?

When you hear “promise ring,” your mind might immediately think of a man giving one to a woman. But guy promise rings are quite common. Remember we mentioned Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth? Before getting married in 2018, both Cyrus and Hemsworth wore promise rings. And don’t forget about the Jonas brothers. Some couples promise rings to each other. Other times one person will give their partner one to pledge their commitment and demonstrate how much they value the relationship. The point is, guy or girl, hetero or LGBTQ+, anyone can give or wear a promise ring.

What Finger Does a Promise Ring Go On?

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. 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.

What Should a Promise Ring Look Like?

In terms of style, anything goes when it comes to promise rings. Seriously, there are no rules or requirements here. Popular promise ring themes and styles include hearts or intertwined designs to represent 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 exactly the same." (For ideas, browse The Knot roundup of promise rings you can buy now.)

How Much Should a Promise Ring Cost?

There are no rules or guidelines around how much to spend on promise rings, but 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.

How to Give a Promise Ring

Another thing there’s no hard-and-fast rule for? How to give a promise ring. It doesn’t come with the same traditional expectations of an elaborate, planned proposal where the proposee gets down on one knee. Promise rings are most often given as a birthday, Valentine's Day or holiday gift, McLeskey-Dolata says. 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.'"

What Happens to the 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.

For many couples, promise rings do precede an engagement. If you're ready to upgrade from a promise to a 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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