Today, they’re ubiquitous, and any nuptials would seem incomplete without them. But it wasn’t always that way—the humble wedding ring hails from unusual origins.
BY ZOË GAHAN
The ancient Egyptians believed in the vena amoris, literally the “vein of love” that runs directly from the heart to the fourth finger on the left hand. Since then, wedding rings have been worn as a sign of the binding pledge between spouses. The endless circle shows the eternal nature of the union, with the open centre a portal to the unexplored life ahead as a couple.
This sentimental theory is recognized in western cultures and is the main reason the engagement and wedding rings are worn on the fourth finger, now referred to as the “ring finger”. In other cultures, however, the ring is worn on the right hand, since that is the hand used for oaths and vows.
The Greeks and Romans carried on the tradition but, during these eras, betrothal rings were made out of leather, bone or ivory. In early Rome, the use of metal rings began to surpass other materials, but the metal primarily used was iron. Gold and silver rings were given on rare occasions, and only by the extremely wealthy.
By the time of the Byzantine Empire, most rings began to be personalized and engraved with figures of the betrothed couple. Once Christianity became the empire’s official religion, the couple were often depicted with Jesus or a cross between them, blessing their union.
Significantly, when someone is symbolically married to god, the ring is worn on the right hand. The Coronation Ring, known as the “Wedding Ring of England”, created for the coronation of William IV in 1831, was last worn by Elizabeth II in her marriage to the nation in 1953 on the fourth finger of her right hand. It takes the form of a sapphire surmounted by a cross of rubies and diamonds.
The fede or gimmel ring is an inspiration for many wedding bands today. According to John Benjamin, an independent jewellery buyer and historian, “a fede ring is a design of ring in which two hands meet and are clasped in friendship, love or betrothal, usually with an engraved motif like ‘Love me and leave me not.’” This style of ring became prominent in the medieval period, from the 13th century onwards. The name “fede” is from the Italian phrase mani in fede meaning “hands clasped in faith”, and the specific moment when the ring is placed on the finger in a marital service is often depicted in paintings throughout the ages. This is the particular moment that signifies the couple’s union; the ring seals the deal, as it were. The portrait Micer Marsilio Cassotti and his wife Faustina, painted by Lorenzo Lotto in 1523, shows an angel watching over the couple as he places the ring on her finger.
For centuries, wedding rings were the centrepiece of a marriage but they have been somewhat eclipsed by engagement rings. From Elizabeth Taylor’s iconic rock, Jacqueline Kennedy’s emerald by Van Cleef & Arpels, and Kate Middleton’s sapphire, reconfigured from Princess Diana’s engagement ring—all these pieces have bedazzled us and overwhelmingly influenced brides’ expectations.
It was not until 1947, when copywriter Francis Gerety created de Beers’s iconic “A Diamond is Forever” campaign, that diamonds soared as the most popular choice of stone for an engagement setting. Today, a diamond engagement ring is still the most common choice, although people are beginning to move towards unique styles, vintage pieces, rough diamonds and other non-traditional stones. Other couples are persuaded by more eco-friendly and fair-mined options, and even recycled diamonds.
The ultimate engagement ring in many a bride’s mind now is entirely bespoke: a unique piece designed in collaboration with a jeweller whereby everything from the gemstone, the gold, the setting and endless decorative elements are chosen by the bride—or a very confident groom.