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Wedding rings and a theory of evolution

By Kate Peterson

Photos ©Chris Ploof Designs
Photos ©Chris Ploof Designs

“A ring so destined to encircle the finger of a beauteous girl… A ring having no worth other than the love of the giver.”

~ Ovid (43 BC – 17 AD)

Most who work in the jewellery industry are familiar with the story of the first documented diamond ring used to signify engagement, presented by Archduke Maximilian of Austria upon his betrothal to Mary of Burgundy in 1477. The ring as a symbol of love and commitment, however, traces its history to the earliest days of humanity. Indeed, the tradition of the ring itself and what it represents—a circle with no beginning and no end, with its centre providing a window to the future and its placement on the third finger of the left hand, touching Vena Amoris, the ‘love vein’ that travels directly to the heart—is known by historians to have originated with the very beginnings of humankind.

While much has remained constant in regards to bridal jewellery over the centuries, a great deal has also changed, with some of the most dramatic shifts being felt in recent years. Transformations in consumer attitudes and interpretations, combined with changes in everything from style and material preferences, to distribution channels and accessibility have created an environment for retailers that is far less stable than predicted.

To understand the role of the wedding ring in our society today, and envision its continuing significance with consumers of tomorrow, it is important to understand the history and evolution of symbolism, style, and materials of these pieces from the earliest days and moving forward. For jewellers, the ability to remain relevant to bridal consumers now and in the future might well depend on our ability to apply the lessons of evolution to modern design, marketing, and retail execution.

Evolution through history

In the earliest days of civilization, a bond shared by two people was often illustrated through a reed or branch, which was tied around a finger, wrist, or waist with a knot to symbolize binding. These knotted rings and bands were thoughts to ward off evil, keeping a couple safe in their union. Historians who study Ancient Egypt have recovered images of gold bands on fingers drawn onto papyrus scrolls that tell the stories of couples and families. At the time, gold was reserved for the wealthy, as it was thought to be the substance of sun or the flesh of the gods. Options for the less opulent included bone, ivory, silver, and leather.

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The concept of the ring and its accompanying symbolism was further popularized in the Roman Empire, when large bands were fashioned with a ‘key’ type extension to indicate the promise of marriage. These pieces, which were often made of brass, bronze, or iron, were generally not worn on a finger, but instead suspended from a chain, hung from a hook, or attached to a belt. Even at that time, engraving imparted power to the object; historians in Egypt discovered a key ring, dating back to third-century Rome, inscribed, Accipe Dulcis Multis Annis (“Take this, sweet one, for many years”).

By the Byzantine Empire in the seventh century, a ring placed on the third finger of the left hand had become the unmistakable symbol of commitment and love.

Gibeon meteorite with 18-karat palladium white gold.
Gibeon meteorite with 18-karat palladium white gold.

Later on, the 14th and 15th centuries saw the dawn of many of the wedding ring customs we still treasure today. Among these traditions are the construction of precious metals, engravings on the inside of a ring, the symbolism of a diamond, and the use of coloured gemstones (primarily ruby, sapphire, and emerald), which were believed to have mystical powers.

Further, betrothal rings for women (often thin bands set with diamonds or gemstones) came to represent a marriage contract between families. Because these bands were costly and precious, a ‘keeper’ ring was often placed over the top of the betrothal ring to ensure that the band was not lost. By the late 1800s, these rings had evolved to resemble modern engagement rings, with the ‘keeper ring’ becoming the wedding band, similar to how we know them today.

Styles and norms continued to evolve through modern times, with wide variations in materials (e.g. metal, enamel, diamonds, gemstones) and custom pieces. While precious metals (i.e. gold, silver, platinum, and palladium) remained consistent, esthetic shifts, like the rise of the Art Nouveau period (1890 – 1910), as well as historic events that limited availability, such as the First World War (1914 – 1918) and the Second World War (1939 – 1945), raised the demand for alternative, unique materials.

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In what might be considered a return to those days, as well as to times as far removed as Ancient Egypt, an increasing number of today’s bridal couples are choosing to make a personal statement with rings made from a variety of metals and other components, including steel, titanium, ceramic, iron, bone, leather, carbon, and even rubber.

Posey rings, dating back to the 15th century, offer insight to the origin of modern inside-ring engravings.

In the 1400s, the power of the written word, especially in the form of poetry, was very significant. Artifacts from the period show some of the loving inscriptions and genuine sentiments of the time:

  • autre ne veuil (desire no other)
  • amor vincit om (love conquers all)
  • in mir hist treue (in me, fidelity)
  • “in me a flame, in thee the same”
  • “joy without end”

Other interesting finds shed light on some 15th century humour:

  • “’Tis fit no man should be alone, which made Tom to marry Joan”
  • “More faithful than fortunate”
  • “Thou wert not handsome but rich; t’was that which did my eyes bewitch”

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