The History of Wedding Rings
The wedding ring: for as long as you can remember, you’ve probably been familiar with the tradition of exchanging rings on a wedding day. You probably understand that the exchanging of the wedding rings symbolizes love between two people. The tradition of the wedding ring has become so ingrained in society, you probably don’t even question it. And yet, think about it – from where did the tradition come from? Why choose a ring instead of, say, a necklace? Today we’re going to go over a general history of wedding rings. You’re going to learn how ancient traditions have persevered through the ages to become the traditions of today and how the wedding ring has adapted to the societies of the day.
It has been suggested that the tradition of exchanging wedding rings goes as far back as 6000 years ago. Ancient Egyptians would collect sedges, reeds and rushes and create jewelry that the women would wear. As was the case in many other ancient civilizations, the Egyptians viewed the ring as a symbol of eternity, as the circle has neither beginning nor end. The hole in the middle of the ring carried a great deal of symbolic weight too – the Egyptians viewed the hole as a gateway or a portal to the future, to things known and unknown. The hole symbolizes the future and by placing a ring on a woman’s finger, you are essentially saying “you are my future” (you see this in modern ceremonies, with the line “for better or for worse, through sickness and in health”).
Because the rings were made from lighter materials, they usually didn’t last long. Eventually rings came to be made from bone, leather, or ivory. This is how price became associated with love – the view was that the more expensive the material used to create the ring, the more the giver loved the recipient.
The Greeks took the groundwork laid by the Egyptians a step further by introducing what would come to be known as Engagement Rings. While the ring was often given as a symbol of an imminent marriage, this was not always the case, and the ring could also be used to symbolize care, affection, or friendship. Notably, the ring was worn on the right hand rather than the left. This is because the left hand tended to have negative connotations, while the right hand had positive ones. This is especially prominent when you look at the Roman words for left and right, which are “sinister” and “dexter” respectively. “Sinister” had largely the same meanings as it does nowadays (negative), and “dexter” is the root word for “dexterity” (positive).
The Romans adopted a similar tradition and, being an innovative culture, added their own flair and symbolism. In Roman times, the ring was a sign that a woman had been “claimed” by a man. Rather than using bone or leather, the Romans used a metal called Anulus Pronobus (Latin: Betrothal Ring), which was thought to symbolize strength and permanence. Once the wedding ceremony had taken place, brides were given two rings – one iron and one gold. The gold ring was intended to be worn outside of the house, while the iron ring was worn while attending to household duties. Additionally, Romans are thought to be the first culture to engrave their wedding rings with inscriptions, which were first poems inscribed on the inside of the ring and later inscribed on the outside.
Roman wedding ceremonies gave us more than the tradition of engraving. The bride’s belt or girdle was designed to resemble the Heracles (Hercules) Knot. Heracles, in mythology, was legendarily fertile and the knot symbolized this fertility. In Roman wedding ceremonies, the knot symbolized the bride’s virginity and during the ceremony, the groom would untie the knot. This is likely where the term tying the knot originated.
One of the theories of the selection of the traditional ‘ring finger’ can be traced to the Romans. While arguable, it is thought that the Romans decided that the best place to place the ring was on the third finger on the left hand (excluding the thumb), which has nowadays become known as the ring finger. This is because the Romans believed that a special vein known as the vena amoris (Love Vein) ran through the third finger of the left hand and connected directly to the heart. Again, this is debated and a second theory stems from Christianity adopting the ring as a symbol in the first century.
Taking a cue from the Romans, early Christians began incorporating wedding rings into their wedding ceremonies around 860 AD. In early Christian ceremonies, the minister would touch each of the fingers while giving the blessing. He would say “In the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit” while touching the thumb, fore-, and middle finger respectively, and then place the ring on the fourth finger while saying ‘amen’.
It’s unclear whether the third-finger-from-the-left tradition resulted from Romans or Christians. Moreover, neither tradition explains why the ring is placed on the left ring finger as opposed to the right, though this is probably a matter of practicality over tradition. Because more people are right-handed than left-handed, it can be suggested that the ring was placed on the left hand to mitigate damage of the expensive ring. This logic makes sense because since the days of the Egyptians, wedding rings have traditionally been made from expensive materials, and it stands to reason that the owners would like to minimize damage to the jewelry.
Whether the ring is worn on the right hand or the left hand is a matter of regional preference. Western societies (the United States, the UK, Mexico, Brazil) tend to favor the left hand whereas countries like Greece, Russia, Spain and India tend to prefer the right hand in keeping with the original Greek traditions. Religion can play a role as well. For example, in the Netherlands, the wedding ring is traditionally worn on the right hand with the exception of Catholics, who wear it on the left. Jewish couples tend to wear their rings on the left hand, even though the ring is placed on the right hand during the ceremony. And in Belgium, the traditional hand is dictated by the region.
THE FIRST DIAMOND
Diamonds, nowadays, are the precious gems traditionally associated with wedding bands. In the grand scheme of things, this is a fairly recent tradition and can probably be traced back to the year 1477. In 1477, King Maximilian I of Germany was intent on marrying Mary of Burgundy and, as a means of sealing the deal, gave her a diamond wedding ring. This is the first documented instance of a diamond wedding ring and is likely the origins of the diamond wedding band used today.
While placing the ring on the left hand instead of the right does help to mitigate damage to the ring (and the wearer), the danger is still present. Workplace hazards, sports, and the generally active lifestyles available to 21st century societies increase the risk of damage or injury, specifically an injury called ring avulsion. Additionally, the advent of the Internet in the mid-nineties increased the ability for humans to connect, and as a result numerous problems with the traditional wedding ring came to light. Many people, for instance, are allergic to the metals from which wedding rings are made. Ring avulsion has not only been recognized as a problem, but a widespread one at that, resulting in over 150,000 cases of amputation and degloving per year.
This created a need for a better, more contemporary alternative to the traditional metal wedding ring, and so began the transition to silicone wedding rings (spearheaded by companies like Rinfit). Silicone wedding rings tackle both of the aforementioned problems head-on. Silicone wedding rings, for one, are designed to slide off or break when placed under stress. This negates ring avulsion as a problem, as ring avulsion occurs when the ring catches on something in the environment and pulls the skin/finger from the hand. Further, silicone rings are hypoallergenic, which means that they’re far safer for more people.
The tradition of exchanging wedding rings has been around for 4800 years (probably more) and undergone a great number of changes. In all likelihood, they will continue to undergo changes as silicone rings are tested, redesigned, and streamlined to meet today’s need for safe, quality, hypoallergenic jewelry.