A History Of Engagement Ring Trends, From The Roman Era To Today

At first glance, engagement rings might seem like a modern invention. And while the version with the solitaire diamond certainly is, engagement rings are actually part of a very long and varied jewelry tradition. And if you're hunting for inspiration for your own wedding (or just shopping for your Pinterest board), delving back into the ages can be a very enlightening experience. Take a trip back through time to the romantic origins of engagement rings, from the simple to the very ornate indeed...

by JR Thorpe

The Roman Era: Iron And Gold

Romans were the real origins of this wedding tradition: the writer Macrobius reported their belief that the nerves of the heart to be connected to the fourth finger of the left hand, thought this is actually incorrect. The style? Twofold: women were often given one iron and one gold ring, the latter of which she wore outside to impress people.

Image: Justice Jewellers

The Third Century AD: All About Gold

The Romans started getting very elaborate in the third and fourth centuries. Their engagement rings began to get wider, involve a lot more gold, and show off cameos or designs of figures and symbols related to betrothal. They looked a bit like today’s signet rings.

Image: Medieval Rings

The Middle Ages: Gemstones

The Middle Ages really started the elaborate engagement ring story we know today. In fact, Pope Nicholas issued an edict in 860BC declaring that engagements were only legit if the dude produced a gold engagement ring. Rings from the medieval period in Europe were the first to commonly use gemstones, including rubies or sapphires, and tended to look a little bit like tiny reliquaries for relics.

Image: Heirloom London

The Renaissance: All About Extravagance

Renaissance Italians expanded the engagement ring concept: at an elaborate engagement ceremony (in which they swore their intent under a drawn sword), the bride was given three rings, one of which had the arms of her new family on it. The Renaissance was also the first time when a high-profile man gave a diamond engagement ring — the Archduke Maximilian of Austria gave one to his betrothed in 1477.

Image: Art Finding

The Enlightenment: Romantics, Through And Through

Enlightenment rings took a turn for the elaborate: they were gimmal rings, which have several different rings that come together to form one. But the 17th century was also the age of the posie ring, the thoroughly romantic ring with inscriptions of love on the inside and outside.

Image: Trademark Antiques

The Victorian Era: All About The Symbolism

The 18th and 19th centuries meant that rings became a lot more symbolic, carrying hearts, hands and other symbols of fidelity and lifelong love. Colorful stones of all kinds were still popular. They also usually inscribed the inside with mottos or the date of the ceremony.

Image: Ruby Lane

Early 20th Century: Art Deco

Art Deco had a huge influence on the engagement rings of the early 20th century, particularly in America. Tiny gems were used to form big designs, rather than one central big jewel — and angular shapes were all the rage.

Image: Friar House

1950s: Traditionalism

The idea of the single solitaire engagement ring came about when De Beers, the diamond manufacturer, began a campaign to make it the be all and end all of engagement ring fashions. It worked, and the midcentury “classic” look has since completely overtaken the market.

Image: Facets Jewels

1980s: Diana-Mania

The ring everybody loved to copy in the 1980s was Princess Diana’s sapphire and diamond ring from her wedding to Prince Charles, now safely the property of Duchess Kate. Sapphires became the go-to gemstone to pair with diamonds, and sizes of engagement rings began to grow.

Image: Rings With Love

2000s: Big Bold Sparklers

Who can forget the massive diamonds of celebrity engagements in the 2000s, from Jennifer Lopez’s pink whopper from Ben Affleck, to Tom Cruise’s whopping five carat oval diamond for Katie Holmes. Bling was the name of the game, and unusual stunners in different cuts and colors competed for attention.

Image: US Magazine.

Present Day: Personalization And Conflict-Free Rules

These days, the real surprise is when anybody goes traditional. From Lady Gaga’s heart-cut diamond to Cameron Diaz’s enormous gold band with embedded jewels, personalization is the name of the game. People are also interested in getting their rings conflict-free, picking out seriously rare gemstones like tanzanite, and otherwise thinking outside the ringbox. It’s a brave new world.

Image: Lady Gaga’s Instagram.