Certain traditions are so steeped in our culture, we often follow them without truly understanding their origins. Some traditions, such as those surrounding festive holidays like Christmas and Easter, for example, are thoroughly discussed in school and referred to in movies and TV shows, so by the time we hit our early teens, we’ll at least be able to explain the gist of what the Christmas tree and Lent is all about.
Yet, when it comes to romantic rituals and traditions such as getting engaged and married, we often fail to look beyond these starry-eyed milestone moments to understand how these customs originated.
The history of the engagement ring and marriage date back to Roman times and are, as such, rather outdated, so it is understandable that modern rom-coms only ever focus on grandiose marriage proposals and rarely discuss how these traditions came to be. Not to worry though – if you’ve been proposed to and want to know what it’s all about before you say, “I do”, look no further: here’s the history of the engagement ring.
It is hard to pinpoint when and where the engagement ring was first used to propose marriage, though it is said that this custom originated in ancient Egypt or Greece. However, the Romans were the ones to turn this tradition into one that followed certain legal requirements, and truly popularized the use of not one, but two engagement rings.
The engagement ring was used to symbolize that the ownership of the bride has been passed on from her father to her future husband, thus unifying not only the couple but their families via marital contract.
The bride-to-be was given two rings: one golden and one made of iron. The iron ring, heavy and often resembling a Roman key, symbolized the couple’s strength and perpetuity and was only worn around the home. The golden ring was worn when out on the town and served to show off wealth and marital status.
Although ancient Roman laws prohibited lower classes from wearing golden rings, people always found a way around the rules and even the poorest of brides were wearing their iron rings plated with flecks of gold. To this day, many Italians follow these ancient traditions of two engagement/wedding rings.
The trend of the engagement ring continued over the centuries and by the mid-7th century, the Visigoth Code stated that the ring itself acted as a binding promise that “shall under no circumstances, be broken” – in other words, the ring was more powerful than any legal document.
The Victorian Era saw the first big diamond boom in 1866, and aristocrats and other men of means quickly found a way of incorporating them into their wedding rings. The diamond craze didn’t last all too long, however – when the world was hit with the Great Depression, the mere thought of diamond jewelry fell to the wayside.
This is when De Beers, the world-renowned diamond trading company, and N.W Ayers came up with one of the most famous marketing campaigns in history: with the use of the slogan “a diamond is forever”, the company convinced its customers that a diamond ring directly reflected the longevity of their marriage, and it soon became an object of envy with Hollywood film stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe flashing the cameras with their sparkling bling.
“A Diamond is Forever”
– Famous DeBeer's Marketing Slogan
The tradition of giving an engagement ring continues today and its style changes with every trend. Diamonds are still considered to be a girl’s good friend, but whether they are a girl’s best friend really depends on the girl – she might be more of a gemstone gal!