The history of engagement rings is actually quite surprising—what we think of as a symbol of love today may have been nothing more than a mark of ownership to the Romans and Egyptians of the 2nd century BC. Not very romantic, right? But luckily, times have changed and with engagement season officially upon us, we think it's important to give you a crash course—and a history lesson—on your new bling. After all, we can't be the only bridal nerds googling "when did engagement rings start?"
An Ancient Sign of Ownership
Like so many of our customs today, engagement rings can be traced all the way back to Ancient Rome. According to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), Roman women wore rings of ivory, flint, bone, copper, and iron "to signify a business contract or to affirm mutual love and obedience." These newer, more durable materials replaced the original reed and hemp bands used by the Ancient Egyptians. Gold rings and other jewelry were later found in the ruins of Pompeii, proving the buttery metal became the material of choice in the era.
A Mark for Marriage
According to the GIA, it wasn't until 850 that the engagement ring was given an official meaning, with Pope Nicholas I declaring that the engagement ring represented a man's intent to marry, with gold as the most popular material for betrothal rings at the time. According to the Cape Town Diamond Museum, the first time diamonds appeared on an engagement ring was in 1477 when Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy with a stone-setting shaped like the letter "M".
The Original Ring Stack
In the 15th century, engagement rings began to embody the symbolism of intertwined unity that we think of today. Gimmel rings, or rings comprised of three connected bands, surged in popularity. The rings would begin as individual bands, one worn by each half of the engaged couple. On the wedding day, the two bands would be connected with a third (the wedding band) and worn by the new bride as her wedding ring set.
An Enlightened Approach
While gimmel rings held steady into the Age of Enlightenment, posy rings also began to circulate amongst the betrothed set. These rings were intricately engraved and hid inscriptions of love of poetry on the inside of the band. At times, the silver posy engagement ring would be exchanged for a gold iteration during the wedding ceremony.
The Rise of Diamonds
Even though the Archduke was the first to propose with a diamond ring, he was by no means a trendsetter. In fact, diamond engagement rings didn't become popular until 1947 when De Beers, the British company that mined diamonds in South Africa, launched an advertising campaign. With the help of Hollywood stars and the slogan, "A diamond is forever," diamond engagement rings skyrocketed in popularity for the first time since their appearance stateside in 1840.
The Latest Millennial Trend
In recent years, we've started to see a shift in engagement ring preferences. Of course, the diamond is still a popular option (hello, J. Lo's jaw-dropping emerald-cut stone), but more and more brides are opting for colored stones and rings made out of unique materials. When Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton, he chose a stunning blue sapphire engagement ring. Actress Blake Lively received a light pink oval diamond in a rose-gold setting from Ryan Reynolds and Katy Perry was given a unique ruby in a floral halo design by Orlando Bloom. Even singer Ariana Grande broke from tradition when she debuted a pearl and diamond bauble from fiancé Dalton Gomez in December 2020.
Cape Town Diamond Museum. "History of the Engagement Ring."
Gemological Institute of America. "The History of the Engagement Ring."
Gapa A. Strategic partner or shot caller? the De Beers factor in Botswana’s development. Journal of Global South Studies. 2016;33(1):49-82.