The Surprising History of Engagement Rings

Photo by Olivia Rae James

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 in ancient times. 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 on your new bling. After all, shouldn't you know exactly what your rock means before you post your first #BridesRings selfie?

Engagement Ring Facts

Bailey Mariner/Brides 

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." Gold rings and other jewelry were later found in the ruins of Pompeii, proving the shiny 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.

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.

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.

Article Sources
Brides takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Gemological Institute of America. "The History of the Engagement Ring."

  2. Cape Town Diamond Museum. "History of the Engagement Ring."

  3. 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.

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