The Surprising History Behind the Engagement Ring

Diamonds weren't always a girl's best friend.

Updated 11/01/19

Photo by Olivia Rae James

The history of engagement rings is actually quite surprising—what we think of as a symbol of love today was 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?

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 were later found in the ruins of Pompeii, proving the shiny metal became the material of choice in the common era. The Romans were also fans of owning two engagement rings—an iron ring worn at home and a gold ring worn in public. If you are looking for an excuse to purchase a travel ring, blame it on the Romans!

A Mark for Marriage

It wasn't until 850 that the engagement ring was given an official meaning. Pope Nicholas I declared that the engagement ring represented a man's intent to marry with gold as the most popular material for betrothal rings at the time.

The first time diamonds appeared on an engagement ring was in 1477 when Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy. According to the GIA, the ring featured long and narrow diamonds mounted in the shape of an "M."

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 among brides. 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.

So, the next time you hear somebody joke about a ring being like tiny handcuffs you can inform them while that used to be the case (thousands of centuries ago), that is far from the truth today. Got it? OK, you can take your ring selfie now!

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