In Catalyst Wedding Co. editor Liz Susong’s weekly column devoted to the feminist bride, she dives headfirst into the crazy history behind common wedding traditions we may take for granted. Liz investigates here.
Do you have that male family member who loves to joke that wedding rings are the tiniest handcuffs ever made? Next time he’s all “hardy har har,” you can inform him that indeed that’s true…for women, anyway. While wedding rings have an extensive history, dating back to ancient times, wedding historian Susan Waggoner writes, “A ring today may say ‘I love you,’ but there’s a school of thought that says the original meaning of an engagement ring was a far less starry-eyed ‘I own you.’”
In most eras and geographic locations, the engagement ring has been worn by the bride, and the bride only. The custom has been tied to ancient practices of marking a woman as spoken for, as well as a much sweeter interpretation of a symbolic commitment pledge. Waggoner writes, “Roman law took a surprisingly modern view of the engagement ring, recognizing it not as a sign of ownership but as a kind of security or down payment paid to the bride-to-be.” In fact, up until the 1930s in the United States, a woman could sue for damages if her fiancé broke their engagement. After all, her reputation would be ruined and her marital prospects would be dashed.
Around the time that this law was being taken off the books, the supply of diamonds was much higher than the demand, as diamond rings were not seen as a requisite to engagement. De Beers, the British company that managed the diamond mines in South Africa, hired an ad agency, N.W. Ayer, in 1938 “to persuade young men that diamonds (and only diamonds) were synonymous with romance, and that the measure of a man's love (and even his personal and professional success) was directly proportional to the size and quality of the diamond he purchased.”
The Atlantic reports, “Young women, in turn, had to be convinced that courtship concluded, invariably, in a diamond.” De Beers literally sent lecturers to high schools to teach girls about the diamond engagement ring. The infamous slogan of this campaign was “Diamonds are forever.” In other words, don’t try to resell your diamond because it’s actually not worth that much. Instead, keep it as a family heirloom.
And, as orchestrated by those Depression-era “mad men,” my husband proposed to me with his grandmother’s diamond in 2012. There has also been a surge of talented smaller-scale jewelers who are committed to ethical practices, and more people are learning about why diamonds became popular in the first place. Alison of San Francisco says, “I didn’t want a diamond because I don’t like the conflict issue or how diamonds are artificially inflated in value. They’re not in actuality all that rare; it’s all marketing and limited control of supply, and that irritates me.” Alison’s fiancé purchased an antique sapphire ring instead. Similarly, Nicholle of Ohio opted for “a really simple emerald-cut aquamarine” ring because “it just felt like a very special stone representing our relationship. Aquamarine means ‘water of the sea,’ and he’s from the Mediterranean, so the stone held that layer of meaning as well.”
Adam of Pennsylvania and his fiancé, Carolin, are both engineers who discussed their engagement before Adam popped the question. Adam says, “We decided we wanted to forgo the traditional diamond engagement rings and go for something that was closer to our passion.” The two met in graduate school in material science, so “meteorite rings were a clear choice for us, as they have a structure that you can see with the naked eye.” Additionally, they have both chosen to wear engagement bands. Adam explains, “I am American and Carolin is German. In Germany, it is typical for both parties in an engagement to wear a ring, not just the woman. Also, engagement rings are worn on the left hand and then moved to the right during the ceremony.” The two decided to mix the traditions, wearing their engagement bands on their right hands and then switching them to the left on their wedding day, as they both live in the U.S. now.
Shakti and Maitreya of Colorado also chose to both wear engagement rings, which were engraved metal bands that they also used in their wedding ceremony. She says, “As part of the ceremony, they were blessed with the energy and love of the people there to witness our union, so even though we don’t really wear them anymore, they feel really special to me.” Like Shakti, Morgan of Ohio just isn’t big on jewelry. When her husband proposed, “he picked out the most wonderful white watch with a rainbow face, and it was an absolutely perfect way, in our own language, to say ‘Will you marry me?’” Today Morgan and her husband both wear silicone bands, which are perfect for their active lifestyle.
Carly, a wedding photographer in Virginia, and her husband, Travis, do not wear wedding rings. She says, “I shudder at the idea that a stranger on the subway would be able to tell whether or not I'm married/partnered just by looking at my hand.” She says she appreciates the symbolism most couples attach to rings and has even teared up during the ring exchange at weddings, but ultimately, “I don’t feel like I need a ‘reminder’ of my commitment, and let’s be real: If someone makes the decision to break part of their marriage pact, they’re going to do it regardless of if they wear a ring or not.” She says occasionally her husband will wear a ring: “He says wearing it makes him feel more stable and confident, which is of course totally fine by me. There was no proclamation in front of our community or blessing of the ring; it’s just like any other piece of clothing he likes to wear sometimes.”