"What finger does the wedding ring go on?" We're willing to bet you've known the answer since you were a child. It's pretty common for most people, particularly in the United States, to sport their wedding ring on the left ring finger. But why is the wedding ring worn on the "ring finger" in the first place? And do brides and grooms absolutely have to?
What Is the Ring Finger?
In many Western cultures, the ring finger is designated as the fourth finger on the left hand. The tradition of wearing a wedding ring on this digit originated from the belief that this finger has a vein running directly to the heart.
"Historically, wedding rings have been documented to be worn on every finger, even the thumb," says jeweler Stephanie Selle. "Today, wedding rings are most commonly worn on the fourth finger of the left hand. But some countries including India, Germany, Spain, Norway, and Russia traditionally wear their wedding rings on their right hand." Overall, it seems cultural traditions and norms set the standard for this custom. "It's interesting that with all of the wedding traditions and trends that people decide to make their own in some way, the ring finger is one that most people keep," notes Selle.
Meet the Expert
Stephanie Selle is a jeweler and jewelry history aficionado with over 20 years of experience in the industry. She is the owner of Washington-based With These Rings, a workshop specialized in helping couples forge their own rings.
Below, we delve into the intriguing story behind traditional ring finger placement and why you might choose (or not choose) to follow this custom. Plus, uncover other commonly asked questions and traditions behind engagement and promise rings.
The History and Meaning of the Ring Finger
The tradition and symbolism of the ring finger can be traced back to ancient times. "According to legend, it was believed the ring finger had a vein that connected directly to the heart, so lovers' hearts would be connected by their rings," notes Selle. "The early Romans called this the Vena Amoris, or vein of love." So, to solidify a union founded in love, a ring was placed on that specific finger to signify the romance that the newly wedded couple shared, essentially connecting their two hearts.
Sadly, our modern-day understanding of anatomy shows that all fingers have venous connections to the heart and no such singular vein exists, shattering the adorable symbolism. Yet tradition still holds true for many couples who designate their left-hand ring finger to signify their commitment to each other.
Ring Finger FAQs
In What Order Should I Place Rings on My Ring Finger?
If you've decided to wear your engagement and wedding rings on the same finger, you may be wondering about stacking. Married duos conventionally wear their wedding bands closest to their hearts, meaning they're at the bottom of the stack, below the engagement ring and pushed towards the base of the knuckle. If you want to honor this on your wedding day, the most popular strategy is to switch over your engagement ring to your right hand just before you walk down the aisle. Now your spouse-to-be can slide the band right up your left finger. It can be topped off with the engagement ring during the ceremony, or later on. For added pragmatism, some brides opt to have their wedding and engagement rings soldered together into one unified piece. We love how this introduces an entirely new "marital bond" metaphor.
Can I Wear My Wedding Ring and Engagement Ring on Different Hands?
Absolutely! The choice often comes down to personal or cultural preference. Some opt to wear their wedding ring on the left ring finger and their engagement ring on the right ring finger. Whether you choose to uphold a time-old tradition or create your very own is entirely up to you.
Can I Wear Rings on My Ring Finger If I'm Not Engaged or Married?
An old wives' tale denotes that wearing a non-committal ring on your left-hand ring finger could be bad luck. Not the superstitious type? If the ring fits, wear it! That being said, wearing a ring on that finger could signify to others that you are in a committed relationship, which might not be ideal if you're out on the dating scene.
Is It Okay to Wear Rings All the Time?
While it might be tempting to keep those rings on at all times (read: one last step to think about), you'll want to avoid any potential damage to the rings like scratching the metal, harming the stones, or disfiguring the setting. You'll definitely want to remove the rings when cleaning (especially if you're using chemicals), going to the gym or participating in other physical activities, and even before bed. Removing your rings at night will not only protect your rings and thwart swelling, but it will also keep you (or your spouse) from waking up with scratches.
Have your engagement ring professionally cleaned and checked twice a year. This will not only maintain its brilliance and shine, but also ensure the ring hasn't been damaged from wear.
How Do I Measure the Size of My Ring Finger?
A surprising amount of factors go into sizing up a ring finger. In addition to the shape and size of your finger, you'll also need to consider your lifestyle and the actual ring you have in mind. If you're frequently partaking in activities that might cause your finger to swell like physical exertion or long travel, you'll need to keep that in mind. Climate is an additional factor as hands and fingers may be more likely to swell in the summer and less likely to swell in the winter due to the cold. The width of the band will also impact the sizing as thicker bands tend to have a tighter fit.
To ensure the perfect fit, the best time to measure is when your body feels at its most normal—so at room temperature during the middle of the day (fingers might swell overnight or after eating), preferably not after hitting the gym or post hot meal. Ring guards or beads can help offset slight fluctuations in finger size if they arise. If you feel unsure about your ring size, consider getting professionally measured.
Selle advises that if you're intending to switch the placement of the rings, either from one hand to the other or to different fingers, you'll need to "take into account that both fingers might not be the same size."
How to Follow the Ring Finger Tradition
From wedding rings to finger tattoos, there are many ways to express your commitment of love to your partner and stick with tradition.
The Wedding Ring
As mentioned before, wedding rings are most often worn on the fourth finger from the right on the left hand, particularly in the West. But, you're also welcome to wear your wedding ring on the right-hand ring finger. In doing so, you'd be following the example of many central and northern European couples. The list includes Norway, Austria, Denmark, Poland, Belgium (some areas), Germany, Russia, Latvia, Greece, Bulgaria, and Ukraine. Orthodox Christians, too, customarily wore bands on the right. This was also the case in India, as it was once believed the left hand was unlucky or dirty. But nowadays, either hand can be a home for wedding baubles.
The tradition is one that holds particularly great meaning to same-sex couples. "I remember before individual states passed same-sex marriage many LGBTQ+ couples would wear 'commitment' rings, sometimes on their right hand," says Selle. "But since the Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage a constitutional right just about all of the LGBTQ+ couples I know and have worked with choose the traditional ring finger for their wedding rings." Selle recalls a former client who was very eager to finally be able to replace her longtime commitment ring with a wedding ring. "Both sets looked almost identical and represented the same promise as a couple," says Selle. "But to her the wedding band symbolized something different, as she said 'now we can finally be married, just like everyone else.'"
The Engagement Ring
The first recorded engagement ring was gifted by Austria's Archduke Maximilian to his lady love, Mary of Burgundy, in the 15th century. Today, especially within same-sex marriages, men have also begun wearing engagement rings.
True to tradition, the newly engaged have taken to wearing the engagement ring on the left ring finger (commonly referred to as the engagement ring finger). Interestingly, some of the people in Europe who choose to wear their wedding rings on their right hand, still wear their engagement ring on the left and then transfer it over. In contrast, betrothed couples in Colombia and Brazil might wear bands as engagement rings on their right hands, and, after completing their vows move rings to the left hand. Swedish brides might wear unique wedding ring sets, made up of an engagement ring, wedding band, and the ring of motherhood.
The Promise Ring
The tradition of promise rings can arguably be traced back to the rise of "posy rings" in England and France during the Middle Ages. These were tokens exchanged between lovers and often inscribed with short love poems.
Today, they are predominantly gifted in the same fashion but the actual "promises" behind a promise ring can have different meanings to different people. Commitment is the general idea here, but whether that commitment is to an upcoming engagement, abstinence until marriage, the idea of forever, or just the immediate future, varies. In terms of placement, no particular rule exists but many believe whichever finger you've designated as your "engagement and/or wedding ring finger" holds the greatest significance.
Rings are a nice way to symbolize your union—and they've got those endless, infinite circle metaphors making a solid case for them—but you've got options. Like not wearing a ring at all, for example. Or, if you're seriously committed to an expression of permanence and self-sacrifice, nontraditional couples may opt to get a tattoo on their ring fingers to signify their marriage. In this particular instance, you should be very confident in your designation of the vein, finger, or hand that will display your commitment as it's no longer a simple slip-on, slip-off kind of thing.
Amgueddfa Cymru—National Museum Wales. "Posy Rings." May 9, 2017.