What Is a Promise Ring and What Does It Symbolize?

The meaning behind this special accessory runs deep.

Silver rings stacked on top of each other on wooden table

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Thank early-aughts Miley Cyrus, Liam Hemsworth, and the Jonas Brothers for a resurgence in an age-old concept: the promise ring. While many people associate promise rings with teenagers, puppy love, and, occasionally, abstinence (more on that later), the gesture and meaning behind a promise ring run much deeper and are suitable for couples of all ages.

What Is a Promise Ring?

A promise ring is given and worn as an outward symbol of commitment and fidelity to another person.

Here’s everything you need to know about promise rings before you decide to give (or wear) one.

The Meaning of a Promise Ring 

In the simplest of terms, a promise ring is a step up from dating. It shows the world that your heart belongs to another and that you’re devoted to protecting and nurturing that relationship. These days, a promise ring is most commonly given as a precursor to an engagement, but that is not always the case.

“Some of my clients don’t necessarily believe in marriage, so they give promise rings as a symbol of a long-lasting relationship,” says jeweler Benjamin Khordipour of Estate Diamond Jewelry. But if you are planning on getting hitched one day, why not just give the engagement ring and ride it out?

Meet the Expert

  • Benjamin Khordipour is a New York-based gemologist and vintage jewelry specialist with Estate Diamond Jewelry. He holds a GD (graduate in diamonds) from the Gemological Institute of America as well as an advanced colored gem professional certificate from the Gübelin gemological laboratory of Switzerland.
  • Jeweler Melanie Casey founded Massachusetts-based Melanie Casey Fine Jewelry in 2011. Her company specializes in delicate, ethereal engagement and promise rings.

Finances, age, and geography can all play a factor. A couple in medical school, for example, may have years to go before they feel financially secure enough to pay down a diamond and major loans, or a couple with one member on a professional stint overseas may want to wait until they’re physically together to embark on an engagement. And teenagers in love might not be mature enough to take on the more adult aspects of cohabitation and marriage. In these scenarios, a promise ring serves as a placeholder for a future engagement without kicking off the wedding planning process.

Though it’s fair to think of a purity ring as a type of promise ring, the two are not entirely interchangeable. A purity ring is worn as an outward commitment to abstain from sex until marriage. A promise ring can hold that same meaning if this commitment is made within the context of a relationship, but if it is a pledge made to oneself, one’s parents, or one’s religious institution, it is generally considered something separate.

The History of Promise Rings 

According to Khordipour, the concept of promise rings dates back to the Roman era. He says the Romans were required to wait a certain amount of time before marrying, and they gave rings as a sign of commitment during that period.

Next came the more romantic posy ring in the 14th century, which was worn as a symbol of affection between lovers. Also spelled "posey" or "poesy," the posy ring was a band engraved with a short poetic phrase (often written in Latin or French) to signify romantic feelings. In the 19th century, acrostic rings cleverly spelled out words like "regard" and "dearest" in gemstones. ("Regard" was communicated with a ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst, ruby, and diamond, while "dearest" consisted of a diamond, emerald, amethyst, ruby, emerald, sapphire, and tourmaline.)

The promise ring as a pre-engagement ring is a more modern concept. As courtships have grown longer, people have come to give promise rings as a sort of midway guarantee. “These days, what you’re saying with a promise ring is eventually we’ll get married, but as of now we’re not ready,” says Khordipour. “It gives both parties reassurance that the relationship will keep going.”

What Does a Promise Ring Look Like?

The short answer is: there is no answer! Like engagement rings, promise rings are available in a variety of styles. The ring should be tailored to the wearer’s individual taste but not be so over-the-top that it can’t be worn every day. Here are some popular trends in promise ring styles:

  • Smaller diamond rings. Large solitaires have long been associated with engagements, but stones at 0.25 carat and below are a common way to give a promise ring that indicates a future engagement.
  • Simple bands. Whether it’s set with gemstones, engraved with initials, or solely made of precious metal, a band-style promise ring is a more subtle approach.
  • Birthstone rings. Giving the wearer his or her birthstone is ideal for longevity, as the ring can be worn alongside an engagement ring later on.
  • Cluster rings. Several stones grouped together sparkle like an engagement ring without trying to stand in for one. “It bridges that gap,” says jeweler Melanie Casey. “It can be worn on either hand and doesn’t make people look engaged when they aren’t actually engaged.”

Promise Ring FAQs

How much should you spend on a promise ring? 

There’s no hard and fast rule here. If marriage is in your future, though, don’t break the bank on the promise ring. Save for the engagement ring and keep current costs under $2,000. "That lower price point is key for the promise ring because it’s not the engagement ring gesture, but the precursor to that," says Casey.

How do you give a promise ring? 

Marriage proposals can be over-the-top. They involve grand gestures, romantic monologues, and getting down on one knee. "Giving a promise ring should be as opposite of that as possible," says Khordipour. "You don’t want to fool your partner into thinking they are about to be proposed to."

Instead, it’s best to bring it up in conversation. Explain what you’ll be giving and why you’re giving it. While it’s okay to prepare a speech, do not, under any circumstances, kneel while you deliver it.

Which finger is a promise ring worn on?

A promise ring can be worn on the ring finger of either hand. If it is given and accepted as a symbol of future commitment, it is typically worn on the left hand.

How long after giving a promise ring should you propose?

A promise ring does not kick off any sort of countdown to marriage, but it is something you should be prepared to discuss. Be open and honest about how you see your future as a couple progressing, as well as your feelings regarding marriage in general.

What do you do with a promise ring after getting engaged?

Whatever you want! Some will switch it to the ring finger on their right hand; others may opt to wear it on a necklace; and others still will put it away. Khordipour suggests wearing it in lieu of your engagement ring while traveling, and Casey is seeing promise rings incorporated into the rising trend of stackable jewels. "We’ve seen people do promise/engagement ring combos, where a stack of rings will start with a promise ring on their engagement finger, then they’ll add a wedding band, then a diamond band," she says. "The left ring finger comes to represent phases of life and their relationship."

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