The engagement ring marks an important moment in a couple’s life, a sort of promise that generally precedes the big step of marriage. It is a tradition, especially in Western culture, that women wear the ring, although in some cultures men do too. In ancient times It is generally believed that the ancient Egyptians invented the engagement ring and that the ancient Greeks adopted the tradition. In reality, the history of the engagement ring seems to date back with certainty only to ancient Rome. Pliny tells us that until the end of the first century of the Vulgar Era, engagement rings were made of simple iron, and it was only later that more precious metals and engravings were used. However, scholars have been divided on the interpretation of this information, since from the earliest times the ancient Romans wore very ostentatious and flashy rings. From the 2nd century BC onwards, two rings were given to the bride, a gold one to be worn in public and an iron one to be worn at home during household chores. Today, these rings are often worn, according to village tradition, on the ring finger of the left or right hand: in fact, it was once believed that this finger contained a vein connected to the heart. Middle Ages In the middle of the seventh century A.D. the Visigoth code foresaw “that when the engagement ceremony ended, … ,and the ring must be given or accepted as an undertaking, although it is not necessary to commit in writing, the promise cannot be broken under any circumstances.” In 1477, the first diamond engagement ring was commissioned by Archduke Maximilian I of Austria for Mary of Burgundy. Protestant Reformation During the Protestant Reformation, faith became the ring associated with marriage, replacing the engagement ring. In Catholic countries this change took place a little later. According to a modern belief, refuted by various scholars, in the colonised New England, where the Puritans avoided wearing ornaments and jewellery both the engagement ring and the wedding ring were replaced by a thimble and some women removed the closed part of the thimble to turn it into a ring. Enlightenment During the Enlightenment both the Secret Rings (consisting of two or three pieces to be assembled to form the wedding ring) and the Poetry Rings (on the surface were engraved verses) became popular. Although later they were used more to express their feelings than to indicate a formal engagement. Victorian Era The first diamonds were found in South Africa in 1866, although they appear not to have been identified until 1867. Starting in 1872, the world production of diamonds exceeded one million carats a year; for this reason even people of more humble origins than aristocrats could afford these precious stones, although for a long time diamond engagement rings remained the exclusive prerogative of the nobility. 20th century In 1919, a fall in the popularity of engagement rings began in the United States, which would last for twenty years, through World War I and the Great Depression. In 1938, then De Beers, a large diamond mining and export company, decided to start a national advertising campaign in order to relaunch the engagement rings, relying on N. W. Ayer & Son. Ayer convinced Hollywood actresses to wear diamond rings in public and encouraged fashion designers to discuss this new fashion. In the United States, until the 1930s, a man who broke off an engagement could be charged with breaking a promise and could claim damages for the financial loss due to all expenses for the cancelled marriage. The compensation was much higher if the woman had sex with her boyfriend. Starting in 1935, these laws began to be repealed or limited; the engagement ring thus became a form of financial security for the woman.
In the 20th century, the typical Western groom secretly chose and bought an engagement ring, which he then presented to his girlfriend during the marriage proposal. In countries where both partners wear engagement rings, the two can choose them together and in combination. As with all jewellery, the price of an engagement ring varies greatly depending on the materials used, it was customary for a man to spend a significant proportion of his annual income on an engagement ring over the years; in the 1930s it was suggested that a man should not spend less than one month’s salary on an engagement ring; later it came to be suggested that he should spend two months’ salary. In 2012, the average cost of an engagement ring in the US is $4,000, while in the UK it ranges from £1,200 to £2,000. Lately, it is also common to buy engagement rings online.
It has been interesting to learn all about what goes into buying a ring and how much and how habits have changed over time in relation to a simple piece of jewellery that, apart from its preciousness, should be considered in its noblest sense: a gesture of love.