Throughout the ages, couples have commemorated marriages with rings worn on the fourth finger of the left hand. The earliest of these love tokens were plain iron circles, hard stone intaglios, or a rings with two right hands clasped. Our ancient ancestors selected the symbolic “ring finger” believing that it held a vein of blood leading directly to one’s heart. (1, 2)
Not much is known about the earliest wedding rings, but poesy (or posey/posie/posy) rings with amorous symbols and inscriptions or fede rings with two clasped hands were popular with many during the latter part of the Middle Ages. Religious wedding ceremonies of the Middle Ages often required a ring. By the 12th century, all Catholic weddings were required to include a ring for the bride. (3) Jewish wedding rings of the Middle Ages featured a roof or house placed on a bezel representing the couple’s future home, a tradition that remained for many centuries to come. (4)
Diamonds, a symbol of fidelity, did not make their appearance in wedding rings until the 15th century, but gained quick popularity. By the 16th century, no royal marriage was complete without a diamond ring. Poesy rings and fede rings were much more affordable and remained popular with most. (5)
Poesy rings were popular throughout the 16th & 17th centuries, but some instead chose gimmel rings with 2 identical hoops that pivoted at the base or hoops of jet or tortoiseshell inlaid with silver. Throughout the 1500s-1600s, the gimmel became more elaborate and was merged with the fede motif. (6) (7) As in centuries past, wealthy individuals continued to purchase more elaborate wedding rings often accented with gemstones and enamel.
The 18th century introduced lighter, more graceful wedding rings — hearts transfixed with cupid’s arrows, crowned or winged hearts and heart-in-hand claddaugh rings. Some of these rings were accented with diamonds or other precious stones. (8)
Pearls, claddagh, and fede rings remained popular during the 19th century; however, towards the end of the century, most rings were very large gold “cigar style” bands sometimes worn by both husbands and wives. (9) Towards the end of the 19th century brides adopted the tradition of having 2 rings — engagement ring and a separate wedding band, a tradition which continues to this day. (10)
Wedding rings of the early 20th century tended to be more narrow than their Victorian cousins. They were often simple platinum hoops encircled with ivy & oak. During the first World War, white gold bands were generally used in place of platinum (which was banned from use in jewelry because of the war efforts).
Wedding bands have evolved and will continue to evolve throughout the ages. What will likely never change is people’s desire to commemorate one of the most momentous occasions in their life with the exchange of a simple, unbroken ring symbolizing a lifelong promise of love.
1. Scarisbrick, Diana. Rings: Symbols of Wealth, Power and Affection. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd., 1993. Print.
2. Swineburne, Henry. A Treatise of Spousals, Or Matrimonial Contracts: Wherein All the Questions…S. Roycroft for Robert Clavell., 1686. Electronic.
3. Scarisbrick, Rings: Symbols of Wealth, Power and Affection, 7.
4. Scarisbrick, Rings: Symbols of Wealth, Power and Affection, 17-19.
5. Harlow, George E. The Nature of Diamonds. Cambridge University Press, 1998. Electronic.
6. Ibid at 149.
7. Scarisbrick, Rings: Symbols of Wealth, Power and Affection, 82.
8. Ibid at 117.
9. Scarisbrick, Rings: Symbols of Wealth, Power and Affection, 164.
10. Harlow, George E. The Nature of Diamonds, 168.