Down Memory Lane: Wedding Rings Throughout the Ages

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)

7th Century Marriage Ring- This is a ring typical of the Byzantine period on which the bride and groom are depicted on the bezel as full-length figures standing before Christ. He performs the marriage rite by symbolically joining their hands together is the dextrarum junctio . Some examples are inscribed in Greek: 'vow' or 'harmony'. (V&A Museum)

7th Century Marriage Ring- This is a ring typical of the Byzantine period on which the bride and groom are depicted on the bezel as full-length figures standing before Christ. He performs the marriage rite by symbolically joining their hands together is the dextrarum junctio . Some examples are inscribed in Greek: ‘vow’ or ‘harmony’. (V&A Museum)

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)

Posy Ring - 1500-1530- Gold posy rings expressing affection and love were popular wedding rings during the 16th century.  Gold.  This ring, which is in the V&A Museum is likely a wedding ring.  It is inscribed outside  with VNG.TEMPS.VIANDRA (a time willcome); inside: MON.DESIR.ME.VAILLE (my longing keeps me awake).

Posy Ring – 1500-1530- This ring, which is in the V&A Museum is likely a wedding ring. It is inscribed outside with VNG.TEMPS.VIANDRA (a time willcome); inside: MON.DESIR.ME.VAILLE (my longing keeps me awake).

Jewish Wedding Ring- Jewish wedding ring, the bezel possibly representing the Tabernacle or Solomon's Temple or the home. (V&A Museum Collection).

Jewish Wedding Ring- Jewish wedding ring, the bezel possibly representing the Tabernacle or Solomon’s Temple or the home. (V&A Museum Collection).

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)

Early 16th Century Love Ring- Gold love or marriage ring with traces of enamel on the shoulders, the bezel formed of two oval collets each with a 4-cusp setting, with a triangular-cut diamond and a ruby. The fluted shoulders decorated with volutes and foliage, Germany, about 1500. (V&A Museum)

Early 16th Century Love Ring- Gold love or marriage ring with traces of enamel on the shoulders, the bezel formed of two oval collets each with a 4-cusp setting, with a triangular-cut diamond and a ruby. The fluted shoulders decorated with volutes and foliage, Germany, about 1500. (V&A Museum)

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.

Early 17th Century Wedding Ring- This intricate wedding ring is decorated with symbols of love and quotations from the marriage ceremony. The central motif comes from the Italian mani in fede (hands clasped in faith), which was a popular symbol of love. The three connecting hoops, each with an attached hand or heart, fit together and appear as one band when worn. The inscriptions can only be read when the hoops of the ring are opened out. (V&A Museum)

Early 17th Century Wedding Ring- This intricate wedding ring is decorated with symbols of love and quotations from the marriage ceremony. (V&A Museum)

17th Century Wedding Ring- Enamelled gold ring, the hoop enamelled in black outside with 'EC' and 'EH' separated by four hearts and inside the arms of Chibnall, Haselwood, Wilmer and Andrews, England, 17th century.  Presumably commemorating a marriage of a Chibnall and a Haselwood.  (V&A Museum)

17th Century Wedding Ring- Enamelled gold ring, the hoop enamelled in black outside with ‘EC’ and ‘EH’ separated by four hearts and inside the arms of Chibnall, Haselwood, Wilmer and Andrews.  (V&A Museum)

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)

Early 18th Century Wedding Ring - Enamelled gold fede ring, set with rose-cut diamonds in silver collets, with a crowned heart held by two hands inscribed 'Dudley & Katherine united 26.Mar. 1706', England, dated 1706. (V&A Museum)

Early 18th Century Wedding Ring – Enamelled gold fede ring, set with rose-cut diamonds in silver collets, with a crowned heart held by two hands inscribed ‘Dudley & Katherine united 26.Mar. 1706’, England, dated 1706. (V&A Museum)

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)

Late Victorian Cigar-Style Wedding Band by Trademark Antiques www.rubylane.com/shop/trademark

Late Victorian Cigar-Style Wedding Band by Trademark Antiques http://www.rubylane.com/shop/trademark

Antique Rose Gold Victorian Engraved Bird Floral Wedding Band Ring by Ageless Heirlooms - https://www.etsy.com/shop/agelessheirlooms

Antique Rose Gold Victorian Wedding Band Ring by Ageless Heirlooms – https://www.etsy.com/shop/agelessheirlooms

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).

Art Deco Platinum Wedding Band by MaeJean Vintage --http://www.etsy.com/shop/MaejeanVINTAGE

Art Deco Platinum Wedding Band by MaeJean Vintage –http://www.etsy.com/shop/MaejeanVINTAGE

Art Deco Wedding Band by The Eden Collective -https://www.etsy.com/shop/TheEdenCollective

Art Deco Wedding Band by The Eden Collective – https://www.etsy.com/shop/TheEdenCollective

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.

ENDNOTES:

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.

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