The wedding ring, that most famous and instantly recognizable symbol of the
(hopefully perpetual) joining of a man and a woman as husband and wife in the
institution of marriage, has a long, wide spread and mysterious history. Its
beginnings lie in the deserts of North Africa, where the ancient Egyptian
civilization sprang up along the fertile flood plains of the river Nile. This
river was bringer of all fortune and life to the Pharaoh’s people and from
plants growing on its’ banks were the first wedding rings fashioned. Sedges,
rushes and reeds, growing alongside the well-known papyrus were twisted and
braided into rings for fingers and larger bracelets for wrists.
The ring is of course a circle and this was the symbol of eternity for the
Egyptians as well as many other ancient cultures. It had no beginning and no
end, like time. It returned to itself, like life; and the shape was worshipped
in the form of the Sun and the Moon. The hole in the center of the ring is not
just space either; it is important in its own right as the symbol of the
gateway, or door; leading to things and events both known and unknown.
It is not difficult therefore, to see how the ring and the gift of a ring
began to be associated with love, in the hope that this most worthy of emotions
could take on the characteristics of the circle and capture eternity.
They wore it like we do today, on the third finger of the left hand, because
of a belief that the vein of that finger directly traveled from the heart. This
legend was later taken up by the Greeks, when they conquered Egypt under the
generalship of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. and from them passed onto the
Romans, who called this the ‘vena amoris’, which is Latin for ‘the vein of
These early rings usually lasted about a single year before wear and tear
took their inevitable toll. Hemp was probably the first choice, but some decided
that they wanted a longer lasting material, and opted for leather, bone or ivory
to craft their token of love.
When in later years, the arts of metallurgy became known this naturally took
over, but surprisingly only very gradually. These early metal rings were often
quite clumsily made and uneven in the extreme, so for wedding gifts they had
precious and semi-precious stones set into them and these can be seen
represented by hieroglyphs in Egyptian tombs. At this time Jewellery was usually
more for show than sentiment and used to express wealth. Before coinage gold
rings were used for currency and often hidden away until the owners were
In early Rome it was iron that was adopted as the metal of choice rather than
copper or brass as mostly elsewhere. This symbolized the strength of love a man
felt for his chosen woman, though rust was a problem.
The act of giving and acceptance of the ring was now also considered to be
legally binding and therefore enforceable. This tied the woman as the property
of the man to some views but in truth also protected her rights as bride-to-be,
and was summoned upon to prevent her from having her primary position usurped by
Gold or silver rings were given on occasions, to show all the bridegroom
trusted his betrothed with his valuable property, and to symbolize this further,
the ring was sometimes shaped as a key rather than a normal circular band. This
was not presented at the wedding ceremony as the custom nowadays, but when he
carried her in his arms across the threshold of her new home.
After coinage gold was rapidly promoted to first choice and later in
medieval Europe gemstones were again a common addition. With rubies chosen for
their color of red like a heart, sapphires, blue like the sky above, or most
valued and sought after of all; the indestructible diamond.
In renaissance Italy silver made a comeback, and was now selected for the new
idea of the engagement, or betrothal ring. These were often highly ornate and
usually inlaid with niello, (which is a very decorative form of enamel
engraving, colored in black to stand in contrast to the bright metal) on a round
or oval bezel. And rather than traditional simple bands, they had clasping hands
emerging from the hoop at the front.
Silver became more pre-eminent briefly in the seventeenth century in England
and France when they were widely used for wedding rings at the height of the
fashion for poesy, or posy rings; this comes from the word ‘poesy’ meaning a
‘love poem’. They were sentimentally inscribed with such, around the wedding rings,
either within or without, and often faith and hope were included in the verse as
well. These were highly popular indeed, as frequent referrals to them in the
works of Shakespeare prove. Gold however, began to take over again later, and
pushed back silver to the Italian idea of engagement again, with a golden
duplicate of the original replacing it on the wedding day.
Indeed, it was thought in Irish folklore to be bad luck or even illegal to be
married with a ring made of anything but gold. But this was never so in
actuality and, like elsewhere many different metals were used. A gold ring
though, was often provided for weddings throughout Europe for those who could
not afford one, (and immediately reclaimed afterwards).
Other world superstitions include the absolutely essential point of making
sure the ring is a perfect fit, for woe betides the future of the marriage if it
isn’t. A too-tight ring might point to painful jealousy or the stifling of one
party by the other. Too loose, and a parting of the ways through careless acts
or forgetfulness is indicated as a future danger to watch for.
The Church of England holds no brook with this however, and does not concern
itself with the size or material of the ring so long as it is there. An irony,
and a change of heart for sure, as the early Protestant puritans claimed that
wedding rings were pagan and not to be used by the Godly. They were further
enraged on the subject by a Catholic legend that Joseph and Mary had used one
constructed either of onyx or amethyst; and that various churches in Europe had
throughout history claimed to hold the ring (which was capable of performing
miracles) to attract pilgrims to their vicinity to spend money and hence
increase the wealth of the competing abbeys.
Today, almost all Christians accept the wedding ring, (a notable exception to
this being the Quakers), doubtlessly helped by the christianization of the old
vena amoris tale. Whereby in middle ages England, the bridegroom would slip the
ring part way up and then down his bride’s thumb, then first and middle finger,
reciting: ‘In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost’ as he touched
each one before fixing it in place on the next finger in line; the third finger
of the left hand.
Well, in some parts of continental Europe it is and always
has been the right. There doesn’t seem to be any particular reason that the
Christians should have mostly kept this the same as the original. But one
thought is; as the man, facing his bride, reaches straight out with his right
hand (most people are right handed) he naturally touches her left. As she does
his, as now, with more and more men wearing one also, when the rings are
This is a modern practice begun mostly during the second world war, a
consequence of increased numbers of men being separated from their loved ones
and seeking a cheering reminder. This almost happened earlier in history, with
the advent of the gemmal ring, alternatively spelled gimmal or gimmel. This was
two or three decidedly ornamental links, usually with hands and hearts or knots,
fastened together by a hinge, or interlocking like the Olympic rings, and being
capable of joining into one. At betrothal, they would be separated, with one
given to the woman, one kept by her lover, and if present, the third held by a
witness until the wedding day when all would be reunited and henceforth kept by
Back to fingers though, and the thumb briefly challenged the accepted norm in Elizabethan days as fashionable ladies deemed to wear their wedding rings there, but this did not last and so today it is as it was in the beginning, just like a circle really, or a ring.
Matt Jacks is an affordable freelance writer providing tips and advice for consumers purchasing diamond wedding rings and bands, traditional wedding ring sets and wedding dresses and gowns. His numerous articles offer moneysaving tips and valuable insight on typically confusing topics.