The history of wedding rings is fascinating, with origins tracing back to ancient Egypt when people exchanged rings made from braided reeds and hemp, which were filled with the same emotional significance as today.
The Early History of Wedding Rings
According to historians, the tradition of exchanging wedding rings comes from ancient Egypt, a civilization of ancient Africa, concentrated along the lower reaches of the Nile River.
The first documented evidence of a formal exchange of wedding rings was found in ancient Egyptian writings known as papyrus scrolls dating back over 3000 years. They featured couples exchanging rings made of hemp and reeds. The rings were in the shape of a circle and represented eternity, reflecting the sun and the moon, which the ancient Egyptians worshipped. The open space in the middle of the ring was thought to represent a gateway to the unknown.
Wedding rings made of reeds and hemp were not long-lasting, so they were replaced by ivory or leather. Wealthier people used more expensive materials such as silver and gold. However, whatever the material used, the wedding rings symbolised everlasting love and commitment between a couple.
In ancient Rome, the bride was presented with an iron or copper ring, which started the tradition of using precious metals in wedding rings. Durable metals represented permanence and strength, symbolising the bond of the couple. Thus by the second century CE, most wedding rings were made of gold.
Starting from the third century CE, wedding rings became more luxurious in design. One of the most popular choices was fede rings, which featured two right hands clasped together and symbolised partnership and marriage contract. Later, Romans began personalising their rings by carving portraits into their bands.
Both Romans and Greeks wore wedding rings on the fourth finger of the left hand. The ring finger, as we know it today, was believed to contain vena amoris or a vein of love that led directly to the heart. Although this belief is not anatomically correct, the tradition of wearing wedding rings on the fourth finger continues to this day.
Wedding Rings During Middle Ages and Renaissance
Starting from the Middle Ages (about 500 to 1400–1500 CE), wedding rings began to be set with precious gemstones. Europeans used diamonds to symbolise strength, rubies to symbolise passion and sapphires to symbolise the heavens.
The Renaissance period (14th century to 17th century) was prominent for the comeback of fede rings and portrait rings. During the 17th century, with the advancement of goldsmithing techniques, fede rings began to be incorporated into gimmel rings which consisted of 2 or 3 interlocking bands and symbolised that bands must remain together to create a whole. The bride and the groom wore a band up to the wedding day, and during the wedding ceremony, the groom placed his band on the bride’s finger, reuniting the matched set.
In the 1600s, fede rings gradually evolved into the Claddagh ring, which featured a pair of hands holding a heart. Around the same period, lovers began to wear posy rings, gold rings with a short inscription on their inner or outer surface.
The Modern History of Wedding Rings
Nearly a century ago, wedding rings were mostly worn by women. However, World War II (Sep 1, 1939 – Sep 2, 1945) changed many things, including the wedding ring tradition.
Soldiers heading off to the battle wore wedding rings to remind themselves of their families and the ones waiting for them to come home. Since then, wedding rings for men caught on among civilians, and it has become a standard for both partners to wear a wedding band.
Today, most people wear their ring on the ring finger of their left-hand thanks to the vena amoris tradition. However, there is also a utilitarian angle to this. Most people are right-handed, which is why it makes sense to wear the wedding ring on the hand that is not quite active, but the fourth finger is universal.
In some countries, such as Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, India, Latvia, Norway, Poland, Russia, Spain, and Ukraine, couples wear wedding rings on their right-hand fourth finger. However, as tradition gives way to newer needs, couples around the world are choosing for themselves where, how and when to wear their wedding rings.
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