Weird History
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The Actual Reasons People Propose Marriage With Engagement Rings

September 21, 2020 46.0k views11 items

Why do engagement rings exist? And why do engagement rings have diamonds? It turns out, betrothal rings are much older than diamond engagement rings. Before the late 19th century, diamond engagement rings were uncommon, even though royals sometimes exchanged diamond rings. Instead of diamonds, Victorian engagement rings usually displayed the future bride's birthstone.

But the idea of a man giving his fiancée an engagement ring dates back all the way to the ancient Romans. In fact, Roman law is the reason only women wear engagement rings. 

The history of engagement rings shows how a simple iron band evolved into an expensive luxury purchase - and how an advertising slogan placed a diamond on the ring finger of 80% of engaged American women by the mid-20th century. In fact, those celebrity engagement ring pictures are a big reason why diamond engagement rings became popular in the first place. But will diamonds continue to dominate the engagement ring market in the future?

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  • Ancient Roman Couples Used Engagement Rings As A Symbol Of Their Legal Contract

    Ancient Roman Couples Used Engagement Rings As A Symbol Of Their Legal Contract
    Photo: John William Godward / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Engagement rings date back at least to ancient Rome. In Rome, the ring was a public symbol of a couple's legal contract.

    That's why only women wore engagement rings: The ring symbolized a woman moving from her father's legal ownership to her husband's. Roman marriage contracts linked two families, and the ring showed which women were off the market.

    As long ago as the classical era, women wore engagement rings on their fourth finger, called the ring finger today. Romans wrote that a vein ran from the ring finger to the heart, linking the couple.

    Men often gave women two engagement rings: one made of iron and the other gold. Women wore the iron ring at home since it represented strength. But when engaged women went outside, they put on the gold ring to show off their wealth. 

  • In 860 AD, Pope Nicholas I Said Engagement Rings Distinguished Western Wedding Traditions From Eastern Ones

    In 860 AD, Pope Nicholas I Said Engagement Rings Distinguished Western Wedding Traditions From Eastern Ones
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    After the fall of Rome, the tradition of betrothal rings continued in Europe. 

    The seventh-century Visigothic Code declared that valid engagements should include a ring. "When the ceremony of betrothal has been performed... and the ring shall have been given or accepted as a pledge," the Code said, "the promise shall, under no circumstances, be broken."

    In the ninth century, Pope Nicholas I explained how wedding traditions differed in the Roman Catholic Church compared to the Greek Orthodox Church. The pope specifically pointed to engagement rings. "The betrothed man joins the bride to himself with vows through the finger marked by him with the ring of faith," the pope explained. 

    After getting engaged, the couple would then marry.

  • Maximilian I Was The First Recorded Person To Give His Betrothed A Diamond Engagement Ring

    Maximilian I Was The First Recorded Person To Give His Betrothed A Diamond Engagement Ring
    Photo: Musée Condé / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In 1477, an engagement brought together the powerful Hapsburg heir and the daughter of the duke of Burgundy. The union would make peace between neighboring powers and expand the Holy Roman Empire.

    The betrothal was also the first time a man gave his fiancée a diamond engagement ring.

    According to one legend, Archduke Maximilian almost didn't give Mary of Burgundy a diamond ring at all. After Mary's father signed off on the betrothal, Maximilian and Mary still had to meet.

    Maximilian traveled from Austria to Burgundy to meet his fiancée. Along the way, celebrating villagers showered the ruler with gold and silver, which he used to buy the diamond engagement ring.

  • During The Renaissance, Diamond Engagement Rings Became Popular Among Those Of Higher Social Classes

    During The Renaissance, Diamond Engagement Rings Became Popular Among Those Of Higher Social Classes
    Photo: Jan van Eyck / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    When Archduke Maximilian gave Mary of Burgundy a diamond engagement ring, it started a new trend. Wealthy couples began to buy diamond rings - when they could find them.

    Diamonds were still rare in Europe. Before the 18th century, the only source for diamonds was India.

    Europeans experimented with ways to make diamond rings even more impressive by developing new tools to cut diamonds. In the Netherlands, a 16th-century jeweler began cutting diamonds. Jewelers also came up with new ways to set cut stones. It wasn't until the discovery of diamonds in Brazil in 1726, and later in South Africa, that diamond prices dropped.