Engagement rings have been used to express eternal devotion since ancient times. In this post, we’re taking a closer look at how engagement rings were born, their evolution throughout time, and how that led us to the engagement rings of today. Join us as we explore the history of engagement ring styles throughout the ages.
Ancient Engagement Rings
The earliest historical evidence of engagement rings comes from ancient Egypt. Ancient Egyptians believed that the third finger of the left hand (known as the ring finger today) had a vein that led directly to the heart. Egyptians wore “rings of love” on this finger made of twisted metal, woven reeds, or leather.
Wedding rings also existed in ancient Rome. Many of these rings were an evolution of the signet ring design and often featured a carved design of two hands clasped in love. These rings were made of solid gold or gold and stone. Stones commonly used in carved marriage rings include cornelian, aquamarine, garnet, and onyx.
Another record of ancient Roman engagement rings comes from Pliny the Elder. This scholar wrote that grooms gave brides gold rings to wear at the betrothal ceremony and at special events. Then, they presented their brides with a second ring made of iron to be worn at home.
Engagement Rings in the Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages, we saw the first ever use of diamond engagement rings. There is some debate about which diamond engagement ring was the first. However, most scholars cite Mary of Burgundy’s diamond engagement ring as the first diamond ring on record. In 1477, Archduke Maximillian of Austria gave Mary of Burgundy a ring set with diamonds in the shape of an “M.” This ring started a trend among royals and nobles. After Archduke Maximillian gave his love a diamond ring, those in the upper classes began gifting their betrothed rings set with gemstones and diamonds.
Late Middle Ages (Early Modern Period)
From around 1500 BC to 1700 BC, engagement rings remained popular. In this era in Europe, posey rings were quite popular. Posey rings were metal bands that were engraved with romantic phrases or poems. These rings could be crafted from gold or silver. Commonly, people gifted their betrothed with two rings. One would given for the engagement and would be made of silver, while the other would serve as the wedding band and be made of gold.
Some records of this era’s engagement rings and wedding bands are included in the works of William Shakespeare. Engagement rings appear numerous times in the Bard’s plays.
The Victorian Era (1800s)
Pictured above is the Athena vintage style diamond engagement ring
The Victorian Era is the time period of the reign of the United Kingdom’s Queen Victoria. The Victorian era is considered a romantic era, which is reflected in the art and jewelry of the time period. Many art historians speculate that Queen Victoria’s love life set the romantic tone of this era. While most royals married only for diplomatic or economic reasons, Queen Victoria happened to be very much in love with her husband.
You can see many romantic motifs in Victorian Era engagement rings and wedding bands. These rings often featured high levels of detailing and symbols of love. Common motifs seen in Victorian engagement jewelry include hearts, bows, and flowers. You’ll also find that many Victorian engagement rings and wedding bands feature images of snakes. While snakes are not associated with love today, they were once a common symbol of eternity.
In the Victorian Era, the use of gemstones in engagement rings was very popular. Additionally, the use of diamonds saw a major boom in this era. Diamonds became much more available in the 1880s when large diamond deposits were discovered in South Africa.
The Tiffany Setting was also born in the Victorian Era. In 1886, Tiffany & Co. debuted the first setting to ever lift a diamond off the ring’s band. This ring style would become incredibly popular and became used by jewelers around the world. Today, this raised solitaire setting is still one of the most popular engagement ring styles.
The Edwardian Era (Early 1900s)
In the Edwardian Era, giving engagement rings finally became a social custom practiced by nearly everyone in western society. During this era, the Industrial Revolution brought an economic boom that allowed the middle class to afford engagement rings.
During the Edwardian Era, engagement rings were commonly airy, feminine, and ornate. During this era, platinum was very popular for engagement rings. Pearls, diamonds, and colorful gemstones were commonly used in engagement rings.
The Art Deco Era (1920 to 1935)
The Charleston diamond engagement ring with a ballerina halo
The Art Deco Era has a very distinctive style. In this era, geometric shapes were commonly used in architecture, art, and jewelry design. The engagement rings of this era often used numerous colors and shapes of gemstones in their intricate designs. White precious metals, like white gold and platinum, were the most popular choice during this era.
The Retro Era (1935 to 1950)
The Retro Era saw a rise in bold glamour. During this period, yellow gold engagement rings became incredibly popular. Retro Era engagement rings rarely used diamond as center stones. Instead, they often used large, brightly colored semi-precious stones sometimes accented with small diamonds.
Many of the Retro Era’s trends continued into the 1950s. However, diamond rings and more simple rings became more popular in the 1950s. A very common engagement ring style during the 1950s was the three stone diamond engagement ring. Engagement rings with engravings and braided detailing were also popular in the 1950s.
The glamour of Hollywood starlets, such as Elizabeth Taylor, had a major impact on the engagement rings of the 1960s. Large, oversized diamond engagement rings were highly desired in the 1960s. Rings that mixed diamonds and gemstones were also popular during this decade, likely due to the First Lady Jackie Kennedy’s emerald and diamond engagement ring. In the 1960s, white precious metals continued to reign, while yellow gold and rose gold were not particularly popular.
The 1970s saw the invention of princess cut and radiant cut diamonds. Both of these modern diamond shapes were incredibly popular during this time period. Coordinating engagement sets also became a popular trend during the 1970s.
The 1980s were a lively, over-the-top decade for fashion, hair, and jewelry. Brides shied away from simple, streamlined styles during this decade and instead chose more bold styles. Lesser used fancy shaped diamonds were very popular in the 1980s. Pear shaped diamond engagement rings were particularly popular. Yellow gold also saw a major rise in popularity during the 1980s. Sapphire engagement rings also saw a boom during this time period, thanks to Princess Diana’s iconic sapphire engagement ring.
1990s to Today
Today, engagement rings are much more varied than ever before. In past decades, couples were more limited in their engagement ring options. They would likely just choose something that they found at a local jeweler. Or, perhaps mail order something they saw in a magazine or a newspaper.
But, today, we have the internet, which has opened up a whole new world of engagement rings, accessible to everyone. With the internet, couples can see that there are thousands of different engagement ring styles to choose from. Online, you can find solitaire rings, three stone rings, gemstone rings, one-of-a-kind designs, rings inspired by vintage eras, and so much more.
There are some styles that are more popular today than others. For example, solitaire rings are an enduring classic and halo set rings have become incredibly popular. Then, every year there are some more dominant trends. Right now in 2019, for example, gemstone engagement rings are having a major moment. However, access to different styles of engagement rings has increased so much that no one trend completely dominates the modern era.