Banding Together: The History of Wedding Rings

Close-up of a bunch of wedding rings on a table
Image is my own / All rights reserved

For those who wear them, wedding rings represent a singular wardrobe proposition. They are the rare piece of decoration that we don every day without fail or alteration. While favourite clothing items and other pieces of jewellery inevitably come and go, a wedding ring remains (in theory, at least) a constant throughout one’s life. Moreover, for some, once in place, it never leaves their hand again. How many of the other things that we put on our bodies can boast such pride of place?

In this sense, to the extent that it is a style choice, picking out a wedding band is more akin to settling on a tattoo than deciding on a simple garment. It represents a permanent decision, one that you will have to see and live with every day. What’s more, in some cases it will be the sole piece of jewellery a person will ever wear. Ideally, therefore, it needs to fit comfortably, to suit your skin tone and the look of your hands, to match your general jewellery preferences and harmonise with the rest of your wardrobe. You probably also want it to reflect your personality in some way, all while matching to some extent the ring on your partner’s finger. Then there are the materials, styles, and custom features to consider, not to mention the price tag. The list continues. It’s a pretty hefty business all around and is, in this sense, perhaps the most high-stakes bit of wardrobing anyone is likely to undertake. 

Of course, these are ultimately all fairly superficial considerations, paling in comparison to a much heftier symbolic resonance. The real source of a wedding band’s importance is what it represents: love, union, commitment — the stuff of marriage vows and wedding toasts. It’s a sentiment that has proven elusive to even the greatest poets, so I won’t try to pin it down here in a thousand words or fewer.

What is striking, though, is just how enduring a symbol the wedding ring has proven to be. Many of our contemporary wedding band customs are thought to have survived relatively intact for millennia. They originated as far back as Ancient Egypt where a ring’s unending circle symbolised an eternal union while the hole at its centre represented a portal into the unknown. Rings were worn on the fourth finger of the left hand because of a belief in the so-called vena amoris, literally the ‘vein of love’, which supposedly ran directly to the heart.

The Greeks and Romans were the next to adopt the custom, making bands of leather, bone, and ivory. Metal rings first caught on in early Rome, with iron being the most common choice since gold and silver were at first the exclusive preserve of the rich. It was also common for rings to carry some form of engraving, with the fede ring depicted a dextrarum iunctio, or two clasping hands, being perhaps the most commonly known. The name fede ring derives from the Italian phrase mani in fede meaning ‘hands clasped in faith’. These first caught on in the thirteenth century, although sometime later in the 1600s, this design would morph into the Claddagh ring in Ireland, which depicts a pair of hands holding a heart.

In the Middle Ages, the Byzantine empire took the tradition of customised rings further by creating even more elaborately carved rings, including ones carrying likenesses of the happy couple. Later on, as Christianity became the official religion of the empire, religious iconography was commonly included as well.

The Renaissance saw the introduction of posy rings, which included a short verse inscribed on the ring. Over time, as marriage came to be viewed less as an agreement between families than as an intimate bond between two individuals, these messages became more personal and were transferred to the inside of the band (Picture Frodo’s titular trinket in The Lord of the Rings films and you’ve got the idea). Around the same time, another elaborate wedding ring evolved in the form of the gimmel ring. These small, puzzle-like ornaments consisted of two or three interlocking rings — symbolically separate yet interconnected — which were often elaborately decorated with jewels, engravings, and colourful enamel.

Micer Marsilio Cassotti y su esposa Faustina by Lorenzo Lotto)
Micer Marsilio Cassotti and his wife Faustina by Lorenzo Lotto
Image credit: Museo Nacional del Prado / Public domain

In more recent times, engagement rings have superseded wedding bands as far as ornamentation goes. De Beers is credited with inventing the concept of the diamond engagement ring. Their famous “A Diamond is Forever” campaign from 1947, conceived by copywriter Francis Gerety from the ad agency N.W. Ayer, was an attempt by the company to boost a drop in diamond sales. It proved so effective that De Beers’ wholesale diamonds sales in the U.S. increased from $23 million to $2.1 billion between 1939 to 1979.

De Beers may have shaped our modern concept of the diamond ring, although it’s worth noting that a tradition of including precious jewels on marriage tokens (albeit by the precious few who could afford to do so) dates back possibly as far back as Ancient Rome and certainly to at least the 1500s when jewelled rings would be given by the father of a bride to the father of a groom, signalling his intent to marry off his daughter.

In modern times, however, it’s really only been commonplace for men to wear wedding rings since about the mid twentieth century. The habit caught on around the Second World War when men going off to battle wanted a keepsake to remind them of their loves back home. 

For most of that time, men’s wedding bands have tended to be on the plainer side, although many have bucked the trend. Some folks forgo the business entirely, with Prince William being a well-publicised recent example. His father, Prince Charles, has long chosen to wear his wedding band on his little finger alongside his signet ring instead of on his ring finger. Others have taken more adventurous routes still, opting for a subtle motif or decoration (President Barack Obama’s being a good example), something big or blinged out (like a Ryan Reynolds and Ludacris), or the increasingly popular black band or wedding tattoo (like, say, Jeremy Renner or Dax Shepard, respectively).

Since it’s likely to be the most meaning-laden thing you’ll ever wear, it is — not unlike the business of marriage itself — worth pausing over to consider exactly what you want from yours should you decide to take the plunge. Just don’t go with anything from a vending machine. No matter how many times it’s invoked on-screen as an impromptu act of romance, it seems safe to say that a plastic ring is unlikely to go over quite as well in real life. Although, come to think of it, plastic can be forever too, so maybe I’m just a good ad campaign away from having my mind changed on that score.

Brad Pitt wearing a wedding ring
Brad Pitt wearing a wedding band
Image credit: DoD News / Public domain

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