Weddings are old. Real old. The concept of rings and love goes way, way back. In fact, so far back, some have even found an association with them and Egyptians. But we are going to start with Rome. Why? The Romans liked their laws and regulations, so we can find a rigid system with observable change over time.
So, what was the Roman wedding ring like? Well, that actually depends. There is some conflict on the matter. Pliny the Elder would have us believe that they were typically simple iron rings with no stones at all. Pliny, however, is likely biased. He opens his chapter "The Origin of Gold Rings" in volume 6 by saying this "The worst crime against mankind was committed by him who was the first to put a ring upon his fingers." He also writes that those who had golden rings for their work in the embassy only wore them in public, favouring an iron ring in private. Pliny uses that to say that engagement rings followed that iron ring custom. This could just be a custom limited to about Pliny's time, about 23 or 24 C.E. to around 79 C.E. Probably some years before and after, but how much would likely be disputed.
That still doesn't seem right, even for Pliny's time. It almost doesn't seem fair to assume that the Romans would like just a plain iron ring for a wedding. It's probably true for the more impoverished citizens, but for the wealthy Roman elite, maybe not. Why should we doubt Pliny on this? He has a book within volume 6 that discusses precious stones and how attached some people are to them. This point could be disputed if one were to show that the Roman wedding wasn't greatly celebrated as a modern-day wedding.
A good ceremony was absolutely much celebrated. Pliny recounts that he saw Lollia Paulina, the wife of Emperor Caius, at the wedding entertainment dressed with emeralds in pearls. The value of these pearls and stones amounted to about forty million sesterces or over $386,000 worth of precious materials. Pliny even says that they were on her fingers. In any case, more than an example from the emperor's wife is needed. It is the emperor's wife, after all. The Guide to the Exhibition Illustrating Greek and Roman Life explains night entertainment having music, torches, and a Cupid who waits for her at the bridegroom's house. It seems as if a wonderful Roman wedding wasn't simple. In fact, the same source says that there were rings with clasped right hands. A ring with a stone in the ancient times could carry symbolic messages, something representative of the marriage itself. A stone believed to hold metaphysical properties could also have been considered to be something that could save a marriage. A wedding ring with emerald, for example, could bring harmony into a marriage. But these rings with stones that appeared in public life did not seem to typically be wedding rings.
Whether or not Pliny was right in that they were iron only, it definitely seems that Roman wedding rings did not typically have stones. George Frederick Kunz in his Rings for the Finger shows a nice gold ring of 24 grams with an engraving of a proud warrior and his presumed lover. There were names in the ring, Dromacius and Betta. The ring is believed to be from the fifth century. In general, it seems that the Romans liked engravings over stones in their wedding rings. What led to the common practice of putting a stone in the ring, then?
Even in the Roman times, plain iron was slowly being phased out. Engravings remained popular for a good few centuries. A Byzantine ring was found depicting what would appear to be the lovers, engraved into the ring. It depicts a couple facing each other, and it could be Emperor Leo I and Verina.
In any case, the precursor to lovely jewels was a lodestone. This makes sense, as it as a naturally magnetic stone. And what do magnets do? Attract! People noted this property specifically with iron, the material used in Roman rings. Still, engravings remained a fairly popular choice for engagement rings and wedding rings.
Without the diamond, people tried other things. Good diamonds were expensive, and most of the time, stones were reserved for those with wealth. Diamonds, still, may have had some stigma that prevented people from using them. In the 1600s, Thomas Fuller wrote that a diamond would break the wholeness of the ring. This, according to Fuller, interrupted the infinite nature of the ring and therefore ruined the symbolism of eternal love. This could be said for any stone, however. However, a betrothal ring in France was found in France in 1868, making use of emerald, a stone that was symbolic of hope. One of the most interesting wedding rings was Martin Luther's in his marriage to Katharina von Bora. Firstly, one of the more distinct features of the ring is that it is a gimmal ring. These are rings with typically two rings in total, though sometimes more, when separated. They can be moved together to form one ring. Secondly, the ring has features of engraved initials. It also depicts the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the instruments of the Passion of Jesus. Thirdly, the stone is crowned with a stellar ruby. The stone is a symbol of love. It likely has a secondary meaning, though, as the red nature of the ruby could be interpreted as the blood of Christ.
Rubies seemed to be a popular choice for high quality wedding rings. A German gimmal-type wedding ring found in the 1500s was set with a ruby and aquamarine. Sir Thomas Gresham had a similar ring. James II's wedding ring of gold had a small ruby set in it. In the 1800s, Charlotte Wolter wore a ring with a center surrounded by seventeen rubies.
We can characterize a lot of these rings as such:
As we enter the 1800s-1900s, and even contemporary times, diamonds weren't just popular; they were becoming a standard. A gold or platinum band and a stunning diamond were sufficient. Diamonds were used prior, but it was typically alongside a ruby and may not have been the main stone. Diamonds increased in popularity over time, but why? As noted, stones in general were pretty much reserved for the rich and powerful. By the mid-late 1800s, diamonds became more accessible due to the amount found and mined in South Africa. Therefore, they were more open to the nobility and the common person. Still, the elite sits in the lap of luxury. A plain old gold band with a diamond doesn't just work. They needed something more.
Gimmal rings fell out of fashion, though. How could they show off their love and wealth at the same time? Regards. Or, REGARD(S). Ruby, Emerald, Garnet, Amethyst, Ruby, Diamond, Sapphire. The sapphire may or may not be present. Others decided to shake things up a little more than that and could make a ring like this, but using their betrothed's name instead. For example, a name like Lena could have the stones Lapis, Emerald, Nuummite, Amethyst. These rings were not always used in engagements or weddings. Still, they do seem to be making some kind of revival, perhaps due to contemporary romanticising of the Victorian Era style.
They are cool rings. Expensive, but stylish. They crept into the Edwardian Era little, too. However, all that was put to rest with the First World War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War. Diamond prices dropped, but still, people had to focus on the necessities over luxury.
During these times, the Western world would see massive shifts in wedding ring tradition. Soldiers sent to fight often wore a wedding ring to remind them of their spouse at home. Many of these soldiers were men of a new generation, and so a new tradition was born: both partners wore a ring. This is a common practice today. Out of this period is the Da Beers diamond marketing campaign, a marketing scheme that would change the face of wedding rings for decades to come. The diamond became the shining star of love and commitment for people who wanted to get a wedding ring. It shook the wedding ring world and was a success of monumental proportions.
Today, some things are the same, and some things are different. Many people still wear the wedding ring on their left hand, specifically on their "ring finger." This tradition is ancient, a call back to the vena amoris, or the vein of love. And yet some traditions were put away. It is common for both partners in a marriage to wear a wedding ring. Women proposing to men is something that, though uncommon, happens in about five per cent of American marriages. This is in spite of the fact that many American men claimed they would be fine if the woman proposed. Finally, diamond sales are said to have gone down.
The idea of a ring in a wedding or engagement has practically stuck around forever in Western marriages. After the Romans and Greeks, someone had the idea of sticking a pretty stone in there. Given superstition and the mystical properties of stones, this isn't surprising. A stone related to health could be set in the ring to ward off disease in a relationship. In Christian society, however, the idea was to be more symbolic. This was evident in Martin Luther's ring, a beautiful piece that used stones, engravings, and symbolism. As rings got more complex and intricate, much of that was undone by the early to mid 20th-century pangs of war and economic depression.
The wedding ring of today is what you make of it and what you want it to be. Some prefer a simple band like the Romans, an engraving like the Greeks, or want a REGARDS ring for their spouse. This is the spirit of individualism, freedom, and choice being employed in the society of today. Maybe some of us will rock the institution with a fancy ring of some kind. The ring itself has stuck around for centuries, and it doesn't seem to be going anywhere except on a finger.
Guide to the Exhibition Illustrating Greek and Roman Life
The Natural History of Pliny -- Volume 2 of 6
The Natural History of Pliny -- Volume 6 of 6
George Frederick Kunz, Rings for the Finger.
Thomas Fuller, The Holy State, and the Profane State
The History of the Wedding Band http://withtheseringshandmade.com/history-of-wedding-rings
The History of Wedding Rings https://www.cleanorigin.com/blog/history-of-wedding-rings/
Why don't women propose to men? https://www.cbsnews.com/news/why-dont-women-propose-to-men/