The tradition of exchanging rings as the symbol of a union has been around since ancient times. While many things in the world has changed, this is one that continues, as strong as ever.
Most people don’t really spend time thinking about rings until it comes to their own engagement and wedding. And suddenly, this becomes an intense part of the process!
The reason these rings are so exciting is because it is a tangible representation of an abstract concept – your love and union. It displays your style and personality and demonstrates what your values are.
Sounds like an overstatement?
Not really. From the metals and gemstones you choose, to the shape of the ring itself, you’re expressing who you are as a couple. Even if you choose not to wear any of these special rings, as some people do, you’re still demonstrating something – that you are flaunting tradition.
This is what makes the whole process of selecting engagement and wedding rings/bands challenging and fun, and why people spend months if not years thinking about it.
But what is all the fuss about? And is there a difference between an engagement ring and a wedding ring, and do I need a wedding band to boot?
Let’s find out!
The symbolism of the circular ring
The circle is the most common and universal symbol. It exists in every culture and civilization and has many meanings.
The circle is a symbol of completion, infinity and of equality. It represents wholeness and perfection, with no beginnings and ends.
Perhaps the most recognized circular symbol of all is the wedding ring. The ancient Egyptians believed that the ring represented eternity while the hole in the middle represented a passageway into the future. A beautiful symbol for a couple about to embark on a new chapter in their relationship!
Today, exchanging rings symbolizes the pledge of love and faithfulness, and the enclosure of the heart to just that person. Although not all rings are circular, with some modern designs being angular, this symbolism hasn’t changed.
Why the left hand?
It is believed that the tradition of exchanging rings to symbolize a union originated in ancient Egypt and then spread to other parts of the world over time. The Egyptians are believed to be the first to wear rings for love.
They believed that the vein in the third finger of the left hand (the ring finger) ran directly to the heart. They saw this finger as a direct connection to the heart and that wearing the ring on that finger demonstrated the pledge of love and commitment.
The Romans later adopted this tradition, calling the vein the ‘vena amoris’ which translates to the vein of love. This belief is what has influenced today’s custom of exchanging wedding rings.
In reality, the vena amoris does not exist! While many people still believe in this today, it is a total myth. This is one of those beliefs that you wish science hadn’t come along and debunked.
Regardless, it is the symbolism that counts and the meaning of wearing a ring on the left finger hasn’t diminished.
Engagement rings vs wedding rings
The custom of exchanging wedding rings is an ancient tradition, whereas that of giving an engagement ring is relatively recent.
As I mentioned above, the ancient Egyptians are credited with originating the tradition of exchanging wedding rings. In fact, the very first wedding rings are believed to have been crafted out of reeds taken from the banks of the Nile.
As the tradition spread, it gained a strong footing and was steeped in Western culture as an indispensable symbol of a marriage union.
The custom of giving engagement rings began in 1477, when the Archduke Maximilian of Austria gifted Mary of Burgundy with a diamond ring to symbolise that she was betrothed to him. While the engagement ring signified only a pledge and not a legal commitment, it was seen as an unbreakable pledge and as good as marriage.
However, it was only in the 20th century that this tradition really gained a strong foothold in Western culture.
Here is an interesting fact:
During the Great Depression diamond prices plummeted. In addition, engagement rings were going out of style among the younger generation. This was becoming a tradition doomed to die.
Enter De Beers, the saviour of the engagement ring!
With intense and clever marketing strategies, De Beers began a campaign to convince people that engagement rings were mandatory and that the only suitable stone was diamonds. They also introduced the idea that a man should spend the equivalent of 2 month’s salary on the engagement ring.
You could say De Beers single-handedly revived the engagement ring tradition. Today it is an industry worth approximately $70 billion a year!
From the two rings, the engagement ring has the element of surprise and novelty. It is worn from the moment of proposal, and is the herald of the coming nuptials whereas the wedding ring is the confirmation of the nuptials.
For most women, it is because the engagement ring often the first concrete symbol of the relationship. In addition to that, engagement rings are generally very elaborate, sport a flashy gemstone (traditionally diamonds) and are typically expensive.
Of the two, the wedding ring is the most important metaphor of love, and takes precedence over the engagement ring. This is why even though both are worn on the same finger, the wedding ring is worn below the engagement ring, closer to the heart.
When it comes to selecting these two rings, there are no rules. What matters are the preferences of the couple. The two rings can match or be as mismatched as you desire. You can opt for a bridal set where matching wedding and engagement rings are sold together or even a trio set which includes a matching ring for the groom. Or you can fly by the seat of your pants and choose what works for you!
Wedding bands or wedding rings?
Both a wedding ring and a wedding band are very similar and there is not much difference between these two pieces of jewelry apart from the designs.
A wedding band refers to the simple metal bands that couples have been exchanging for centuries. These are often very simple, although sometimes there can be engraving and patterns.
Typically, wedding bands were made of gold but nowadays there’s a much bigger range of metals such as white gold, platinum, palladium, titanium and even rose gold to name a few.
A wedding ring, on the other hand, is more elaborate. Over time, women’s wedding bands evolved, becoming more intricate and feminine. There are various designs and styles for wedding rings nowadays, which give couples a lot of options when making their choice.
Again, whether you decide to wear a wedding band or wedding ring depends on your preferences. There is no right or wrong in this decision. Just ensure that you choose a piece that you know you will continue to love 20, 40 or 60 years down the line!