The Evolution Of Engagement Rings Is Steeped In History
Here’s how the phrase “tie the knot” came to be.
Engagement ring season is rolling in, with many preparing to pop the question by browsing for rings or even shopping together to pick one that both agree feels right. But before you can decide the design and stone, it would be pertinent to know a bit of history about the bauble. In fact, the evolution of engagement rings is pretty extensive, with one of its oldest purposes being that it was a sign of ownership of a woman to a man in Roman times.
Although the origins of an engagement ring may be unromantic, its meaning has clearly changed for the better. The jewelry piece has not only become a symbol for marriage and commitment, but also an expression of one’s personality for those who choose nontraditional designs. Ahead, read up on how this particular bit of bling has evolved over time and what industry experts predict will be the next big trends in engagement jewelry.
Engagement rings can be traced all the way back to Ancient Rome. According to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), Roman women wore rings of flint, ivory, bronze, bone, and iron “to signify a business contract or to affirm mutual love and obedience.” Gold and iron rings were later found in the ruins of Pompeii, proving that shiny metal was the material of choice before 79 CE, when the volcano erupted and destroyed the city.
It wasn’t until 850 CE that the idea of an “engagement ring” was given an official meaning, with Pope Nicholas I having declared that it represented a man’s intent to marry. (Gold was the most popular material for betrothal rings at the time.) According to the Cape Town Diamond Museum, the first time gemstones appeared on an engagement ring was in 1477 when Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy with a diamond ring. The stone made the shape of her initial, “M.”
In the 15th century, engagement rings began to embody the most modern idea of unity. Lo and behold, the saying “tie the knot” came from a popular kind of engagement jewelry at that time, called the gimmel ring. The style, comprised of three connected bands, began to surge in popularity. The rings would first stand alone, one worn by each half of the engaged couple. On the day of the nuptials, the two bands would become interlocked with a third (the wedding band) and worn by the new bride as her wedding ring set. (Think Spinelli Kilcollin designs set in Renaissance times.)
Now, back to gemstones — even though the Archduke was the first to propose with a diamond ring, the action wasn’t trendsetting. The design didn’t become popular until 1947 when De Beers, the British company that mined diamonds in South Africa, launched an advertising campaign. With the help of Hollywood stars and the slogan, “a diamond is forever,” these types of engagement rings became sensational in the United States. The initiative “cemented diamonds as the ultimate symbol of love, commitment, and what we know today as the traditional engagement ring,” Erin Sachse, founder and creative director of Eriness Jewelry, tells TZR.
Nowadays, there’s a shift in engagement ring preferences from a traditional diamond ring (e.g., a solitaire style on a thin band) to a more maximalist design with colored gems, thick bezels, and representational details, like a thorn-shaped band or two gems to represent each partner. (Megan Fox’s ring from Machine Gun Kelly features both of these elements.) “Women do not want a cookie-cutter engagement ring that is similar to what all their friends have,” says Olivia Landau, founder and CEO of The Clear Cut. Likewise, Sachse sees a rise in multiple stones — like toi et moi styles — and statement-making designs. “More is more,” she says.
Just like in the golden age of Hollywood when all eyes were on Elizabeth Taylor’s classic, albeit huge, emerald diamond ring from her third husband Mike Todd, consumers’ risk-taking tendencies in buying a nontraditional piece could be related to celebrity culture. For example, when Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton, he did so with a big and bold blue sapphire. (It was the ring Princess Diana chose when she and Prince Charles became engaged.) Actor Blake Lively received an oval diamond ring with a rose-gold setting from Ryan Reynolds, and Jennifer Lopez was given a green diamond by Ben Affleck — after which Landau says she saw more interest in fancy color stones. Ariana Grande, too, evaded the traditional diamond solitaire setting with a pearl and oval toi et moi piece from Dalton Gomez.
In terms of a stone shape, Landau sees that consumers are looking for hand-cut, old mine or old European diamonds, an elongated cushion, or something that is “a little less conventional or traditional.” Old mine and old European cuts are considered antiques. Small personal touches, like a hidden halo or hidden birthstone details, are also popular. A celebrity example: After Meghan Markle reset her ring in 2019 to include a diamond eternity band, HELLO! Magazine reported that her jeweler, Lorraine Schwartz, added Markle, Prince Harry, and their son Archie’s birthstones on the underside of the ring. The bauble features a hidden halo as well.
Victoria Lampley Berens, founder of The Stax Advisory, agrees that today’s trend-scape is wide-ranging and has inspired shoppers in a broader sense, to think beyond tradition and consider what will feel the most true to their style in the long run. “It’s such a personal purchase and one that is hopefully going to stand the test of time and trends,” she says. Her clients, for instance, are interested in everything from Nina Runsdorf’s black rhodium-framed, bezel diamond rings to east-west facing pieces, ceramic bands, and brushed metals from James de Givenchy’s Taffin.
Engagement ring culture has changed drastically in the last decade. While it used to be the status quo that men chose rings with no input from the women they intended to propose to, many couples are being more collaborative in the ring shopping process than ever before. “Most couples we work with [at The Clear Cut] are shopping together throughout the process, from initial consultation, to choosing the diamond, to ultimately designing the ring together,” says Landau.
Additionally, Sachse thinks designs will only continue to become more fun and funky. “I foresee bigger stacks paired back to chunkier engagement rings to make a statement, [and] it’s only a matter of time before we see more than one engagement ring,” she says. Though, perhaps this will all be done with sustainability in mind: “Lab-grown diamonds are really up and coming. [They’re] so good for the planet with the same sparkle,” Lampley Berens says.