Engagement ring meaning and history

What does an engagement ring mean? 

Engagement rings have a long history, their meaning and how they are used has certainly evolved over time and in different cultures. Traditionally, an engagement is given by a man to his partner when he is proposing marriage. The ring itself symbolises the upcoming union of the two people. Rings that are used for engagement go back a long way, as the circle has often been a representation of eternity. 

In ancient times, long before engagement rings we would recognise today, Egyptians would use plants twisted into small circles to wear around the finger. Those who were wealthy would use ivory or leather instead of plants. It has long been put on the fourth finger of the left hand as a connection to the heart by the vena amoris. This is often now referred to as the ring finger. 

Engagement ring meaning today is that they are most often given as part of a surprise marriage proposal, no matter if that is between a man and a woman or a same-sex couple. 

The history of the engagement ring  

Ancient Rome 

Roman women in ancient times were highly image-conscious and were often given two rings on the day of their marriage. They would have a gold ring that was worn in public that represented their status, and an iron one for daily wear inside the home. Wedding bands were a symbol of the man’s ownership of his wife as well as their eternal love. 

The Middle Ages 

In Vienna in the year 1477, the Archduke Maximillian of Austria gave Mary of Burgundy a betrothal ring of their day of engagement. This is widely acknowledged as the model for future engagement rings, as other people within the royal court were influenced by the Archduke to do the same. As the wealthy began to travel, the engagement ring tradition spread quickly around Europe. 


During the period of Enlightenment, gimmal rings were given to partners as a symbol of love. Gimmal rings are rings with two or three hoops and when they are put together, they form one complete ring. The rings usually had a clasped hand design, to clearly show two people uniting in marriage. 

Posey rings were popular in England between the 15th and 17th centuries. They were made from gold, with a short inscription on the inside. Often, these inscriptions were from courtship stories or chapbooks. This meant that when the ring was being worn the message was hidden, making the woman feel like they were keeping a secret, adding to the romance of the jewellery.  

Victorian period 

Engagement rings were still perceived as only for the rich and part of the upper classes in the Victorian period. The discovery of diamond mines and the industrial revolution went hand in hand with jewellery production. Diamonds were discovered in South Africa in 1867. By 1872, just five years later, they were producing more than one million carats of diamonds per year. 

Dowries were a common way of sealing an engagement during this time, meaning the culture was to have a simple engagement band to display the proposal of marriage. They were worn on the right hand before being placed on the left hand during the ceremony. 

The 20th century  

The popularity of diamond engagement rings declined in the USA after WW1 with the Great Depression causing severe poverty across the country. These types of rings were simply less relevant to the general population. The price of diamonds quickly fell, and they were not popular with the new generation of young adults. 

In 1939, the diamond mining company De Beers launched an advertising campaign with the slogan ‘diamonds are forever’ which is still well-known today. The campaign was very successful and by the early 1940s, engagement rings were a prominent feature of jewellery in a lot of department stores globally.  

The market for engagement rings was back on the rise. There were more and more options for rings being developed with gold engagement rings with a diamond being popular. Engagement rings serve a similar purpose to dowries in previous centuries, given the relationship dynamics between men and women and contemporary gender stereotypes. 

Up until 1970 in the UK, women were able to sue men for calling off a marriage under the Breach of Promise, but women could change their minds on the marriage with no repercussions. 

Throughout most of the 20th century, middle- and upper-class women did not go to work and working-class women would normally give up work to get married. If the engagement or marriage didn’t go ahead for any reason, a woman’s life could be ruined. As a result, women could keep the engagement ring to sell so that she had money to live off whilst she recovered her reputation. 

The 21st century 

The culture and beliefs surrounding engagement rings has changed significantly since the start of the 21st century. In part this is because of recent updates to marriage laws relating to same-sex marriage. Given that the history of engagement rings has been defined by the relationship between men and women, it will be exciting to see what new traditions and meaning emerges for engagement rings and proposals as we now live in a more equal and balanced society. 

Most marriages today are based on love matches instead of arranged pairings, which has resulted in two types of proposals: the surprise and the planned. An increasingly popular trend, based on the fact that every relationship and couple is different, is to have custom made and bespoke engagement rings that truly capture the individuality of the person being proposed to. 

In terms of the look of the rings themselves, silver engagement rings have come to the forefront as the most popular colour in the modern day.

Contact us today 

Make an appointment with Barbara by calling 02392753025 or emailing barbara@tipple.uk.com to discuss your ideas for the perfect engagement ring.