The Rise of the Engagement Ring

History and the “Here and Now”

DOWRY ~ Though long a part of contemporary culture, the engagement ring is actually a rather new custom associated with the marital tradition. Prior to the eighteenth century most countries, particularly of European, and later New America, operated on a dowry system. Likewise some “Middle East” countries also organized, and still organize, their marriages around dowries. The philosophy behind the dowry system involves compensation. When a man comes to claim his bride (back then most marriages were prearranged or a binding contract of economic benefit, not love) the husband-to-be brings gifts in exchange for the daughter’s hand. Usually these gifts involve hefty sums of money, portions of land, or as much as one could part with so as to secure his new bride and compensate her family for their loss. Often young girls were simply looked at as a form of economic currency; their net value equates the total sum of their dowry for their family. The woman’s ability to birth and give rise to male heirs determined her economic value to her new husband. This “anti-romantic” tradition wasn’t always devoid of emotion. Moreover, this custom is still practiced in several parts of the world today.

CHIVALRY ~ However, in the eighteenth century the Western world became influenced by the courting culture. Chivalric notions of honor, justice, loyalty became a code of ethics for men who sought out the chaste hand of their virgin bride. These marriages became the first in history to incorporate notions of “love” into their selection process. Though royalty still depended on arranged marriages, and some of the wealthy still operated on old customs, most of the commonwealth was free to choose their bride at their love’s leisure. However, it still behooved the wealthy to marry among the wealthy- and though the poor could dream of social climbing by profiting from a beneficial marital arrangement, social status boundaries were still very much intact.

But despite the metamorphosis from dowry to courting traditions, their always involved the central relationship between the father-in-law and groom-to-be that involved the latter directly asking the former for his daughter’s hand. This tradition has been cemented in Western culture and is still largely important to more conservative families today. It was the notion of asking the hand however gave rise to the engagement ring…

From AU’ NATURAL to GOLD ~ In the early days the future brides would don rings of a natural plant rush, and weave their stems together for a knotted ring. This ring would be replaced by a new one after it died. In Medieval times the brides would wear a ring that encompassed three fingers; else they would don three different rings, to symbolize the holy trinity. As gold became a common currency the groom-to-be would offer his future bride a gold ring as a symbol of his personal affection and his indebted payment to her family. Thus the beginnings of the engagement ring had found their way into our culture.

DARWINISM ~ But the engagement ring has become more elaborate over time: one might say, it has “evolved” quite dramatically, from its original form. What was originally a gold band, or a series of gold bands, has become an intricate heirloom that usually includes a diamond, or multiples thereof, followed by artistic etchings, multiple mountings, etc. etc. Even the metal choice has become inundated with a variety of selections from platinum to yellow or white gold, titanium, etc. Though all these choices can seem overwhelming, one thing remains constant surrounding the custom of the engagement ring…it is primarily the man’s choice. Though more modern times suggest the female has the autonomy to select her own ring, the groom is technically still responsible for purchasing the ring (so tradition goes). But good news for the men: tradition usually suggests the female should purchase the groom’s wedding band.

MODERNITY ~ Tradition usually allows the ring to be either a family heirloom or a new purchase. When purchasing the new ring the traditional notion is to allow one month’s savings for the price of the ring. However, modern times and contemporary notions about the attractive size, style, etc. of the “perfect ring” have changed so much that generally it is safe to allow a generous amount of money that is within the scope of one’s budget when making the purchase. You don’t want to have to take out a loan to buy her a ring, but you also don’t want to be sitting on a hefty paycheck and only purchase a ring worth a couple hundred dollars (so long as you want to look like a sincere groom-to-be). The best guideline to follow is to be reasonable, practical, and let your purchase be affordable. The ring should sting your wallet but not break the bank, for a crude comparison.

Happy ring hunting!