Why Do We Wear Wedding Rings?

Something people don’t tend to ask themselves until they’re getting married - Why do couples wear wedding jewellery? There are plenty of old-wives tales about it symbolising ownership (not dissimilar to an ear tag for livestock!) but when delving a little further into the history of wedding rings you’ll soon discover that the meaning behind a wedding band has its own complex and varied history.

Wedding jewellery in ancient Egypt

The rich history of wedding rings dates back millennia, when Egyptian couples exchanged rings braided from natural fibres such as reed. They used circular bands, which had no beginning or end, to depict eternal love and commitment to one another. The ‘inside’ of the ring symbolises an opening to the future.

Image credit: The British Museum

Over time, woven wedding jewellery wore out, so the practice shifted to more durable rings crafted from bone, ivory or leather. According to wedding etiquette of the time, giving one’s partner a more expensive wedding band was a physical, measurable display of how much love was being shown in the partnership.

Pagan marriage traditions for Ancient Rome

When the Ancient Romans also adopted the custom of exchanging rings, they were made from iron, symbolising the strength of the marriage. Today, rings are made from silver or gold.

Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Romans were also responsible for the placement of wedding rings on the left hand, on the fourth finger. This pagan tradition stemmed from the belief that the vena amoris, or vein of love was said to run from the fourth finger to the heart. It is unclear exactly why the left hand was chosen - it may be because caring for your wedding ring is easier when most people are right handed. The soft metal of a wedding ring is less likely to be damaged on the left hand, or if the ring has a delicate setting of diamonds or other stones.

The Betrothed Couple by Lucas van Leyden, image credit: Koniklijk Museum

The matching wedding rings of today are likely to have descended from the 16th Century Catholic practise of wearing gimmel rings, made of two interlocking parts purchased as a set when the couple were engaged. The bride and groom wore one part each, until at the wedding the groom gave the bride his part, symbolising their unity. This may also explain why the bride wears an engagement ring as well as a wedding band, while the groom only wears a ring after the wedding.

Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the 21st century, wedding ring trends are followed closely by brides to be. Princess Diana’s engagement ring with its sapphire and diamond setting became legendary when her son proposed to Kate Middleton with it, and Meghan Markle and Prince Harry chose simple matching wedding bands for their nuptials in 2018. Nowadays, wedding rings are totally dependent on the bride and groom to be and their preferences.

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