With any romantic story involving a handsome Prince, a beautiful actress, true love and a promise of happily-ever-after, there will be a sparkling engagement ring in there somewhere – an emblematic jewel that signifies value and significance both temporal and spiritual. The ring is an unbroken band signifying eternity, and for Royal Marriage a sacrament before God. The public flashing of Prince Harry’s engagement ring to Megan, a bespoke creation reusing two diamonds from his late mother, Diana’s, collection and an ethically sourced new diamond from Botswana invited the scrutiny of the world’s press cameras.
The purpose of giving an engagement ring is a visible sign of a public commitment – the lady is engaged or ‘taken’ – she has promised herself to another, who literally has put his money where his mouth is. So, where did the tradition of engagement rings come from?
If we go back over 3,000 years to Ancient Egypt, we find rings featuring snakes – a symbol of fertility – and knotted snakes in a figure 8 or a snake eating its tail to form an unbroken circle to denote eternity: the uroborus. Maybe the basis for the saying that one is ‘tying the knot’ goes back beyond this to very ancient concept that two are knotted together as one.
By the Roman era, a special ring called an ‘annulus pronubus’ given by the groom to his fiancée had become part of a civil legal process, an important pledge of fidelity on both sides.
In the manner of all jewels, an engagement ring proclaims one’s taste and rank, although in the Ancient and early Medieval Ages sumptuary laws prohibited lower classes from ostentation above their station. Sometimes, no matter what the rank, only one ring is used for the purpose of both wedding and ring, then as now.
Over time the betrothal ring developed into finely crafted Medieval engagement rings and poesy (love poetry) rings engraved with a motto. Shown here is a very early diamond betrothal ring from the antique dealer Berganza set with a pointy, almost still rough, diamond – diamond dust impregnated cutting wheels and the modern system of cutting facets were not in existence at the time - but the adamantine strength of the diamond symbolised ‘foreverness’, carried from the ancient Romans’ beliefs.
Snakes, knots and Egyptian jewellery styles were repopularised by the Victorians in their jewellery, and Queen Victoria wore a snake design engagement ring given by her beloved Albert, a sacred treasure and reminder of her love for this one man throughout her long life.
Rings as enduring tokens of love can be found glinting bright in the darkest of days - displayed in the Forbidden City Museum, Beijing, is a ring belonging to the doomed last Chinese Qing emperor, Puyi, forced to hand it over in custody for war crimes at the end of WWII. The stylishly Western-design nickel alloy band is engraved inside ‘I love you forget me not’ and was a gift to Wanrong, his wife.
Everyone knows that engagement rings are only ever worn on the third finger of the left hand. The custom of which finger to wear one’s ring on goes back at least to the Romans, if not before, who believed that a special vein runs directly from this finger to the heart – the vena amoris. This was part of the early Medieval medicinal belief in the ‘humours’ of the body. In palmistry, the ring finger is associated with the Sun, and features of the ring finger such as relative length indicate one’s ability in arts, sports, business or love affairs. In astrology the Sun rules Leo, the sign of royalty and self-expression: a perfect pairing for Prince Harry and Megan.
Futher information on the rings illustrated:
The nickel ring of Emperor Puyi was exhibited in Chaumet’s fascinating intercultural exhibition in Beijing 2017: https://www.chaumet.com/imperial-splendours/
Diamond ‘Spangle’ ring by Theo Fennell, VIP Vault Sale Dec 2017