Promise or pre-engagement rings may seem like an invention of the modern jewelry biz. In fact, they have been around since the 16th century, when they would be exchanged by couples too young or poor to wed. Read on to find out more about this fascinating and ever-changing romantic tradition.
While rings had always been used to signify commitment – there are Biblical references to the religious rings of the devout, it was in the 15th and 16th century that sweethearts began exchanging rings to communicate and solidify their love.
There were several different kinds of pre-engagement rings during this period. In 16th century England, lovers exchanged scribbling rings, which were inlaid with uncut diamonds or crystals. The wearer would use the sharp points of the diamonds to etch their beloved’s names or vows into window glass.
During Shakespeare’s time, poesy rings were popular among young couples. Each band was engraved with romantic sayings such as “vous et nul autre” (you and no other) or “a ma vie de coer entire” (my whole heart for my whole life), binding the lover’s words to the beloved’s body.
In 19th century Europe, pre-engagement rings reflected the optimism and romanticism of the era. They also were more ornamental than their predecessors, reflecting both the growing availability of semi-precious stones and the new influx of wealth into the middle classes.
Regards rings were frequently used as engagement rings, but non-engaged couples and even friends exchanged them as well. Regards rings featured a series of semi-precious stones, the first letter of which spelled out “regards”: emerald, garnet, amethyst, ruby, diamond, sapphire.
Other variations included the spelling of the beloved’s name, the word “love” (lapis lazuli, opal, vermarine, emerald), and the word “dearest” (diamond, emerald, amethyst, ruby, emerald, sapphire, topaz).
It’s not surprising in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, promise rings are again popular.
In a time where courtship – the period of dating – is longer than ever, couples can get frustrated with the lack of ritual and progression. The exchange of rings is a way for a couple to commemorate a transition in their relationship without the greater pressures of engagement.
While most couples exchange promise rings as a way of expressing their intention to eventually marry, the tradition is open to interpretation. For some, a promise ring might signify a decision to remain abstinent before marriage or engagement. These rings are also sometimes referred to as “purity” rings. Other couples exchange promise rings when they decide to live together before getting married, to mark the transition to a co-habiting couple.
There is also variation in how promise rings are worn. While many women wear their rings on their left hand ring fingers, like an engagement ring, it is also popular to sport a promise ring on the ring finger of the right hand, to avoid confusion. While modern promise rings are overwhelmingly given to women by their male partners, men can – and do – wear promise rings too! A small but rising subset of couples purchase “pair” promise rings that match, similar to wedding bands. Popular styles for modern rings include sterling silver, three small diamonds, and heart shaped stone designs.
Thinking of getting your own beloved a promise ring? Think out of the box! Unlike engagement rings, which are commonly diamond, a promise ring can be anything you can imagine. In fact, if you are planning to invest in a diamond engagement ring later on, you may prefer to get a promise ring with a different kind of stone, setting, or style.
One tradition we like: birthstones, which men often gave to their intended brides in the Victorian era (Prince Albert surprised Queen Victoria herself with an emerald snake ring!). Promising your commitment with a birthstone ring makes a personal statement that she’s sure to cherish no matter how many years pass – and how many more rings you give her.