Engagement Rings

Engaging Engagement Rings

People love to mark special occasions with special items, particularly jewelry, and one of the more famous items on the Western jewelry palette is the engagement ring. Even in these electronically-bound days, a man would never dream of asking a woman to marry him without an engagement ring. (The same goes for those few women willing to buck tradition and take the matrimonial initiative.) Curiously, this wasn't a tradition invented and enforced by the jewelry industry; in fact, the exchange of engagement rings has such a weight of history behind it that it's hard to tell where and when the tradition began, though it's a good bet that it started back in the caveman days.

It's not difficult the see the symbolism in engagement rings: they're circles, and circles have no end. Ideally, the love an engagement ring represents should be the same. As romantic as that may be, some less-than-sentimental scholars claim that what it really represents is a handcuff, having developed from a cord the erstwhile groom used to tie the bride's hands so she couldn't get away. Not such a romantic thought, is it? It's a bit of a stretch from a rope to a ring, but however the tradition started out, it's what it means today that matters.

Early days, varying ways

The modern tradition of exchanging engagement rings can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, who traded casual betrothal rings that rarely had a promise of marriage behind them. By the Roman era, things were more serious: men were giving their fiancées rings decorated with a carved key, which was probably the key to her half of his wealth rather than a symbolic "key to his heart," to the disappointment of romantics everywhere. Engagement rings languished in the post-Roman era, and their use did not pick up again until the 12th century. About that time, Pope Innocent III decreed that all weddings in the Catholic Church (which meant all legal weddings, period) required a wedding ring; it's been suggested that this revived the engagement ring tradition in a kind of coattail effect.

Onward to the future

Engagement rings as we know them today are, like so much else, essentially a product of the European Renaissance. By the mid-15th century, wealthy men were offering their intendeds engagement rings that wouldn't be out of place today. The first known diamond engagement ring, for example, was given by the Archduke Maximillian of Hamburg (Germany) to lady Mary of Burgundy (France) in 1477. Extravagant engagement rings of this sort remained the playthings of the rich until after 1700, when several developments occurred that opened the fine jewelry market to the masses. In 1725, diamonds -- which until then were known only from the Indian subcontinent -- were found in Brazil. In the subsequent centuries, new methods of working gemstones and precious metals were developed, and further deposits identified. Over time, the prices of engagement rings began to drop, until by the Victorian era decent rings were available to almost any working man. While the costs remained steep, they were no longer entirely out of the range; and to the relief of young men everywhere, this remains the case today.

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