The history of the ‘little circlet’ constituting a ring, offers an amazing illustration of diversities in the significance, form, usage and methods of wearing of this symbol, realized by the imagination of man and influenced during centuries by cultural factors different civilizations. A ring is a symbol to which great meaning and interest is attached. From Egypt, the custom of wearing it was transmitted to the Greek world and to the Etruscans, from whom the usage was derived by the Romans, as referred to in the popular tales of Prometheus. Another origin ascribed to the ring is the knot; a knotted cord or a piece of wire twisted into a knot was a favorite finger adornment in primitive societies, frequently symbolizing specific talismans.
The use of ring as a pledge of love is said to have been mentioned for the first time in Roman literature by Plautus. The passage, however, does not directly refer to a nuptial ring but rather to a ‘love token’. Somewhat distantly related to the betrothal or wedding rings were those given by lovers to their loved ones. The ancient custom of placing the betrothal or wedding ring upon the fourth finger seems to originate from the Egyptian belief that a special nerve or vein ran directly from this finger to the heart. During the reign of George I in England, it was customary to wear the betrothal ring on the thumb. This custom may have been due to the fact that exceptionally large rings were favored during that period. In France, ecclesiastical rituals between the 11th and the 15th century demanded that the nuptial ring be placed on the right hand of the bride, in most cases upon the middle finger of this hand.
A rare kind of marriage ring used during the early centuries of Christianity would bear, incised on its orbicular, button-shaped plaque, a male, and a female bust, the faces turned toward each other, with a cross engraved above the portraits. This particular design was initiated by Romans and passed on to the ancient Germans who maintained and favored it for several centuries. The earliest Greek betrothal rings were inscribed elaborately with words, which indicated devotion and loyalty. Plain iron rings were the earliest ones used and continued their popularity long after the second century of our era when gold rings were produced for betrothal or wedding. The old custom of exchanging rings in the Russian Church required that the same rings be used for both the engagement and the marriage ceremony, the latter bearing the name of ‘crowning’.
The bride’s ring was made of silver whereas the bridegroom’s was crafted in gold. It has been remarked by Jacob Grim (1785-1863), a famous German lexicographer, that the usage of betrothal rings among the Germans was the product of Christian influence rather than a proper Germanic tradition. Such rings were given the name of ‘Trauringe’ designating the ring as an emblem of faith and trust, resembling the Italian word ‘fede’ meaning ‘faith’ as such rings continue to be called. In the latter half of the 15th century, the inscription of poesies on betrothal and wedding rings became a tradition in England, France, Germany, and Italy. Fine examples of poetically inscribed rings are displayed in the Germanic Museum in Nuremberg, the British Museum, and the Figdor Collection in Vienna. At the turn of the 17th century, the religious sentiment predominated in Europe and gradually became a substitute for poesies inscriptions.
It is not possible to indicate with any precision at what date the betrothal ring became the wedding ring, but this change seems to have taken place in England about the time of the Reformation. This, however, did not entail the abandonment of the betrothal ring, but rather the substitution of a less simple ring, to mark the betrothal. The change was gradual and the usage varied in different countries, since the employment of a separate marriage ring was rather a custom than of ecclesiastical ordinance.