Engagement Rings Through the Ages

Amy Cunningham

Back in the really old days, when pointy sticks were high tech and anything more than five syllables was a speech, getting a wife was easy: you just gave her something pretty and hoped for the best. But alas, things have become much more complex since the discovery of civilization; nowadays living in caves is frowned upon, hunting mammoths is all but impossible, and girls demand that you bathe more than a couple of times a month. But they still like pretty things, and if you want to capture a girl's heart, you'd better offer her a decent engagement ring.

All joking aside, if a girl truly loves you, receiving a ring from you won't matter as much to her as receiving your heart -- but it never hurts to cover all the bases.

From twisted reeds to complicated creeds

The Egyptians seem to have started the whole engagement ring/wedding ring thing back in the days of the pharaohs, when they exchanged rings made of twisted hemp and other vegetal materials. OK, so the Egyptians were cheapskates, but hey, way to design your own engagement ring and make it from materials at hand! Later, the Greeks began a tradition of exchanging so-called "betrothal rings," but there were no strings attached and no contract implied -- quite unlike our modern engagement rings. The Romans got much more serious with engagement rings, as they tended to do with everything. Men rarely wore them, but their fiancée's bore rings with carved stone keys -- the better to unlock their share of their boyfriend's fortune.

Modern engagement rings came onto the European scene after the 1300s, when gems from the East were combined with gold and silver to produce fancy finger rings. The Archduke of Hamburg, one Maximillian, surprised the French noblewoman Mary of Burgundy with the first of many recorded diamond engagement rings in 1477 (for the record, she said yes). More than 500 years later, 80% of engagement rings sold are diamond rings. All you guys out there are free to say it with us: "Gee, thanks, Max!"

Looking backward and forward

From an engagement ring perspective, we live in the best of all eras. Not only do we have new materials, new gems, and exciting, Space-Age designs to choose from, we can always look backward to the days of our parents or grandparents, and even farther, for inspiration. Antique engagement rings, whether heirloom or purchased, are becoming increasingly popular, partly due to the recent vintage clothing boom. Their intricate styling, understated elegance, and age-darkened materials can lend splendor to any young lady's hand.

If understatement's not your style, consider an engagement ring that makes its statement loud and clear. In the wake of ornate rings borne by celebrities such as Jessica Simpson and Jennifer Lopez, colored diamonds have become more popular in the past year than they have been in the previous decade. You may not have $1.5 million to plunk down for either Miss Simpson's 3.5-carat conglomeration of sapphire-blue and white diamonds, or the 6-carat pink diamond J. Lo wore when she was engaged to Ben Affleck, but colored diamonds are less expensive that you might think -- and they're more common than ever.