What Does a Wedding Ring Symbolize?
The symbolism of a wedding ring is closely tied in with the symbolism of its shape—a circle. Throughout history, circles have been used as a metaphor for concepts of totality, wholeness, perfection, the self, infinity, eternity, and timelessness.
Circles have also been seen as symbols for God, both in Christian faiths as well as many other religions. Circles have no beginning and no end, and their symmetry has made them symbols for heaven and God’s perfection.
The eternal nature of a circle has also made rings—especially wedding rings—symbols not only of love, but eternal love. By giving an engagement ring or exchanging wedding bands, you are promising that you will love and remain devoted to one another throughout all of time.
Wedding Rings Throughout History
Wedding rings have a long and complicated history stretching back thousands of years. Though giving a ring as a sign of love and fidelity is an ancient tradition, it has changed and been reshaped many times over the centuries. Ancient Egyptians were among the first to give wedding rings, around 6,000 years ago. The tradition was picked up by ancient Greek and Roman cultures, and has waxed and waned in European countries ever since.
Ring styles and materials have changed a lot too. Wedding rings were most often made of leather, ivory or bone in ancient Rome. Even as metal rings began to become more popular, they were typically made of inexpensive metals like iron. Silver and gold rings would be worn only by the very wealthy.
Elsewhere in Europe, wedding ring styles went through a variety of trends. It’s interesting to take a long view of history and see emerging fads that would come and go, just like today. Some old-fashioned types of wedding rings exist now only in museums, while others have left a more lasting influence:
- Gimmel rings were commonly given by husbands to wives during the 16th and 17th centuries. Designed with two interlocking bands that could be separated and then put together like puzzle pieces, gimmel rings would sometimes be separated during the engagement. The man and woman would each wear half of the ring and then reunite the two pieces at the wedding, to be worn by the wife thereafter.
- Poesy rings gained popularity during the Renaissance. They get their name from the inscription of a poem, or “poesy,” which was usually inside the band. Typically made of simple sterling silver, poesy rings were much like today’s promise rings, given as a token of love, friendship, or commitment.
- Fede rings have a design in which the band is made with two clasping hands, which usually represent betrothal. Especially popular in the 12th century, fede rings are similar to Irish Claddagh rings, which are still worn to this day. Claddagh rings include two hands holding a heart with a crown.
Types of Rings
Modern rings are more unique and diverse than ever. You can find rings in almost any imaginable style, made from an incredible range of materials. While plenty of couples choose a classic diamond engagement ring, and wedding rings made of traditional gold or silver, the options certainly don’t end there.
What ring material best tells your story? It could be whiskey barrel wood, Colorado elk antler, Celtic tartan wool, or even handcrafted leather. It could include various types of wood, along with inlays of precious metals or other meaningful materials.
But perhaps more important than the material your ring is made of, is the ring’s purpose. If you’re buying a ring to give to a significant other, consider the meaning behind it. Consider what you want the ring to say. While the options are endless, there are a few basic categories that most rings fall into:
- Wedding rings represent the unbreakable bond of lifelong love and commitment between two married people. They are exchanged as part of the marriage ceremony in the United States and many other countries, and are often—but not always—made with a relatively simple design. Wedding rings are sometimes referred to as wedding bands, and are worn by both men and women.
- Engagement rings are, in most cases, given from one partner to another as part of a marriage proposal. Traditionally, an engagement ring is given by the groom-to-be to the bride-to-be, but there’s no rule that says men can’t also wear engagement rings. They often include at least one precious stone in the design, and are usually worn until the wedding day, at which time the engagement ring is often replaced by the wedding ring.
The tradition of a diamond engagement ring was started by Archduke Maximilian of Austria when he proposed to Mary of Burgundy. Like circles, diamonds have long been considered as symbols of eternity because they are the hardest gems on earth. The placement of the ring on the fourth finger came from the Egyptians who believed that it was the finger that contained the vein that connects to the heart.
- Promise rings are often thought of as sort of a pre-engagement ring, as a promise to become engaged at a future time. But promise rings can also be given as a token of any promise. They may represent a promise of sobriety, a promise of continued friendship, or any other pact or commitment between two people.
- Statement rings do just what their name implies—make a statement. Many people wear them simply because they like the way they look, while others wear a statement ring that holds some deeper significance, or represents a closely-held value or memory. A statement ring can have any design you can think of, but most have a bold, eye-catching look.