Wedding Ring Customs around the World: Then and Now

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Published: 08th August 2012
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The earliest documented exchange of wedding rings was around 4800 years ago in ancient Egypt. Back then the ring was believed to possess supernatural powers, an unending band symbolizing eternal love. Imagery on ancient papyrus scrolls reveal braided hemp and reeds that were fashioned into rings were used in wedding ceremonies. They wore the ring on their left ring finger because the ancient Egyptians believed that there is a vein running from this finger straight to the heart, called the vein of love, or vena amoris.

When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt around 332BC, the Greeks assimilated much of the Egyptian traditions including the use of wedding rings. They began making them from bone, leather and ivory.

Much later, the ancient Romans began using wedding rings made of iron, symbolizing the strength of the man to hold the woman in bondage. On rare occasions, silver or gold rings were given to the bride, signifying that the man trusted his new wife with his riches. This practice probably led to the modern tradition of using metal wedding rings. However, if the ring symbolized eternal love for the ancient Egyptians, the Romans regarded it more as a symbol of possession. The husbands owned their wives.

In the Middle East, it was common for men to give their wives puzzle rings. These complicated contraptions formed a single cohesive piece when properly assembled and worn. The idea behind the ring is that if the wife made the mistake of taking the ring off because she wanted to hide the fact that she is married, most likely because she will be seeing another man, the pieces will fall apart and she will be unable to put the pieces back together. Her husband will then know that she had been unfaithful.

In Europe back in the 16th and 17th centuries, they had what was called a gimmel ring. It was fashioned a little like the Middle Eastern puzzle ring, but with a more romantic purpose. It was typically made of two interlocking metal bands that the couple would wear separately upon getting engaged. At their wedding, the two bands will be reconnected to form a single ring that the bride will wear. This whole ceremony with the ring symbolized the unification of two individuals in marriage.

In the late 1800s in Japan, women displayed their marital status by painting their teeth black. The idea of wedding rings as a symbol of a Japanese woman’s marital status didn’t become introduced into the culture until fairly recently, and although Japanese women most definitely prefer wedding rings to painting their teeth black these days, some of them still have not taken to the practice of wearing theirs constantly. They will spend a lot of time and money trying to find the best wedding ring for all its symbolic value, be it romantic or economic, but most couples will keep it in a box rather than wear it after the ceremony to preserve its beauty and to keep from losing it. If the rings are worn at all, it is not for religious or magical reasons, but because it is a public pronouncement that they have found a partner with whom they hope to spend the rest of their lives.

Over the next hundreds of years, the symbolism of the wedding band remained the same, and only the women were required to wear them. It is believed that it was the generally accepted norm for women to openly display their state of being “owned” by their husbands and being off limits to other men. It wasn’t until the first half of the 20th century that things began to change, when the wars came. Young men had to endure prolonged separation from their wives. They took to wearing their wedding bands as a reminder of the beloved wives they left back home. It was a loving and romantic gesture and the practice caught on. It marked the beginning of a trend that has continued up to the present day.

Emerging Design Trends

The present generation of engaged couples are more involved in the process of choosing the right wedding ring together. They both want to have something of themselves and their ideals represented in their choice. More and more, couples are choosing to have a more meaningful wedding ring than simply a plain band of silver or gold.

Emerging designs are heavily based on specific symbols that either the groom or the bride or both find particularly significant to them at the beginning of their new lives as husband and wife. Some couples regard their meaningful wedding rings as a charm or a talisman to protect their relationship from trials that they know will inevitably come.

Popular choices these days for wedding rings with meaning are those that symbolize unity and a harmonious partnership; those that inspire humility; those that invite positivity and abundance; and those that strengthen their commitment to their vows and to each other. The wedding ring has ceased to be a simple metal band that brands the woman as the man’s property. It is no longer just an indication of the man’s economic wealth. As couples intending to marry become more accepting of their impending marriage as a lifelong partnership between equals, the choice of meaningful wedding rings appear to be a trend that is here to stay.

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