by Charles Panati

Here is the history of the diamond engagement rings.

A Venetian wedding document dated 1503 lists “one marrying ring having diamond.” The gold wedding ring of one Mary of Modina, it was among the early betrothal rings that featured a diamond setting. They began a tradition that probably is forever.

The Venetians were the first to discover that the diamond is one of the hardest, most enduring substances in nature, and that fine cutting and polishing releases its brilliance. Diamonds, set in bands of silver and gold, became popular for betrothal rings among wealthy Venetians toward the close of the fifteenth century. Rarity and cost limited their rapid proliferation throughout Europe, but their intrinsic appeal guaranteed them a future. By the seventeenth century, the diamond ring had become the most popular, sought-after statement of a European engagement.

One of history’s early diamond engagement rings was also its smallest, worn by a two-year-old bride-to-be. The ring was fashioned for the betrothal of Princess Mary, daughter of Henry VIII, to the dauphin of France, son of King Francis I. Born on February 28, 1518, the dauphin was immediately engaged as a matter of state policy, to assure a more intimate alliance between England and France. Infant Mary was presented with the veriest vogue in rings, which doubtless fit the tiny royal finger for only a short time.
Though the origin of the diamond engagement ring is known, that of betrothal rings in general is less certain. The practice began, though, well before the fifteenth century.

An early Anglo-Saxon custom required that a prospective bridegroom break some highly valued personal belonging. Half the token was kept by the groom, half by the bride’s father. A wealthy man was expected to split a piece of gold or silver. Exactly when the broken piece of metal was symbolically replaced by a ring is uncertain. The weight of historical evidence seems to indicated that betrothal rings (at least among European peoples) existed before wedding rings, and that the ring a bride received at the time of proposal was given to her again during the wedding ceremony. Etymologists find one accurate description of the engagement ring’s intent in tis original Roman name, arrhae, meaning “earnest money.”

For Roman Catholics, the engagement ring’s official introduction is unequivocal. In A.D. 860, Pope Nicholas I decreed that an engagement ring become a required statement of nuptial intent. An uncompromising defender of the sanctity of marriage, Nicholas once excommunicated two archbishops who had been involved with the marriage, divorce, and remarriage of Lothair II of Lorraine, charging them with “conniving at bigamy”. For Nicholas, a ring of just any material or worth would not suffice. The engagement ring was to be of a valued metal, preferably gold, which for the husband-to-be represented a financial sacrifice; thus started a tradition.

In that century, two other customs were established: forfeiture of the ring by a man who reneged on a marriage pledge; surrender of the ring by a woman who broke off the engagement. The Church became unbending regarding the seriousness of a marriage promise and the punishment if broken. The Council of Elvira condemned the parents of a man who terminated an engagement to excommunication for three years. And if a woman backed out for reasons unacceptable to the Church, her parish priest had the authority to order her into a nunnery for life. For a time, “till death do us part” began weeks or months before a bride and groom were even united.

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