The All-Important Engagement Ring Finger: When and How the Tradition Started

One of the most popular symbols of love and devotion still prevalent in our time is the giving and accepting of engagement rings to signify the couple’s promise to marry each other in the near future.
While countries have small differences, the ring is always worn on the ring finger – the hand’s fourth proximal digit counting from the thumb.

Nowadays, we can observe subtle changes in the tradition. Before, talk about engagements always reminded people of diamonds. The current market now offers affordable alternatives using gems, precious stones, and other highly valuable materials.

There was a time in the past where both men and women both wore engagement rings. This was the inspiration behind promise rings – a set of band rings meant for couples in a serious relationship. It has also only been recent when people popularized the wearing of both the engagement and wedding rings in the woman’s engagement ring finger.

engagement ring fingerPhoto: Adam Selwood, CC BY 2.0

The First Engagement Ring
The first recorded ring meant to symbolize betrothal is a ring with an M-shaped diamond lading given by Archduke Maximilian of Austria for Mary of Burgundy. This early record led to the recognition that Europe is where the tradition of giving such type of rings started.

Prehistoric Origins
Although the official entry suggests that the first use of engagement rings started in 1477, there have been records of ancient civilizations practicing a similar act. For instance, it is said that prehistoric men used to tie braids of grass and plants around the wrist, waist and ankles of their chosen female companion in order to bind her spirit to him.

Ancient Egyptians also practiced adorning bodies of the dead with rings on the fourth finger. The rings are either made of gold or silver wires and are believed to be capable of establishing a connection to the heart of the wearer through the vena amoris. In early Asian culture, men often used puzzle rings- a circular band composed of multiple interconnected rings. These were used to tag their wives in the engagement ring finger and served as a warning to others.

Cultural Differences
Some people become confused whether the ring finger is in the left or right hand. In the early years after Christ, the left hand used to be where the ring should be placed. This is because the heart was believed to be closest to the left side even before science allowed the study of the human circulatory system. Some people retained this idea while some accepted the right hand instead.

engagement ring fingerPhoto: ilovebutter, CC BY 2.0

There are a few countries that put the rings on the right engagement ring finger first upon accepting the marriage proposal from the man. This will stay on the right hand until the day of the wedding wherein it is transferred to the left. Modern traditions today use different rings for the engagement and wedding ceremonies so transferring was out of the question.

Despite everything, rings have always been seen as a material representation of a person’s love for another. This is a fact races all over the world would surely agree.