Arguably the simplest expression of the promise of love, the wedding band is an ancient tradition that dates back as far as the Egyptians. Not only was the circle the symbol of eternity with no beginning or end, but its empty centre was symbolic of entering a new life together and a gateway to the couple’s future. The first recorded wedding rings were made of rushes and reeds and were braided around the woman’s finger.
These materials didn’t last long and were soon replaced with stronger rings made from leather, bone or ivory. The value of the ring was extremely important as not only did it signify the amount of love held for the bride but it also told of how wealthy the groom was.
The Romans continued the tradition of the wedding ring but as a symbol of ownership rather than love. Men claimed their bride by presenting her with a betrothal ring. These rings were not given during the wedding ceremony, but as the husband carried his new bride across the threshold.
During the 9th century, Christians began to use rings during the marriage ceremony. These rings were extremely ornate with engravings of doves, lyres or two linked hands. They were frowned upon by the Church as heathenish and so during the 13th century they were simplified to look more like the simple wedding ring that we know today.
The ring finger
In many cultures the wedding ring is worn on the 4th finger, known as the ring finger. There are differing opinions as to why the 4th finger was chosen for this symbolic ring.
Many believed that the 4th finger on the left hand is closest to the heart as there is a vein that runs directly from the heart to this finger. This vein was named the Vena Amoris which is Latin for the vein of love. As medical science progressed it transpired that there is no such vein and that it is actually a nerve in the finger but, nevertheless, the tradition continued.
Others believe that the ring finger on the left hand protected it from wear as the right hand is used more than the left for most people and the ring is protected by the outer two fingers. This dates back to a time when wedding rings were made of softer materials such as copper and day to day life involved a lot of manual labour.
Christians believe that the 4th finger is because of the manner in which the ring is placed on the hand during the wedding ceremony. The groom would place the ring first on the bride’s thumb, then her index finger, her middle finger and finally her ring finger while reciting ‘In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost, Amen’.
Interesting facts about wedding rings
- Puritans in early Colonial America believed wedding rings to be frivolous and so gave their brides a thimble instead. Many women eventually removed the top of the thimble and wore it as a ring.
- Gimmal rings were popular in 16th and 17th century Europe. They were made of several interlocking bands and were used as wedding rings to stop spouses cheating. If the person wearing the ring took it off to cheat on their spouse they wouldn’t be able to put it back together in time to avoid being found out!
- Some ancient cultures, such as the Celts, tied symbolic cords around the couple, symbolizing their union as one. This is where the expression ‘Tying the knot’ comes from.
- Before the Great Depression it was uncommon for a man to wear a wedding ring in the US. With a marketing campaign for the ‘double ring ceremony’, changing economic times and many men leaving their wives to fight in World War II, men’s wedding rings became popular and remain so to this day.
- The smallest wedding ring on record was given to the daughter of Henry VIII, princess Mary, when she was just two years old.
- In some Hindu weddings a toe ring or bichiya is worn instead of a ring on a finger.
- In eastern parts of India, primarily West Bengal, an iron bangle known as a ‘loha‘ is worn by women. Nowadays, this bangle is often plated in silver or gold to give it a nicer appearance.
- In many countries including Norway, Russia, Germany, Austria, Portugal and Spain it is customary to wear the wedding ring on the ring finger of the right hand.
- In Jewish tradition, the groom places the ring on the bride’s index finger.
Ann Chapman is a fine jewellery designer and owner of Stonechat Jewellers in Dublin. While studying for a degree in European studies in France, Ann fell in love with the bijoux jewellery shops of romantic Paris. Determined to learn the intricate skills of fine jewellery making, Ann undertook a short course at NCAD. Following an apprenticeship of several years with a variety of jewellery studios, she was granted one of only twelve coveted places on the Crafts Council of Ireland goldsmithing course in Kilkenny. The broad skill-set she acquired during this training affirmed Ann’s passion for fine jewellery, precious metals and coloured stones.