Bridal Party: Put A Ring On It! (An Origin Story)

Beyonce from the Single Ladies videoHas there ever been any better advice given to fellows who didn’t have the foresight to keep their gals happy than Beyoncé’s timeless, “If you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it?” Probably. In fact, there has most certainly been better relationship advice. Even something like, “If you like it then you shoulda had better communication skills” would have been more like it.

I’m not saying that I was immune to bopping around my house, shaking my left hand as well as my rear end anytime “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” came on, but Beyoncé’s chart topper came out at the same time that my not-husband and I were deep in conversations about whether or not to get married (he was pro and I was anti) and I was feeling less-than-amenable to Beyoncé’s thesis.

When Beyoncé took a stand for all “single ladies,” no one in my then-same-sex relationship had as of yet put any rings on anything and I was pretty happy about that.

After thoughtful and difficult conversations, however, my person and I agreed on a compromise: I came around to the romantic angle and legal benefits of marriage, and my person agreed to completely re-inventing every wedding tradition that I found problematic.

Then came the issue of the ring. 

I was squarely anti-ring, both engagement and wedding. I can be a real pill about things that most people take for granted! 

Here’s the deal: Engagement and wedding rings, as with most things to do with marriage in Western culture,an illustration of an iron ring with a key have an unseemly history. Surprise! 

The first recorded instances of rings in Western culture come to us from the Romans. They had a lovely tradition wherein the wife would wear two different rings—one worn in public, then removed for the one worn at home. The public ring was made of gold, while the house ring was made of iron and was worn while doing chores and other domestic tasks. The Roman wedding ring symbolized the binding legal agreement of the husband’s ownership of his wife (which is why there is no male engagement ring tradition), and their betrothal rings came decorated with a little carved key.  

a photograph of an iron ringYou know what else is made of iron and comes with a little key? SHACKLES. “If I own you then I better have a ring on you. Wha-oh-oh-oh-oh-ooh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh!”

In 1215, Pope Innocent the III—the same Pope responsible for launching the Fifth Crusade anda painting of Pope Innocent III arguably the most powerful Pope in the history of the Catholic Church—ruled that any and all wedding ceremonies required a ring. This was part of his decree that there be a waiting period between betrothal and actual marriage. Without getting into the tedious details of papal history and law, the waiting period was made mandatory by Innocent III to make sure the pair getting married weren’t directly related to one another (e.g. brothers and sisters or fathers and daughters—cousins, uncles/nieces, and the like were fine to marry).

The separate engagement ring was a little bit like a “sale pending” sign while the Church checked to see if you were doing something it disapproved of, while the wedding ring was the contract of ownership. (“If we’re related I better not put a ring on it.”)

We can thank the bloody spread of Catholicism and its laws throughout the Western World for the modern-day, widespread tradition of engagement and wedding rings.

Fun fact: Only the very wealthy were permitted rings with gemstones, made of precious metals, or of ornate designs. 


Hey! Did you know that diamonds didn’t have anything to do with wedding rings for a very long time? In fact, there is 100% no ancient symbolism associated with diamonds, just a troubling, bloody, profitable history.

A black and white photo of black diamond workers. Caption below.

(Original caption excerpt: “Here we see debris washing being carried on at the St. Augustine mine by black workers under white supervision. Not only the hard manual labour of the mines, but the sorting also is done by blacks, who sit at white tables all day in rooms with large windows and no blinds, and…separate the true from the false, under the watchful eye of a trained official.”)

In the late 19th Century, companies began exploiting cheap/slave labor in South African mines and diamonds
exploded in popularity before lagging like all new trends. De Beers decided to comission a blitz ad campaign to boost sales and by 1947 its tag line, “A Diamond is Forever, ” was cementing the idea that a diamond is “just what you do.” The ads also reinforced the idea of flaunting your social/class rank by featuring well-to-do white people, while the general campaign utilized Hollywood, fashion designers, and other “culture makers.” 

a vintage diamond ada vintage diamond ada photo of Marilyn Monroe wearing diamonds

There is one neat aspect of wedding ring history. Ancient Egyptian royals have been found buried with rings on the third finger of their left hand because they thought there was a vein that ran directly from the heart to this finger, the circle a symbol of eternal cycles of time and the space in the middle the gateway.  That’s where that tradition comes from.

In another mututal compromise, my person and I ended up having pinky wedding rings (neither of us wore engagement rings) made of silver and copper and designed and made by my cousin, who is an amazing jewelry designer. We paid the cost of the materials—under $100—and in place of the diamond we chose an abstracted compass design so that we always remember which way home is.

It was awesome having an artist we know and love make our rings with us in mind, but if you can’t do that, then it’s still possible to find a way beat Tiffany’s and De Beers and make your own physical symbol of your relationship.

The always helpful Offbeat Bride has this fun article to get you started: “21 Alternative Engagement Rings Perfect For Proposing to Your Offbeat Beloved.” Always the history/symbolism nerd, I also really liked reading “Historical Importance of Precious Gem Stones.” And the bizarrely titled “Men Wedding Ring” has a lot of cool design examples for rings that defy the traditional template.

Interestingly, after a year on testosterone, my not-husband’s ring no longer fits his finger, so it’s time for a redesign. We’re likely going with simple rings of Black Onyx—a stone worn to protect the wearer during times of conflict, carried for courage, used to strengthen the heart, and prescribed for relationship harmony. 

Next week: A break from bummer history. Fun invitation designs of both the e- and physical varieties!

Previously: Disney’s Got You! Or Does It?, Scooch Over, Gender Binary!

by Michael Braithwaite
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6 Comments Have Been Posted

Love this series!

First of all, I love this series.
Second of all, I've always been bothered with the importance put on the engagement ring, as well as the weird, arbitrary rules, like "He HAS to spend two months' salary on it." Why? Shouldn't he spend two months' salary on his portion of rent/home payment for the newly married couple, or something like that?

Also, can I just say, I specifically remember the first time I thought about weirdness with engagement rings. I was watching Boy Meets World, and Corey wore an engagement ring along with Topanga. That was the first time I thought, "Hey, why DON'T men wear rings?" So...Boy Meets World started me on my feminist journey? Too much of a stretch? Oh well.

So not a stretch.

I remember that from Boy Meets World too! She might not hold up to a second viewing, but Topanga stands out in my memory as a feminist for sure.

I agree. Topanga was actually

I agree. Topanga was actually a very forward thinking character for the time and targeted audience!

Because Topanga proposed to him

Good point about Topanga. Cory wore an engagement ring because Topanga proposed to him, at their high school graduation while everyone else was on stage throwing their caps and cheering. Totally a feminist role model early on for me.

Nice article!

I like this article!

As a woman in a long term relationship with a live-in boyfriend, I always get asked by nosy relatives "WHEN'S HE GOING TO PROPOSE?" and joking about getting me a ring at christmas/my birthday. We've been together 2.5 years at this point, and we've talked about marriage in some vague future timeline. I'd like to get married if only for the legal benefits.

But the ring thing really sticks in my craw. 90% of me doesn't care about an engagement ring, and the other 10% cares but recognizes its from society and my family's harping on about how he "SHOULD" put a ring on it because it's what a MAAAAN should do after 2 years.

I would like some form of simple, matching wedding bands, but the engagement ring is such a joke into today's society.

About a year ago one of my

About a year ago one of my friends got married. I had been with my now-fiance for over seven years at that point and had recently gotten a full time job, so it wasn't a surprise when questions about our eventual wedding came up. I said something to my best friend along the lines of "Besides, we aren't officially engaged yet," and she responded with "Yeah, you're missing something" and displaying her left fingers.

Um, actually what I meant was that we hadn't decided to start actively planning on getting married. At the time I was thinking that once I'd finished hashing out my finances and we could buy a house, I'd propose to him. He wound up beating me to it shortly after we moved in, but when I was planning on proposing I wasn't going to be buying myself a ring, so I expected to be engaged but without it for a little while.

I did tell him as soon has he brought the subject of a ring up that I did not want a diamond. Too many ethical issues, and I don't need some spiritual ancestor of Don Draper who worked on a DeBeers account telling me what it takes to be engaged. So far nobody has questioned the validity of my garnet. I'm wondering if the diamond is on the decline or if it's just in my circle that alternative stones seem fairly common. The garnet is also his birthstone, which might make it more legitimate in some people's eyes, but really I just liked it.

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