Wedding Ring Symbolism: What Do Wedding Rings Represent?
If you’re getting ready to tie the knot, chances are you’re planning on exchanging wedding rings with your future spouse. But have you ever stopped to think about why, exactly, we follow this tradition? Most of us have a vague understanding of wedding ring symbolism. We all agree it has something to do with unity, eternity and commitment, right? But you might be surprised to find that there’s more to the story than that, and the wedding band tradition actually goes back thousands of years.
Whether you and your spouse wear silicone wedding rings, jewel-studded rings or ones that have been in the family for decades, they all trace their roots back to the same early traditions. Surprisingly, some of the things we have all thought true about these traditions are actually downright wrong! (Hint: No, there is not a vein that connects your ring finger directly to your heart.) Ultimately, the symbolism of your wedding ring comes down to you, your spouse and the rings you choose.
In this guide from QALO, we’re going over this fascinating history to help illustrate how this symbolism came to be throughout human history.
The History of Wedding Rings
To understand the intricacies of this age-old jewelry tradition, we need to rewind human history by a few millennia. While no one knows exactly when people started using rings in wedding ceremonies, historians believe the tradition’s early roots were planted — no surprise here — in ancient Egypt. There, committed couples wore rings made of natural materials, like reed or hemp. The primitive tradition grew more complex over time, with the betrothed exchanging rings from iron and, eventually, gold.
- Ancient Egypt: Historians agree that the first known use of wedding rings was about 6,000 years ago in ancient Egypt. Relics and papyrus scrolls indicate that couples exchanged braided rings from reeds and hemp. The ancient Egyptians considered the circle a symbol of eternal love and believed that the ring finger on the left hand had a vein connected directly to the heart, the “vena amoris” or “vein of love.”
- Ancient Rome: There is reason to believe that the ancient Egyptians passed along this romantic tradition to the Romans, as they were known to use betrothal rings made of leather, bone, ivory and, later, precious metals. But, for Romans, it wasn’t all about romance. The ancient Romans had three kinds of marriage: Usus, the most informal and lowest-class marriages; Coemptio, marriages where the bride was essentially bought and sold, mainly among the plebian class; and Confarreatio, marriages among the elite classes and the only legal form of marriage in ancient Rome. While the upper-class Confarreatio marriages often traded rings of high-value iron — and occasionally even gold or silver in later years — they symbolized property and ownership of the woman more than love and commitment. Not so romantic after all!
- Medieval Europe — During medieval times, Christians began conducting marriage ceremonies, which were previously thought to be traditions of paganism. In the year 1549, the protestant (Anglican Communion) church penned The Book of Common Prayer, which stipulated that the wedding ring be placed on the fourth finger of the left hand. This broke with the traditions of the time of wearing the wedding ring on the right hand. For more on this important change, keep reading below.
- The Renaissance — During The Renaissance, it was common for couples to exchange what were called “gimmel rings” during wedding ceremonies. These puzzle-like rings featured two or three hoops that could fit together to form a single, complete ring. The wife would wear one part of the ring, while the husband would wear the other, symbolizing the interlocking love possessed together as well as apart. This ring style rose to popularity in Elizabethan England and remained in style through the 16th and 17th centuries. Also during the renaissance, it was common for “poesy” rings — rings inscribed with poetry — to be used in marriage ceremonies.
- Mid-Century America — Two crucial things happened in the history of wedding rings starting about 100 years ago. First: In the 1930s, the diamond company De Beers began selling the diamond with the now-famous slogan, “a diamond is forever.” Despite their relative abundance, De Beers marketed them as rare, scarce and desirable. Second: During World War II, active-duty soldiers began wearing wedding rings to remind them of their wives back home. Until then, it wasn’t assumed that a man would wear one at all, but the wartime tradition made it somewhat of a given.
- Modern Day — Today, we have the knowledge and history of this custom at our disposal and most people look at the wedding ring as a symbol of eternal love and devotion. During the exchange of rings portion of the wedding ceremony, many couples today recite vows proclaiming the ring a token of endless love, which — much like a couple’s love for one another — has no end. Popular new traditions, such as the ever-stylish stackable rings and the use of silicone wedding rings, are changing the way we follow this tradition in contemporary culture.
Why We Wear Wedding Rings on the Left Hand
The wedding ring is worn on the left hand in much of the world for two primary reasons — an anatomical myth perpetuated by the ancient Egyptians and as a push among reforming Protestants to differentiate themselves from Catholics.
Of course, the ancient Egyptian “vein of love” impacted the placement of the ring early on, and the concept was reinforced by the 16th-century Dutch physician Levinus Lemnius, who claimed that rubbing gold on the finger could affect the heart of women and refresh the fountain of life. Unfortunately, both of these concepts were outright wrong. There is no single vein that links the ring finger directly to the heart nor is there any evidence that gold can revitalize youth, sadly.
While the Egyptians may have thought of it first, we can credit the early Protestants for ushering this tradition into modern-day with the release of The Book of Common Prayer. Some believe that the left-hand shift was emphasized only in retaliation against the Catholic Church. Before that, most Europeans — including the Catholics, from whom the Protestants wanted to distinguish themselves at all costs — wore wedding rings on their right hand because it symbolized strength.
As Americans, we take for granted the fact that the wedding and engagement rings are placed on the ring finger, but this is actually not the case in every part of the world. Some cultures wear them on the right ring finger or a different finger altogether.
It’s important to note that wearing the wedding ring on the left hand is mostly a regional and cultural concept. In North America, Western Europe and South America, the ring is commonly worn on the left hand. In some parts of Southern and Eastern Europe and Asia — including Russia and India — it is more common to wear the wedding ring on the ring finger of the right hand.
In some parts of the world, the ring traditionally hops hands when a couple goes from engaged to married. For example, in Germany and the Netherlands, the ring is worn on the left hand until the wedding and then switched to the right hand after the ceremony. In Brazil, the opposite is true. Engaged couples wear their engagement rings on the right hands and then switch to the left when married.
Different still, many religions have their own distinct wedding ring traditions. For example, in a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony, the ring is placed on the index finger, middle finger or thumb of the bride’s right hand. Typically, the ring is then moved to the left-hand ring finger following the ceremony. In Islam, the wedding ring is not a traditional component of the wedding ceremony at all.
Symbols of the Wedding Ring
Often, it’s not the ring itself, but the elements of the ring that carry the symbolism. Traditionally, wedding bands are made of high-value, precious metals, like gold or platinum, so they endure. While simple and unadorned rings are traditional, especially for men, wedding bands may be finished embellishments, such as engravings and gemstones that carry symbolism.
- Circle — Undoubtedly, the most obvious symbol associated with the wedding ring is the circle. This shape has a universal, centuries-old meaning, representing notions of eternity, infinity, timelessness and wholeness. Symbols based on circles are found in virtually every chapter of human history, from ancient China to modern-day America.
- Diamonds — We’ve already covered a bit about how the De Beers company created a certain manufactured mythos around the diamond, but these symbols nevertheless persist. Because it was long considered the hardest and longest-lasting naturally occurring material in the world (though this is no longer true), the diamond serves as a steadfast representation of eternity, invincibility and strength.
- Other Precious Gemstones — Pretty, enduring and sometimes rare, natural gemstones have been incorporated into jewelry for ages. And each gorgeous, dazzling stone carries its own unique symbolism. For example, sapphires serve as symbols of virtue, faithfulness and good fortune, while rubies symbolize energy, love and passion. While the diamond is the most common gemstone associated with wedding and engagement rings, it’s becoming more and more popular for both men and women to incorporate less-traditional gemstones into their unique ring designs.
- Gold and Silver — Gold has always been associated with riches and royalty, but when it comes to the wedding ring, this material was often used for its blend of beauty and endurance. Gold and silver maintain their luster and shape for quite a long time, but are also favored for their practicality. Since your wedding ring is one you’ll likely wear often, if not every day, choosing a comfortable and easy-to-clean one is key. Gold and silver will deliver.
- Engravings — Since the days of the Renaissance and poesy rings, the romantic have been engraving their wedding rings with customizations pertinent to their relationship. Today, this tradition continues, with many couples enhancing their engagement rings and wedding bands with meaningful dates, symbols, initials, poems and song lyrics.
- Silicone — Those who want to maintain the symbolism of love and commitment but don’t want the maintenance, worry or high cost associated with precious metals and stones should consider silicone wedding rings. These comfortable, durable and flexible rings embody the classic eternal circle and can be engraved to add that unique flair.
Choosing Your Own Symbolism
In conclusion, by taking a look at the history of wedding rings, we can deduce that we follow this custom mostly due to tradition and history rather than any long-held symbolism. With that being said, the origins of the wedding ring — as far as we know, beginning in ancient Egypt — are indeed connected to the shape of the circle, symbolizing eternity and perpetual love. It could be argued that there is no better, stronger or more apt symbol for the job.
As purveyors of the very best silicone wedding bands, we tend to follow the create-your-own-tradition methodology here at QALO. Whether you go full-on traditional or ditch the gold for silicone, the meaning held in your ring is whatever you ascribe to it. When you design your own or add an engraving, you can be sure that your chosen symbolism shines through every time you look at it.