Promise Rings – Meaning: Origins of Promise Rings

Promise Rings – Meanings: Origins of Promise Rings

The wearing of rings

The wearing of rings as jewelry goes back to ancient times and there is ample evidence that lip rings, neck rings, nose rings, ankle rings, bracelets and ear rings were in common use even in prehistoric times. 

However, wearing a ring on the finger was a rare occurrence – largely because it interfered with many of the mundane tasks that people in these ancient civilizations had to perform on a daily basis. Life was hard and a ring on the finger simply got in the way.

The wearing of finger rings is often thought of as an Egyptian innovation. Certainly, the wearing of finger rings had become an established practice by the time of the early Egyptian civilizations (1,000 – 2,000 BC) and was later adopted by the Greeks and the Romans.

Signet rings

However, the practice of wearing rings was not for demonstrating one’s wealth and status; they had a real practical use. These rings were signet rings and were used to seal documents, thus ensuring their authenticity. Signet rings have been found that date back to 1500 BC and even earlier. The one on the right is attributed to Tutankhamun and dates back to around 1330 BC.

Egyptian signet ring - Tutankhamun 1330 BCThese rings were worn by those in positions of power and wealth – those who had documents to sign. Over time, these rings became increasingly ornate reflecting the wealth and status of the wearer. Of course, the actual possession of a signet ring automatically indicated a degree of authority and power – these were in a level of society where people had documents to sign. Not a requirement for most of society.

As the rings became more intricate and ornate, they rose to the status of jewelry and many beautiful rings from the past 3,000 years can be found in museums around the world.

Signet rings continued to be used well into the 19th and 20th Centuries and there are beautiful examples of rings from Roman, Byzantine and later civilizations.

For more on Signet rings.

Rings as tokens

It is not clear when rings started to be used as tokens – given as confirmation of a promise or pledge. There is no evidence that the Egyptians used rings as tokens but it is likely that the use of rings to confirm a promise started at around this time.

In addition to being used to authenticate a document, rings started to be used to confirm a promise or pledge. 

Betrothal Rings

One of the uses of a ring as a token was in the marriage and betrothal process. 

Marriage was an important way for families to extend their influence and most marriages were arranged. This practice has largely died out in Western Societies but is still the norm in many parts of the world. 

Love had very little to do with such marriages – unless the couple were very lucky; it was a straightforward “business” arrangement designed to create an alliance between two families that would reinforce each other’s position, wealth and power.

A Betrothal Ceremony was carried out to signify that an arrangement had been made between the two families and that the two people (son and daughter) were promised to each other. It was agreed that a marriage would take place at some point in the future.

Betrothal Rings were exchanged at such ceremonies. In practice, these were Promise Rings.

These Betrothal Rings could be really impressive affairs. In the highest ranks of society, amongst royal families, these betrothal rings would incorporate beautiful gemstones in gold and silver settings.

Engagement rings

In the 19th Century, Betrothal Rings were replaced by Engagement Rings. The promise and the commitment was the same but the arrangement became more of a personal arrangement. Arranged marriages still occurred but were becoming less common.

The term Promise Ring was not used to describe any of these rings. It was only in the latter part of the 20th Century that the term Promise Ring started to be used – primarily to describe a growing practice (in the USA), where young guys would give their sweetheart a ring to express their feelings. 

The modern concept of a Promise Ring only stems back to the period ….. not very long at all. However, the tradition of giving a ring to symbolize a commitment and a promise has a very long history indeed.


Rings for the finger
Author: Kunz, George Frederick, 1856-1932 





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.