Promise Rings: History and Traditions

Promise Rings: History and Traditions

Understanding What is a Promise Ring is better understood if you have how the concept of a Promise Ring has emerged over the years.

Promise Rings have a long history and have been associated with commitment, marriage and betrothals for centuries – in fact for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians and the Greeks used symbols (tokens) to confirm promises and pledges both in business and in their personal lives …. and there is little doubt that tokens were used even before these civilizations developed. 

Rings: a long history

The use of rings can be traced back to prehistoric times: neck rings, nose rings, anklets, bracelets, earrings – and of course finger rings. However, the custom of wearing a ring on one’s finger was much less common in primitive societies. This is explained by the fact that a finger ring – unlike an earring or nose-ring – can easily interfere with routine daily tasks. 

Finger rings are often considered to be an Egyptian innovation, not (at least initially)as a symbol of wealth and standing in society, reflecting the tastes and lifestyle of the wearer but as a business tool and used to signify the authenticity of documents.

Over time, the possession of these signet rings became symbols of authority and power. Rings rose to the status of jewelry and many beautiful rings from that era can be seen in museums around the world. 

Rings as a pledge

The use of rings as a confirmation of a pledge is as ancient as the custom of wearing rings. The giving of a ring became part of the marriage and betrothal process. This is understandable; in those times, marriage was much more a business relationship than anything else. Families married off their sons and daughters to cement and reinforce relationships with other (more powerful?) families. It was all a question of building alliances in order to increase the family’s wealth and power. Love had nothing at all to do with marriage – unless one was very lucky.

The giving of a Promise Ring became a pledge, to signify that an understanding and commitment had been made between two families.

Promise Rings were certainly known in Ancient Rome: There are many references to “Anulus Pronubus”. This is Latin for betrothal ring, a finger ring given as a pledge of marriage. In the early Christian Church a ring of troth, or annulus pronubus was given by a man to a woman as a token of her betrothment.

These rings were initially made of iron. Over time, they started to be made of gold, when it became possible for ordinary Romans to wear gold. Among the Greeks and Romans such rings were worn on the fourth finger of the left hand, whence we get the expression “sedcre ad anulos alicui” to be seated at any one’s left hand. The “anulus bigamous” was a ring set with two precious stones ; anulus velaris was a curtain ring. A plait of hair arranged in circles round the back of the head was also called anulus.” 

J.W. Mollett. An Illustrated Dictionary of Words used in Art and Archaeology. London. 1883

Posie Rings

It was in the 16th and 17th centuries that Promise Rings started to become tokens used by lovers to give to each other.

Posie Rings became popular in England and France during the 16th and 17th centuries. These were used as tokens of love and affection and were exchanged between a couple with the prospect of marriage in mind. These rings are probably best known for the delightful (albeit short) love poems that were inscribed on the inside of the rings – safe for the eyes of the lovers themselves and hidden from public view. Over time, these poems started to be inscribed on the outside so that they could be on public view.

Gimmal rings

The Gimmal Ring was another form of betrothal ring. In this case the ring consisted of 2 or 3 hoops that fitted together to form one complete ring when worn on the finger. The name gimmal comes from Latin “gemellus” meaning twin via Old French.

Along with Posie rings, such rings were fashionable and used as betrothal rings  in England, Germany, and other European countries during the 16th and 17th centuries. The engaged couple would wear one hoop each and rejoin them to use as a wedding ring. With triple link rings, a third person could witness the couple’s vows and hold the third part of the ring until the marriage.

One of the very earliest gimmal bands, consisting of two interlocked rings sculpted to form a single ring, is to be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum, dated to 1350.

Martin Luther wed Catherine Bora in 1525 with a gimmal ring inscribed “Whom God has joined together, Let no man put asunder”.

Around 1600, the gimmal ring began to incorporate the clasped hands of the fede ring and a third symbol, a heart, was added, sometimes with a third shank. Designs involving clasped hands, and sometimes a heart, remained popular after the Renaissance. Similar imagery is found on other love rings, including Claddagh Rings

The Benjamin Zucker collection in the Walters Museum in Baltimore contains two elaborate gimmal rings incorporating small hidden enameled sculptural details visible only when the bands are separated.

By the late 18th century, multiple shanks of five or more were made, sometimes collected at the back by a pivot, so they hinged like a fan.

Joint ring

This was a name used in Elizabethan England. There are several references to gimmal rings in Shakespeare’s plays, including a joint-ring mentioned in Othello. 

Engagement rings

It was in the 19th Century that engagement rings started to be used to signify the promise of marriage and Posie Rings disappeared from the scene. The giving of an “engagement ring” to signify a commitment to marriage became the norm.

It was during Queen Victoria’s reign in England that diamonds started to become more readily available and these were increasingly used in engagement rings.

Promise Rings: Modern Day Usage

The term Promise Ring itself is very recent. Some people argue that it was only introduced in the 1950s and 1960s – some claim that it is more recent still.

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