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Promise Rings are for Promises

  • What is a Promise Ring?
  • What is the meaning of a Promise Ring?
  • What is the difference between a Promise Ring and an Engagement Ring?

People use so many different descriptions when it comes to promise rings that it is often difficult to understand what they really mean.

First of all, Promise Rings symbolize a commitment … and have done for centuries. The modern day concept of a romantic Promise Ring may only date back to the 1990s, when the description was first adopted, but promise rings have been around for many years. See our page onthe Meaning of Promise Rings.

As a symbol of commitment, there are many different types of Promise Rings.

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Promise Rings and their Meanings

Romantic promise rings: used to symbolize the feelings one person has for another.
Friendship rings and Loyalty rings: an expression of close friendship between two people.
Claddagh ring: a traditional Irish betrothal ring, now used to represent love, loyalty and friendship.
Posey (Posie) rings: popular in the 15th – 17th centuries as lovers’ gifts.
Purity rings: used as a public statement and symbol of purity and chastity.
Chastity rings: as with purity rings, a symbol of sexual abstinence.
True-love-waits rings: represents sexual abstinence outside marriage.
Faith and religious rings: demonstrating a commitment to God.


A brief history of promise Rings:

Even a cursory glance through mythology and sacred writings shows that rings have been used as a symbol of commitment, in particular to seal agreements and confirm promises since the beginning of time.  Thus, although the precise meaning of promise rings may have changed, they have always represented a commitment – usually associated with betrothal and marriage.

Byzantine gold wedding ring, depicting Christ uniting the bride and groom, circa 7th century, Musee du Louvre
Byzantine gold wedding ring, depicting Christ uniting the bride and groom, circa 7th century, Musee du Louvre

Promise rings date back to the old days of (marriage) betrothals …… and betrothals go back to Biblical times.

The giving of a ring was part of the marriage process and was used to signify that an understanding and commitment had been made between two families.  

However, such outward signs of a commitment were not limited to betrothals. Bishops used to wear rings as a pledge of their spiritual union with the church. Dignitaries in some Italian cities renewed their City’s link with the sea (usually the Adriatic) by tossing a ring into the turquoise waters on Ascension morning every year.

Part of the betrothal process:

With marriage such an important institution as a means of creating alliances and building wealth, the practice developed that promise rings were exchanged as a formal acknowledgement from one family to another that a couple were promised to each other. Their families had agreed to the union and, somewhere in the future, the couple would be wed. 

Antique baltic honey and amber ring
Antique baltic honey and amber ring

Traditionally, at the Betrothal Ceremony, the future groom would give his future bride a ring as a sign of faith. The ring was typically plain, until the 8th century, when Jewish jewelers started to decorate and enhance the rings.

The ring would then be changed at the wedding ceremony – either replacing it with a ring in a different metal, or changing the ring from the right hand finger over to the left hand. 

The trend of giving promise rings increased in popularity and was widely adopted  in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. As individual freedom started to be celebrated, rather than being a symbol of a formal agreement between families, rings started to be used to express feelings of love and friendship between individuals. 

For example, there was a ring called a “scribbling ring”. The ring would be made using uncut diamond crystals and the exposed edges of the uncut diamond were used by lovers to etch romantic vows and poetry into windowpanes and mirrors.

Formal betrothals declined in the 18th and 19th centuries and Engagement Rings started to take the place of promise rings.

Rennaissance Poesy Ring

Posie Rings:

There were several types of promise rings. One of these was the Posie (Posy or Poesy) Ring. These were common in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries in both France and England.  A posie ring was a simple gold band engraved on the outside with a brief sentiment or poem – and even promises, sentiments and romantic songs. They were used as a lover’s token – and sometimes as the wedding ring itself.

The language used in many early posie rings was Norman French, with French, Latin and English used in later times. The posies were originally written on the outside but were moved to the (hidden) inside of the ring in later times – from mid-16th century onwards.

A famous posie ring is “Vous et Nul Autre”, which means “You and No Other”.  The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, has an outstanding collection of posie rings. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London also has a good collection bequeathed by Joan Evans, daughter of a famous 19th-century collector. She compiled a list of more than 3000 posie rings for her book English Posies and Posy Rings (Oxford Press, 1931, out of print).

Modern Day Promise Rings:

Since the 18th and 19th centuries, engagement rings as we now know them, have grown in popularity and have replaced the promise ring as a betrothal ring. Nowadays, an engagement ring is presented as a betrothal gift by a man to his prospective spouse, while he proposes marriage or shortly after she accepts his marriage proposal – as in the case of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.  It represents a formal agreement to future marriage.

Before agreeing to marry, a couple may choose to buy and wear a pre-engagement ring or Promise Ring. In this context, the Promise Ring is seen as a sign of commitment – a commitment between a couple who are not yet engaged but will be in due time. 

Over the past two centuries, the role of the Promise Ring has therefore become less formal- and also less clear.

The Promise Ring in its most modern form started to become popular during the 1990s, when the actual name “Promise Ring” was adopted.

In comparison with Engagement Rings, Promise Rings are usually less expensive and are also pretty simple in comparison with them. The rings are made of colorful stones and gems instead of diamonds. This is to make the ring less costly and also different from the formal engagement ring.

Another kind of promise ring - a womens gold and diamond chastity ringSome of the traditions, however, still remain. Popular sayings and vows are often engraved on the upper or lower side of the promise ring, sometimes derived from Italian, Spanish, English and French sayings: “My beloved”, “Anam Cara” (Soul Friend) etc. Promise rings can also be engraved with ancient love symbols and swirling designs to further enhance the strong feelings involved in making promise. 

Other Forms of Promise Rings: Purity Rings

A Promise Ring is a visible symbol of faith. As such, rings are often worn and exchanged for reasons other than romantic love.

For example there are purity rings and chastity rings such as the very special one on the above right – A Womens Christian 14 Kt Yellow Gold Diamond Accented Christian Cross Chastity Purity Ring for Girls.

Purity Rings – also sometimes called chastity rings, abstinence rings or true-love-waits rings – are worn as a sign of virginity and chastity. 

Purity ringThe practice of teenagers making virginity and chastity pledges emerged in the early 1990s in the USA  amongst Christian and associated religious groups. Members of these groups made a vow to practice abstinence from sexual intercourse until marriage and started to wear a ring to demonstrate this commitment.The theory was that young people would remain chaste if they had stronger community support to remain abstinent. 

Programs vary, but in most cases teenagers voluntarily sign a pledge or publicly announce their intention to abstain from sex.

Those making a pledge receive a pin or ring to symbolize the promise. In some cases they team up with an “accountability partner”.

Since it was founded in 1993, the True Love Waits Group claims that 2.4 million youths have signed a card stating:  

“Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, those I date, and my future mate to be sexually pure until the day I enter marriage.”

Another group is The Silver Ring Thing (SRT). This group was created in 1995 by Denny Pattyn an evangelical Christian youth minister and his wife Amy as a response to the escalating numbers of teenage pregnancies in Yuma, Arizona. The founders saw the group as a way to protect teenagers from an obsession with sex and promiscuity.  

Pattyn became Executive Director of the John Guest Evangelistic Team in Sewickley, Pennsylvania in 2000 SRT became part of the national outreach program of the John Guest Team. The target for SRT was to have 2 million teenagers receiving rings as a symbol of their commitment to remain pure until marriage.

Friendship rings:

Loyalty ringThese rings are used to symbolize a close relationship that has no romantic undertone. They are often sold in pairs and worn by two people to denote their appreciation and unconditional support for each other.

Some cultures regard friendship rings as a way of saying that the other person is a “non-blood brother or sister” – in other words, the closest a person can get to you without being related by birth.

These rings are sometimes worn on the little finger, to differentiate them from engagement and other forms of rings. However, this is not a set rule and many people wear their friendship rings as they would any other ring.

Claddagh Rings:

Traditional Irish Claddagh RingThe Irish Claddagh ring is a traditional Irish ring with a unique design which represents love, loyalty and friendship: hands representing friendship; heart representing love; and a crown representing loyalty.

The design and customs associated with the Claddagh Ring go back to the Irish fishing village of Claddagh just outside the old city walls of Galway. The ring as we now recognize it was first produced around the 17th century but there are several theories as to who was the first jeweler to make the first Claddagh Ring.

What is known is that Galway has produced Claddagh rings continuously since at least 1700. However, the name “Claddagh ring” was not used before the 1840s.

Fenian Claddagh RingA “Fenian” Claddagh ring has no crown and has a slightly different design; these are less common than conventional Claddagh Rings with a crown. Both designs, with and without the crown, have come to denote pride in Irish heritage, while continuing to be symbols of love or marriage.

The original purpose was as an engagement or wedding ring.

In Ireland and the USA, Claddagh rings are handed down from mother to daughter or grandmother to granddaughter.

Traditionally, the way a Claddagh ring was worn on the hand was intended to convey the wearer’s relationship status:

  1. On the right hand with the point of the heart toward the fingertips: the wearer is single and may be looking for love.
  2. On the right hand with the point of the heart toward the wrist: the wearer is in a relationship – suggesting their heart has been captured.
  3. On the left hand with the point of the heart toward the fingertips: the wearer is engaged.
  4. On the left hand with the point of the heart toward the wrist: the wearer is married.

However, there are other local variations relating to the traditions involving the hand and the finger upon which the Claddagh Ring is worn.

Irish Claddagh Rings are traditionally associated with love and couples but are now being used more and more often to symbolize friendship. As such they form another type of Promise Ring, where the meaning of the promise ring is not always obvious.

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