Wedding ring traditions from around the world
Is there such thing as the perfect wedding ring? Take a look into the history and cultural significance of wedding rings from a wide range of cultures and religions.
Is there such a thing as the wedding ring?
Marriage is something we find in almost every culture around the world. Although the union between two people who love each other is central to each marriage, each culture has its own traditions. For example, there are wedding clothes, colour themes, blessing rituals and wedding food traditions. There are also smaller cultural differences. One of the best known of these is the wearing of a wedding ring. Although the wedding ring is seen as one of the most universal symbols in the world and carries the same symbolic significance almost everywhere, how the ring is made and worn varies throughout the world.
History of the wedding ring
Let's first look at the history of this very special ring. Although Egypt is regarded as the birthplace of the modern wedding ring, the tradition was actually adopted as long ago as Neanderthal times. Neanderthals used to tie twigs, grass and rushes around the bride's wrists or ankles and regarded this not only as a sign of loyalty and friendship, but also believed that by doing so the wife's soul would remain intact and that she would live longer.
Several hundred years later, the Egyptians began making rings from bone, leather, ivory and hemp. Some time later, they discovered that metal could also be used to make rings, and as such, it was known as ring money. When a woman received this ring, she would at all times have a claim on her husband's possessions.
In Roman times the wedding ring took on a more romantic meaning. Not only did married women have a right to their husbands' worldly possessions, the wedding ring also served as a sign that the wife had unlocked her husband's heart. In order to symbolise this, a key was often part of the wedding ring.
A somewhat less romantic significance was attached to wedding rings in the early Asian world where the wedding ring was regarded as the seal of a legal contract. The marriage was sealed with a puzzle wedding ring, which immediately fell apart when taken off. An unfaithful wife would be found out at once if she took off her wedding ring during her husband's long absence.
Over the years the wedding ring developed even further into the ring that we know today. For example, in medieval times, rings were made almost exclusively of gold and this period saw the more frequent addition of gemstones. It was only from the 1940s onwards that mounting a diamond on a wedding ring became fashionable.
Wedding ring for the husband
It was also in the 20th century that we saw the emergence of the wedding ring for men. Previously, only wives had worn wedding rings but during the World War II, wedding rings for men really caught on. The idea behind this was that men would carry their love with them in times when they weren't sure they would ever see their wives again. Although nowadays this idea no longer applies to the same extent, the majority of western men still wear a wedding ring.
In today's globalised world, you might be forgiven for thinking that we would adopt each other's traditions more and more and that consequently, wedding rings would be worn the same way and symbolise the same things. However, the fact that borders are shifting doesn't mean that culture is being forgotten.
Contrary to what we often see in films, the wedding ring is not always worn on the left hand. In several countries where Catholicism is dominant, people actually wear their wedding ring on their right hand.
For example, Dutch Catholics wear their ring on their left hand, but Austrian Catholics wear theirs on their right hand; and in Belgium it varies according to which region you live in. One of the reasons for wearing your wedding ring on your right hand is that the left is regarded by some as ‘evil'. In fact, the Latin word for left is ‘sinister', which now has negative and dark connotations.
Although followers of the Protestant faith often wear their ring on their right hand, not all of them do so. The romantic idea behind wearing the ring around your left ring finger is that it's closer to your heart, which is why many people opt to do so.
The gold content varies across the world too. Asian countries and countries in the Far East are much more used to purchasing pure yellow gold, which means 18 and 22 carat gold is regarded as the norm. The origins of this can be found partly in religion, whereas in India, gold is linked to superiority, beauty and attractiveness. According to tradition, the more gold the bride is given, the happier she will be. Higher gold content is also considered to be more long lasting so, by investing in long-lasting jewellery, you are directly investing in a long-lasting marriage.
This way of thinking is apparently not shared worldwide as most Western countries regard 14 carat gold as the norm. In the USA, 10 carat gold is sold and in Germany we even see 9 carat gold. Dutch law states that anything less than 14 carat gold may not even be called gold. Even so, 9 carat gold is becoming increasingly popular. The country of origin plays a major part in the choice of gold content. People from countries where pure gold is the norm often consider 14 or 9 carat gold to be low budget. On the other hand, people who are used to lighter gold actually find pure 22 carat gold too showy and fake.
Russian and French wedding rings
Anyone thinking that we have mentioned all the differences between countries and cultures is mistaken. There is also a wide variety of ring designs. Russian and French wedding rings, for example, often consist of three multi-coloured, interwoven bands.
The rings in Celtic countries are often engraved with a Claddagh design, which symbolises marital fidelity.
England and America
In England and America, rings are often worn as sets: First you have the engagement ring, then the smooth wedding ring and finally the ‘eternity ring', which is traditionally given on the occasion of the first wedding anniversary or the birth of the first child.
Native American tribes
The wedding rings that differ most from Western designs are the ones worn by the many Native American tribes that still live in North America. Traditionally, they still use the materials and symbols that have powerful links to their own culture. For example, the rings are almost always made of silver and are decorated with semi-precious stones or natural materials such as turquoise, red coral and shells.
So as we see, there is no such a thing as the wedding ring. The origins and cultures behind wedding rings are not the only things you should take into consideration when choosing a ring; there's also the important matter of your own personal taste. There are plenty to choose from, but which will suit you? Let yourself be inspired by the many options that different cultures and countries have passed down to us over the years.
Circles / Expatica
If you have trouble deciding, you can always get assistance from one of the Circles' advisors. Circles is based in Zwijndrecht near Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Photo credits (public domain): Pixabay (thumbnails and celtic rings), Berganza via Wikimedia Commons.
Comment here on the article, or if you have a suggestion to improve this article, please click here.