Although the wedding ring is seen as one of the most universal symbols in the world, how it is made and worn varies across different cultures and religions.
While marriage is something we find in almost every country around the world, each culture follows its own traditions when it comes to wedding clothes, color themes, blessing rituals, wedding food, and so on. The same can be said of wedding rings, which despite being one of the most universal symbols of love and unity between two people, are made and worn in different ways across the globe.
Early interpretations of the wedding ring
Although Egypt is regarded as the birthplace of the modern wedding ring, the tradition was actually adopted in Neanderthal times. Neanderthals used to tie twigs, grass, and rushes around the bride’s wrists or ankles; they regarded this as a sign of loyalty and friendship. They also believed that doing so would keep the wife’s soul intact and enable her to live longer. Other cultures later adopted their own unique interpretations of what it meant to wear a wedding ring.
Several hundred years after the Neanderthal invented the wedding ring, the Egyptians began making their own 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 have a claim on her husband’s possessions at all times.
In Roman times, the wedding ring took on a more romantic meaning. Not only did it signal that a married women had a right to her husband’s worldly possessions, it also served as a sign that the wife had unlocked his heart. In order to symbolize this, a key was often part of the wedding ring.
Early Asian Civilization
A somewhat less romantic significance was attached to wedding rings in early Asian civilization where they were regarded more as the sign of a legal contract. The marriage was sealed with a puzzle wedding ring, which immediately fell apart when taken off. This meant that an unfaithful wife would be found out at once if she took off her wedding ring during her husband’s absence. Over the years the wedding ring developed even further into the style that we know today. In medieval times, for example, rings were made almost exclusively of gold and more frequently, gemstones. It was only from the 1940s onwards that mounting a diamond on a wedding ring became fashionable.
The history of the men’s wedding ring
It wasn’t until the 20th century that men began wearing the traditional wedding band. Up until then, only wives had worn them, but during World War II, they really caught on for husbands, too. The idea behind this was that men would carry their loved ones with them in times when they weren’t sure they would ever see them again. Although nowadays this idea no longer applies, the majority of Western men still wear a wedding ring.
Men’s wedding rings have taken on quite a few different forms in recent years. They are no longer required or designed to match the bride’s, nor are they only available in gold. Instead, there are a variety of metals used, and they come in various designs, depending on the groom’s preference. Some have diamonds, while others are simple and sleek – it all comes down to taste.
The choice of gold content
The country of origin plays a major part in the choice of gold content the wedding ring will have. For example, people from countries where pure gold is the norm often consider 14 or 9 carat gold to be low budget. Meanwhile, people who are used to lighter gold actually find pure 22 carat gold too showy and fake. So in a way, the decision is all subjective.
In the Western world
Most Western countries regard 14 carat gold as the norm when choosing a wedding ring for their partner. Interestingly, Dutch law states that anything less than 14 carat gold may not even be called gold. Despite this fact, 9 carat gold is becoming increasingly popular, even in countries like Germany and the United States, where 10 carat gold is also common.
Unlike the Western world, countries in Asia are more used to purchasing pure yellow gold; that means that 18 and 22 carat gold is regarded as the norm. The origins of this can be found partly in religion. Meanwhile in India, gold is strongly linked to superiority, beauty, and attractiveness. According to Indian tradition, the more gold the bride is given, the happier she will be. The groom might also choose a ring with a higher gold content as this is more durable, and giving long-lasting jewellery symbolizes that he is directly investing in a long-lasting marriage, too.
Modern cultural traditions
Throughout the ages, the wedding ring has taken on many different designs and has been worn in a variety of ways.
England and North America
In England and North America, rings are often worn as sets which help mark special milestones during a marriage. First comes the engagement ring, which is worn on the fourth finger of the right hand. After getting married, the engagement ring should be moved to the opposite hand, on the same finger, but on top of the wedding band. This is so that the wedding band sits closer to the heart. The final stage is the eternity ring, which is traditionally given on the first wedding anniversary or the birth of the first child. This can be worn either on top of the wedding and engagement ring or on the opposite hand.
Russia and France
Russian and French wedding rings come in a wide variety of designs. In France, a wedding band is often a family heirloom. Unlike in other Western countries, the engagement ring can have gemstones such as rubies, emeralds, or sapphires instead of traditional diamonds. Meanwhile, in Russia, wedding rings often consist of three multi-colored, interlocking bands, known as triple rolling rings. These three bands of rose, white, and yellow gold symbolize the Holy Trinity of Christian orthodox religion, or the past, present, and future of the couple. There are also no stones set in the ring.
The Celtic nations
In Celtic areas (Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man), wedding rings often come in a Claddagh design. These designs represent love, loyalty, and friendship – the hands represent friendship, the heart represents love, and the crown represents loyalty. It is thought that the ring was first produced in the Irish fishing village of Claddagh in Galway, back in the 17th century. However, it likely dates back to Roman times, when the gesture of clasped hands was a symbol of pledging vows. Towards the end of the 20th century, the Claddagh ring evolved into an emblem of Irish identity; it is now worn by many people, not only those who are married.
Indigenous people of North America
The wedding rings that differ most from Western designs are the ones worn by the many indigenous people from across North America. These are almost always made of silver and are decorated with semi-precious stones or natural materials such as turquoise, red coral, and shells, which are thought to hold powers. The rings are often engraved with symbols and animals that are considered sacred to that particular culture. Some of these include the elk, moose, and buffalo – the three main staple foods of many indigenous people in North America. They may also be engraved with a symbol of a famous spirit in either human or earth form, such as the sun, trees, and other natural fruits of the land.
Contrary to what we often see in films, the wedding ring is not always worn on the left hand. Religion often plays a role in deciding how it should be worn.
In several countries where Catholicism is dominant, people actually wear their wedding ring on their right hand. One of the reasons for doing so is that the left is regarded by some as evil. In fact, the Latin word for left is ‘sinister’, which now has dark connotations. This isn’t true of all Catholics, however. For example, while Dutch Catholics wear their ring on their left hand, Austrian Catholics wear theirs on their right hand; and in Belgium it varies according to which region you live in.
Although Protestants often wear their ring on their right hand, not all of them do so. The romantic idea behind wearing the ring on your left ring finger is that it sits closer to your heart; this is why many people opt to do so. It simply depends on how much of a romantic soul you are.
As you can see, when it comes to wearing a wedding ring, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach – literally and figuratively speaking. When choosing that special piece of jewelry, it isn’t only your origins and culture that you might want to consider; consider your own personal taste, too. There are plenty of options to choose from, but which one is for you? Maybe you might find inspiration from the different cultures featured above.