His heart beats faster than it ever has as he bends his body down to one knee. As soon as she realizes what he’s doing, her stomach is full of butterflies as she breaks into a grin, a giggle, or tears (or all three!). They’ve both been waiting for this moment their whole lives, and they both know exactly what to do. As she says, “Yes,” he slides the beautiful, sparkly ring onto the fourth finger of her left hand. Nobody has to tell them this is the engagement ring finger; they both just know (although, neither of them truly care about that in this particular moment).
If you live in a Western culture, you know the engagement ring almost always goes on the fourth finger on the left hand. But why?
Actually, why do we even wear engagement and wedding rings in the first place?
Why Wedding/Engagement Rings?
The ancient Egyptians are typically credited with inventing the engagement ring (but nobody really knows for sure). The circle is an obvious symbol of eternity, since there’s no beginning or end, but the hole of the ring also symbolizes a gateway or door, leading to things unknown and known.
This representation of the marital bond has followed many different traditions throughout time and place.
Why Is the Engagement Ring Finger on Our Left Hands?
When did the left hand become the bearer of the engagement ring? Most believe that the tradition came from the Romans, who believed the fourth finger had a vein that ran straight to the heart. They called it the ‘vena amoris’, or vein of love. It only makes sense that the proper place for a symbol of eternal love should be placed right at the vein of love.
We now know the vena amoris isn’t real, but it sure makes engagement ring traditions even more romantic.
Why Are Diamond Engagement Rings So Popular?
Besides the obvious appeal of a diamond’s sparkle, why did diamond engagement rings become so popular?
It all goes back to the 15th century: In 1477, Archduke Maximilian of Austria gave Mary of Burgundy a ring set with hogback (baguette) diamonds. Others of high class began to follow suit. Since a diamond is the most durable, naturally occurring substance found in the Earth, its symbolism of eternity carries on.
When diamonds were found in South Africa in the 1800s, they became more available on the markets — which meant more than just the highest classes of society could access the coveted jewel. Interestingly, diamonds began to go out of style during the Great Depression, but thanks to an impressive marketing campaign, they were saved and sought after once again.
Other Countries’ Traditions
While most Western countries wear the ring on the left hand, there are some where the engagement ring is worn on the ring finger of the right hand (sometimes by both brides and grooms): Russia, Greece, Columbia, Poland, Turkey, India, Spain, Peru, Norway, and Denmark.
German women wear the engagement ring on the left hand, but once married, move it to the right hand. Brazilians do it the opposite way, with both the groom and bride wearing a plain wedding band on the right hand while engaged, and then moving it to the left hand once married. In Brazil, Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon, they also wear it on the right hand until the wedding day.
Engagement rings aren’t always just for the ladies either. Both men and women in Nordic countries traditionally wear plain gold bands as engagement rings, with the wedding ring designs being more ornate. In Argentina, both the bride and groom wear a plain silver band on the left hand when they’re engaged. Once married, they either replace the ring with a wedding ring, or move the silver band to the right hand.
Tradition Is Becoming Less Important
Customising your engagement ring to your own style is more and more acceptable. Why not have both the bride and groom wear engagement rings? Want to skip the wedding band? Go ahead. In love with a certain coloured gemstone? Use it instead of a diamond. Or use your favourite gemstone with a diamond. Wear two wedding bands… The point is, you can do what you want!
Look to the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, for example, who wears a blue sapphire. Or American singer Carrie Underwood, who’s engagement ring features a canary yellow diamond. Jessica Simpson’s engagement ring shows off a red ruby.
While tradition is relevant and important, it doesn’t overrule your own preferences. Design your engagement ring your way.