Oh, that precious ring, the one handed to our beloved in pledge of eternal devotion. While engagement and wedding rings are commonplace today, young ladies and gentlemen of the nineteenth century generally only had a single ring, the band of gold for the wife only. However, I was surprised to find that the October 1810 issue of La Belle Assemblée, that arbiter of all things fashionable, had much to say about rings and the mindset of the day.
It was the custom at Rome, to send to the bride, before marriage, a present from the bridegroom of an iron ring, without any stone, to prove how long lasting, durable, and firm their union ought to be, and the frugality requisite to be observed in the married state, in order to provide for a family: but luxury soon gained ground; the old custom was abolished, and the iron rings gave place to those of more cash and expence.
Not sure how I’d feel about being given what amounts to a shackle. But there are certainly ladies who hold out for a diamond, the bigger the better.
The Roman knights were distinguished from the senators by their gold rings, and it was customary, as a mark of honour, to present ambassadors with them when they received orders from the senate to depart for foreign states. After the regal power was put aside in
Rome, gold rings were worn as a sign of liberty; and Hannibal, when he had gained a signal victory, sent to Carthagea bushel of gold rings taken from off the fingers of the Roman nobles and knights who were slain in the field of battle.
Though the first inhabitants of England, Ireland, and Scotland, and the ancient Gauls were accustomed to wear the wedding ring on the forefinger, the use, at last, prevailed amongst all nations, to place it on the next to the little one on the left hand, called the annulary finger; because, according to the opinion of the Egyptians, a small nerve runs from this finger to the heart.
You can see who’s taking the credit here, all mentions of Egyptians aside.
The piece goes on to talk about an old tradition of making sure the precious stones were set in such a way that the jewel itself touched the finger. The reason? Some jewels were supposed to possess virtues:
- Diamond—preserves against poison and the plague, expels anger, and ensures victory
- Ruby—banishes sorrow and averts ill thoughts
- Amethyst—gains the wearer the favor of princes
- Jacinth—fortifies the heart and preserves against thunder and lightning
- Emerald—cures epileptic fits and renders harmless the bite of any venomous animal
- Opal—preserves against infectious air and prevents fainting fits.
Queen Victoria’s oldest son Edward Albert (King Edward VII) had another idea about the purpose of wedding and engagement rings. The engagement ring he gave his bride, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, carried six precious stones: a beryl, an emerald, a ruby, a turquoise, a jacinth, and a second emerald. The initial letters of the gems spelled out his nickname: BERTIE.
Perhaps he should have consulted La Belle Assemblée.
All these reputed virtues, whether real or imaginary, serve to shew that the first wearing of rings had in it something holy, honourable, and talismanic: the small golden fetter which binds the wife to the husband, is now reckoned the most sacred of all. The mourning ring, for a departed and dearly valued friend, or relative, claims the next place; and though valuable rings are often given as pledges of love, respect, and amity, yet there are only two, the wedding and the mourning ring, which possess and retain, through every age, the symbolic solemnity of their first institution.