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Engagement and Wedding Rings, The Buying Guide
Engagement Rings and Wedding Rings through the Ages
Engagement and Wedding ring traditions
The middle ages set the stage for betrothal traditions
As early as the 15th century, the diamonds, although only available to a very few, was prized above all others as the gem for betrothal, It was acknowledged as the ultimate symbol because of its unique properties, especially its ability to resist destructive forces.
In 1477, one of the first recorded accounts of the use of diamond was found in a betrothal. Desiring to please his prospective father-in-law, Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy, heeding the words of a trusted adviser who wrote: “At the betrothal your grace must have a ring set with a diamond and also a gold ring.”
Maximilian wed his beloved Mary within 24 hours of the betrothal ceremony. Thus began a tradition that has spanned centuries. At the time of Mary and Maximilian, goldsmiths often used thin, flat pieces of diamond called “hohback” diamonds that had “cleaved” (split) from a natural diamond crystal. The imaginative jeweler could create intricate and interesting details using hogbacks, such as the beautiful letter “M” you see in Mary’s ring. Diamonds in their natural crystal form were also used. Certainly this was in part because it was the hardest natural substance known and man lacked knowledge and skill to cut it. But perhaps there was more to it than that. Diamond crystals look like two pyramids joined together base to base. From the time of the Pharaohs, the shape of the pyramid was identified with power, and mystery, so the “pyramidal” shape of the diamond crystal itself may have added to diamond’s allure, to the mystery and power identified with it. The very shape of the natural diamond crystal may have made it all the more attractive as the choice to symbolized the power of love and marriage.
One might think that using an uncut diamond would have detracted from the beauty of these early rings. However, this was not the case. Medieval goldsmiths used imagination and ingenuity to create beautiful mountings to hold the diamond crystal. Ornate and complex settings distinguished by elaborate enamel detail made up for the somewhat crude condition of the rough diamonds they held.
At the same time, the inside of the ring took on added significance as the “posy” ring gained popularity. These rings were known for the little poems and romantic messages inscribed inside the hoop of the ring, a tradition that has continued until today, although with inscription somewhat more concise than the poems of olds!
The first significant breakthrough in diamond cutting techniques occurred by the end of the 15th century, enabling a cutter to apply the first “facet” cut to the natural diamond crystal. These early cut diamonds were called table cut because the big, flat facet resembled the top of a table. This was the initial step toward diamond cutting and polishing, and the first step in unlocking the diamond’s hidden fire, brilliance, and dazzling beauty.
Sixteenth century craftsmen reach new heights
The table cut diamond became a great challenge to the goldsmiths of the 16th century as they strove to create designs that could exhibit the rare stone to it fullest potential. As they refined their art; with the full support of the royal court, their efforts reached a peak of perfection. The results are masterpieces of delicate design and fine enameling, combined with pointed or table cut stones. An impressive example is the wedding ring of Duke Albrecht V of bavaria, a rosette set with sixteen small diamonds.
Renaissance Jewish Wedding Rings
Some of the most beautiful and intricate rings ever created were those associated with the Jewish wedding ceremony during the Renaissance period. These Jewish wedding rings, however, were used only during the wedding ceremony, as they were far too unwieldy for daily wear. In many of these elaborately ornamented rings, the bezel took the form of a gabled building, a synagogue, or Solomon’s Temple. They were further enhanced with extensive detailing in enamel, as well as Hebrew inscriptions.
The Gimmel Ring
The increasing technical know how of Renaissance goldsmiths also created a new style of marriage ring called gimmel, from the Latin gemelli, meaning twins. The gimmel, or twin ring, has two hoops (sometimes three) that fan open from a pivot at the base. When, they open, they often contained intricately sculptured forms symbolizing eternity by using figures that represented both life and death. When shut, the hoops slid together so perfectly that only a single ring could be seen. The gimmel ring thus symbolized the coming together of two lives truly as one. When three hoops were used, the third symbolized the presence of God in the marriage. This symbolic allusion to marriage was further emphasized by an inscription on the hoop taken from the marriage service: “Whom God Has Joined Together Let No Man Put Asunder.” Martin Luther and Catherine Bora were married with an inscribed gimmel ring.
Around 1600, the gimmel began to incorporate another romantic symbol; two clasped hands. In the ring known as the fede (Italian for faith), the gimmel hoops ended in hands which, when the ring was closed, joined together. Another symbol was also added in this period; a heart, and in some of the elaborate fede rings we find delicately enameled hands embracing a sumptuous diamond heart.
In addition to its prevalence in the fede ring, the symbol of the heart was very popular in 17th century rings. This natural symbol of love and romance was often depicted “aflame with desire,” incorporating rose and table cut diamonds or colored gems.
At this time we also see a reaction against the increasing use of rings, especially the more elaborate examples. In contrast to an atmosphere in which expensive symbols of romance were fashionable, the Puritans, rebelling against Church ritual, attempted, unsuccessfully, to abolish wedding ring. This test of tradition ultimately proved that the symbolism surrounding the custom of the wedding ring was too powerful to be destroyed!
The tradition of the “Fourth Finger”
Wedding rings of the 17th century were frequently worn on the thumb. During the marriage ceremony, however, the fourth finger was most commonly used. There are differing theories as to the origin for the tradition of placing the ring on the fourth finger. According to one source, the custom stems from the Christian wedding service in which the priest arrives at the fourth finger after touching three fingers of the left hand: “In the Name of the Father ... Son ... and Holy Ghost.” A more romantic legend that harkens back to Egyptian times holds that the fourth finger of the left hand follows the “vena amoris” (vein of love), a vein that was believed to run from that finger directly to the heart. The more practical explanation is that the fourth finger is the most protected finger, so by placing the ring there, one could best avoid damage to it.
In the Eighteen century diamonds abound
The 18th century produced a sparkling variety of betrothal and wedding rings. The discovery of diamonds in Brazil dramatically increased the supply so that diamond jewelry became widely available. Simultaneously, improved candle lighting increased the number of social events held in the evening, when sparkling diamonds could be admired to the fullest. A woman appearing with the fingers glittering with diamonds reflected the height of fashion. Providing enough diamond jewelry became the major preoccupation of the 18th century jeweler.
Polishing techniques underwent improvement to meet the demand for glittering stones, and the rose cut was replaced by an early version of the round, brilliant cut. Settings were pared down to show more of the diamond, and silver settings were created to enhanced the diamond’s white sparkle. Stones also were often backed with metallic foil to add greater brilliance and sparkle, or to emphasize or enhance color; red foil to enhance the red ruby, green foil emerald, and so on.
Mid-eighteen century introduces diamond “keeper ring”
By mid-eighteen century, jewelry design began to show the effects of the fanciful rococo spirit. Colored gems (including colored diamonds) became increasingly popular and the stones themselves increasingly became centerpiece of the design, especially when used in combination with white diamonds. In keeping with its romantic tradition, the heart motifs was especially popular, often set with both white and colored diamonds, and colored gems such as ruby. Delicate, feminine jewelry of this kind expressed the elegant and refined taste of the time.
Rings that symbolized love and romance were cherished, particularly the betrothal ring. In 1761, King George III of England started what was to become a popular tradition when he presented Queen Charlotte a diamond keeper ring on their wedding day. This was a simple diamond band worn on the finger next to the engagement ring to protect it and, perhaps, the marriage itself. The symbolism of the diamond was indestructible and would protect; the unending circle represented eternity. We find a contemporary version of Queen Charlotte’s keeper ring in today’s diamond wedding or anniversary band, a band that usually contains a single row of diamonds encircling the finger.
The Nineteen Century: Forerunners of modern traditions
At the start of the 19th century, the idealized status of woman was reflected in the style of their jewelry; pretty, feminine, and sentimental. Symbols of love; hearts, crowns, flowers, followed them from the previous century. But as the century progressed, jewelry began to play a more important role and increasingly became a status symbol in 19th century society. The Industrial revolution provided greater wealth for more people than ever before. Men could now afford extravagant gifts for the woman they loved. Gem-studded jewelry became the favored choice. Diamonds were increasingly in demand but until the last quarter of the century supply remained very limited, so they were still available to only a few. Then, in 8170, supply greatly increased when a major diamond deposit was discovered on the African continent. Diamond, the gem that most could only dream about, suddenly became available for a far wider public.
And so, with the rich new supply of diamonds the 19th century would see the diamond’s full beauty revealed. The supply of rough diamonds from Africa not only influenced availability and jewelry design, but also resulted in greater experimentation with cutting and polishing. Soon diamonds showed a truly unique beauty; they began to exhibit a brilliance and fire unknown in any other gem. Thus, set alone, the glorious diamond became the height of fashion.
During the 19th century, Queen Victoria was the most avid collector and visible promoter of the jewelry of the period. She not only maintained an immense collection, but spent many thousands of pounds with her Court jeweler, Garrard. In 1850, she excitedly accepted the magnificent 105.602 carats Koh-i-Noor (the largest in the world at that time), a gift form the East India Company.
The Twentieth century and the Tiffany setting
Dramatic changes in jewelry design took place in the late 19th century. As the role of woman changed from docile and demure to increasingly strong and independent, jewelry correspondingly became larger, bolder, and more assertive. Then, in reaction to the boldness, a romantic, freethinking spirit emerged in the form of what came to be called Art Nouveau. This movement brought a fluid delicacy back to design that continued into the early 20th century. And, as diamonds continued to be the central element in rings of love, it was the perfect environment to introduce the revolutionary new “Tiffany mount” at the close of the 19th century. This exciting setting began a tradition for the diamond solitaire (a ring with a single large stone at the center) that carried into the 20th century and continues to be the most popular choice for the engagement ring.
Tiffany, the famous New York jeweler, invented a dramatic “open” mount. In this innovative setting, the stone was held up prominently by six tiny prongs (like little fingers). This setting allowed the fullest amount of light to enter the gemstone, so that it could exhibit maximum brilliance and sparkle. Unlike old style settings, which concealed most of the stone (and many of its flaws), the new Tiffany style revealed the diamond fully, along with its overall quality; the cut, color, and clarity of the diamond was now clearly visible and could be fully appreciated.
Today, modern cutting and polishing techniques have been refined and enable the full beauty of a diamond to be revealed as light radiated from each of its facets. Modern materials such as platinum and new alloys have also provided greater freedom in design and setting, opening up fresh new vistas for 20th century craftsmen. Design now concentrates more on finding the right balance between personal style and emphasis on the gemstone.
The skill of present day jewelry designers continue to delight lovers with exquisite new ways of presenting the gemstone of their choice and incorporating the symbolism and traditions of centuries. When today’s bride receives her engagement and wedding rings, she will become connected to men and women in love in both past and future generations. She will become part of a tradition of love that has spanned centuries.
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