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A History of Sapphire Engagement Rings, Part 1: Antiquity and the Middle Ages

By Yaĝé Enigmus

Many people are familiar with the image of a diamond laden engagement ring glistening as it slides on to the finger of someone’s new fianceé. The pervasiveness of this imagery often encourages one to forget the beauty of other gems and their place in history as gifts to a loved one. Sapphire is one such gem that has long been a significant token in the practice of expressing one’s affection through gemstones. Although diamonds are quite popular as center stones in custom engagement rings, it is worthwhile to explore the rich history of sapphire engagement rings.

The western practice of giving a ring to a loved one is thought to have originated in Ancient Greece, where suitors frequently gave rings to their partners some time before marriage. While somewhat common, these rings were not necessarily standard as part of the marriage process and not every betrothed couple in Greece used them. The use of gemstones in these rings was also not common in Greek culture, but these traditions laid the way for what eventually became the contemporary engagement ring.

Ancient Greek Ring Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum
An Ancient Greek ring dated to the 4th century B.C.E. with an inscription reading “Present to Kieta”; Image: Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum

Sapphire engagement rings took on their first known form in Ancient Rome. At this point in history, it was a cultural staple for Roman men to give a pair of rings to a potential bride as an expression of their devotion: one ring made of iron for wearing in the home and one ring made of gold to wear in public. 

Ancient Roman Ring InspiredAntiquity.comA gold ancient Roman ring dated to the 1st century C.E. featuring the image of two clasped hands, as was traditional for Rings given in advance of marriage; Image: InspiredAntiquity.com

In some cases these rings may have featured gemstones. A number of different gemstones were used by the Romans for these rings, but sapphires were among the most valued and prized stones, as they were considered to represent truth, faithfulness, and sincerity. The symbolism behind sapphires also made them a favourite of Roman royalty and was shared by numerous other cultures. As the Roman empire expanded across Europe, so too did the allure of sapphire engagement rings.

Ancient Roman Purple Sapphire Engagement RingA gold ancient Roman ring dated to the 2nd century C.E. featuring a pale purple sapphire cabochon; Image: Medusa-Art.com

By the Middle Ages, the association between sapphires and fidelity had become so strong, that it was a common belief among Europeans that the colour of a sapphire would gradually fade if the stone was worn by a person who was unfaithful or untruthful. These beliefs made sapphires even more desirable to use in custom engagement rings than they had already been earlier in history. Some accounts from this time suggest that sapphire engagement rings became a preferred tool of crusaders returning from war as they could use the stones to reveal whether or not their partners had been dishonest while they were away. It was during this period that the tradition of giving engagement rings before marriage as it is known today was truly solidified.

10th Century Gold Sapphire RingFrom the Benjamin Zucker collection, a medieval sapphire and gold ring set with a 10th-century sapphire. Image: bejeweledmag.com

In the early 13th century, Pope Innocent III instituted a mandatory waiting period between the time of engagement and marriage; some claim this waiting period was enacted to allow unfaithful future brides to wear their sapphire engagement rings long enough for the stones colour to change. The requirement to wait before betrothal added even more significance to the gift of an engagement ring before marriage, and made it culturally impossible to announce plans for betrothal without one. While these engagement ring traditions may resemble those that are in practice today, the rings themselves still would not be entirely recognizable to the average contemporary westerner.

Stay tuned to learn about the evolution of sapphire engagement rings during the European renaissance and the centuries that followed.

Here are some of our favourite sapphire rings from the Skyjems catalog!

 

© 2020 Yaĝé Enigmus a.k.a. Kevin Back


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