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The History of Custom Engagement Rings Part 2: Betrothal Rings from the Early Renaissance to the Gregorian Era

By Yaĝé Enigmus

A notable point in the history of custom engagement rings is the introduction of the diamond engagement ring. The first documented instance in history where a ring featuring a diamond as the center stone was given as an engagement gift occurred in 1477. This ring was given to Mary of Burgundy by Archduke Maximilian I of Austria when he proposed to her. Prior to this point in history, diamonds, which were set as raw octahedrons or cleaved in the classic “point” cut, had typically been used as side stones for coloured gems or were worn as center stones in rings that merely served as a convenient and fashionable tool for etching messages into various materials. The choice of the Archduke to give such a ring to his fianceé strayed from conventions at the time and is believed to have incited the rise in popularity of diamond engagement rings that was seen over the centuries that followed.

A depiction of Archduke Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor
A depiction of Archduke Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor. Image: Famous People


The importance of engagement rings in European culture was threatened during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. During this time, the first recognizable “wedding ring” came into existence, which was to be given to a spouse on the day of marriage. The wedding ring then became the defining symbol of marriage that the engagement ring had once been. This change is thought to be the source behind the tradition sometimes seen today in which engagement rings are taken off before a marriage ceremony and are only put back on once the ceremony is complete and the couple is wearing their wedding bands. Although engagement rings no longer represented marriage in the same way that they had earlier in history, the practice of giving a loved one an engagement ring before the time of marriage persisted. The addition of wedding rings to the ring-giving customs of betrothed Europeans happened in protestant nations first, and then was gradually adopted by catholic nations. Around this same point in history, engagement rings began to become more complex and artistic in their design, not unlike the engagement rings of today. Gimmel rings for example, which consisted of two or more interlocked hoops that fit together to form a single ring, started to become more popular to use as engagement rings in France and other parts of western Europe, where they had been used in a more casual manner prior to the 16th century. The metal work on these and other rings gradually became more and more extravagant as time went on in response to a growing desire for exquisite custom engagement rings. The jewellers of this period and their intricate creations made a huge impact on the design of western betrothal rings, and by the end of the renaissance the foundations of both the contemporary engagement ring’s design and its ceremonial function were solidified.

A gold and garnet engagement ring accented with enamel
A gold and garnet engagement ring accented with enamel, dated to 16th century Europe. Image: Peter Szuhay


The Georgian era of the early 18th century saw a rise in the popularity of the diamond engagement ring after a significant deposit of diamonds in Brazil was discovered in 1727, with King George III himself using a diamond ring to propose to Queen Charlotte in 1761. During this time rose cut and table cut stones were already popular, but the influx of diamonds from South America drove advancement of diamond cutting techniques and development of more intricate faceting patterns, which not only influenced the design of custom engagements rings, but importantly also began to shift how coloured gemstones were being cut. The engagement rings of the 18th century built upon the elaborate designs of the renaissance and displayed gemstones in delicate settings on spilt shanks featuring detailed metalwork. 

Diamond ring with a miniature portrait of George III given to Queen Charlotte
Diamond ring with a miniature portrait of George III given to Queen Charlotte. Image: Royal Collection Trust


The love of puzzle-like gimmel rings seen during the late renaissance lived on into the Georgian era, and spurred the birth of the diamond-centric “keeper ring” as it was known at the time. Keeper rings were additional rings designed to be worn with a custom engagement ring in order to protect the engagement ring and the diamonds it held by providing extra width to the ring so as to prevent one from bumping or abrading the central setting. Keeper rings would be fashioned in such a way as to snuggly fit against an engagement ring or in some cases fit over the outside of an engagement ring. These keeper rings still exist in their contemporary form as the “guard ring”, which involves small bands that fit on either side of the engagement ring. While they are still seen in modern jewellery today, they are believed to have been the inspiration behind matching bridal ring sets that have become more popular in later years, which include a wedding band designed to match the design of the corresponding engagement ring and fit snugly against it. The gem cutting and metalworking techniques of the Georgian era set the stage for the impressive engagement rings of the 19th century.

In the next part of this series, explore the history of custom engagement rings from the 1800’s to the Great Depression.

Here are more of our favourite engagement rings from the Skyjems catalog:

 1.84ct Emerald & 0.50ct Diamond Filigree Ring in 18kt Yellow Gold

1.84ct Emerald & 0.50ct Diamond Filigree Ring in 18kt Yellow Gold


10.03ct Unheated Blue Sapphire Cluster Ring in 18kt White Gold

10.03ct Unheated Blue Sapphire Cluster Ring in 18kt White Gold


One of a Kind Fine Quality 4.57ct Aquamarine and Diamond Ring in 18k White Gold

One of a Kind Fine Quality 4.57ct Aquamarine and Diamond Ring in 18k White Gold



© 2020 Yaĝé Enigmus a.k.a. Kevin Back

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