What finger does an engagement ring go on?
Modern tradition in the UK says an engagement ring should go on the ring finger of your left hand (the one next to your little finger). Once you get married, your wedding ring will sit on that finger too — usually placed on first, as this is closest to your heart. Read on to learn about the history of engagement rings and different customs around the world.
The history of engagement rings
The use of rings as a sign of commitment has become commonplace around the world, but its origin story is not known for sure. The earliest known use of rings as a symbol of love dates back thousands of years to Ancient Egypt.
Relics and scrolls have been unearthed showing the use of braided rings made from reeds and hemp. To the Ancient Egyptians, the circle had a deep and significant meaning, and the giving of a ring was symbolic of everlasting love.
The concept of a love ring was developed further by the Romans, who started the tradition of wearing the ring on the fourth finger. They developed the idea of what they called anulus pronubis, which is when a man would give a ring to a woman at their betrothal ceremony.
One theory as to why they chose this particular finger is that they falsely believed there was a vein running from it all the way to the heart. This vein became known as vena amoris — the vein of love.
As the Roman Empire reached its height and adopted Christianity, their traditions began to merge into the religion itself. By the time the Roman Empire fell, the ring-giving tradition had been widely adopted and the Christian kingdoms of Europe continued its practice.
By the 12th century, this idea was solidified into the Christian consciousness when Pope Innocent III officially declared that marriages should take place in a church, and rings should be exchanged during the service.
By the 16th century, King Edward VI decreed that the fourth finger of the left hand was the "official" ring finger, possibly based on the old Roman conception. This idea took hold within the Church of England, and the wedding ring is now generally worn on the ring finger of the left hand around the world in the former territories of the British Empire and some Western European countries.
However, the tradition was still evolving in the 20th century. In the UK, only women wore wedding rings until the outbreak of the First World War, when married soldiers began wearing rings to remind them of their partner while fighting abroad.
By the Second World War, diamonds had become the go-to ring of choice, thanks largely to clever marketing from De Beers Jewellers (you can read more about this in our engagement ring spending guide).
Traditions around the world
While we are steeped in the Protestant tradition of the Church of England, different denominations of Christianity and other cultures around the world do things a little differently.
In many Catholic countries across Europe and South America, people wear both their engagement and wedding rings on the ring finger of their right hand instead. One of the reasons for this is the left hand has often been thought of as evil — so much so that the Latin word for left is ‘sinister’.
The Russians are slightly more reserved: men traditionally don’t give engagement rings. On the wedding day, the bride is given a wedding ring, typically made of three gold bands to signify the holy trinity, and it is worn on the right hand. Since the early 19th century, it has become common for the three intertwining bands to be made of different coloured golds: white, rose, and yellow.
In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which includes countries such as Greece and Romania, there is a single ring, which acts as both an engagement and wedding ring. It’s worn on the left hand before marriage and then transferred to the right hand during the wedding ceremony. This same practice is carried out in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Brazil as well.
In the Jewish tradition, the groom must present the bride with a plain metal band as a symbol of his promise to marry her.
Jewish law says the marriage cannot be consecrated until the groom has also given the bride something of value that is unbroken, which in modern times is accepted to be the ring. Traditionally though, it was a coin that was given, with the roundness of it symbolizing the same unbroken circle as a ring.
They also give rings in the Hindu tradition, which has spread throughout most of India, but not as you might think.
Hindu women wear toe rings (known as bichiya) to indicate they are married. Interestingly, ‘bichiyas’ cannot be made of gold as it is not allowed to be worn below the waist.
In a mixture of cultures, Hindu men sometimes give both the traditional engagement toe ring and a Western-style one. In West Bengal, they don’t even use rings at all. Instead, women are given ornately designed iron bangle bracelets, which are plated with silver and gold.
It is amazing to see how this simple tradition has transformed across cultures over millennia and still carries such significance for love and commitment to this day. Where the tradition will go next is anybody’s guess, but it’s likely that in a few hundred years, it will have been developed even further.
Here at Est1897, we have a great selection of pre-owned rings for sale, each one sourced from auction houses across the UK by our team of jewellery experts. We stock a great range of wedding rings, engagement rings and diamond rings, so we’re sure you’ll find something right for you.