The origins of what we call a "promise ring" date back to ancient
times, when betrothals were a vital part of social life.
A betrothal was quite different from an engagement; it was, as far
back as Biblical times, a public announcement followed by a contract.
The contract was quite businesslike, covering financial arrangements
(information about the bride's dowry, and similar affairs). A
betrothal ceremony took place after the signing of the betrothal
contract. Once a betrothal was made, there was no backing out of the
marriage; betrothals were legally binding. The wedding often took
place months--and often years--after betrothal.
Part of the betrothal ceremony required that the soon-to-be-groom show
good faith by giving his soon-to-be-bride a betrothal ring; it was a
symbol of his promise to marry her.
Often these rings were plain. Gold was sometimes used, but often more
humble materials were favored. In ancient Rome, iron was preferred,
sometimes with attached house keys, showing the man's trust in his
future wife. But most betrothal rings were simple till about the
eighth century, when Jewish jewelry makers began creating elaborate
rings for the occasion (three-dimensional mini-temples and treasure
boxes with precious gems, for example). But these fanciful designs
didn't last for long...You can imagine how cumbersome such rings were
The tradition of the gimmal ring also stems from betrothal ceremonies.
These are rings with usually two or three hoops that can be wore all
together, or separately. The style first became popular around the
16th century. At the betrothal, the bride-to-be took one hoop, and the
groom-to-be another. If there was a third hoop, it was given to a
witness until the time of the wedding ceremony. During the wedding
ceremony, the hoops were put back together into one ring and placed on
the bride's hand as her wedding ring. (In some cases, the groom kept
one hoop.) Another traditional betrothal ring is the claddgh ring;
this ring from Celtic history has style ring has two small hands
clasping a heart.
It wasn't until betrothal ceremonies became passe in the late 18th and
19th centuries that an engagement ring finally became *the* thing to
wear. The name "promise ring" (and the idea behind it) didn't come
about until recent years (in the 1990s). It is a custom mostly (but
not entirely) followed by Christians, and is a way for young couples
to promise that someday (usually at no set date), they will marry. A
promise ring usually assumes the marrige will take place over a year
from the time of giving. The promise ring comes before the engagement
ring, which is given when the couple is ready to begin planning their
Much of this information comes from Arlene Hamilton Stewart's book "A
Bride's Book of Wedding Traditions" (Hearst Books, 1995). This book is
available in most book stores; here's a link to it's description on
Some online sites that may interest you...
A page about engagement rings:
A page about Victorian pre-marriage customs:
A history of the claddgh ring:
"promise ring" history -music
"promise ring" origin -music
Hope this helps!