Promise rings: Origin and history
Our life is full of promises. Many of them are quite routine: you promise to pick up someone at the airport, help a friend or sibling with a school project or volunteer to buy some groceries on the way from work. In fact, some of our promises are implied and unspoken. We build our lives around them. There is also a special kind of promises. They are meant to last a long time or even for as long as we may live. Such promises can also mean a great deal to a person who benefits from them, as they are to the promise-keeper. It is only natural that a long time ago mankind developed the practice of offering tokens that serve as reminders of such important promises. It only seems fit that promise rings – valuable in themselves – were chosen as the ultimate token of human commitments.
There is no reason to doubt that the use of rings as tokens is as ancient as the custom of wearing rings. This included, of course, lip rings, neck rings, nose rings, anklets, bracelets and ear rings – all known to be in use from prehistoric times. The custom of wearing rings on one’s fingers was much less common in primitive societies. This may be explained by the fact that a ring on a finger (unlike a nose-ring, for instance) can easily interfere with mundane tasks. A finger ring is often seen as an Egyptian innovation, but even the civilization of Ancient Egypt did not owe this invention to the tastes and leisurely life style of its wealthy members. Instead, rings, in form of signets, were used so seal documents, thus insuring their authenticity. This possession of such a ring indicated authority and power. As a result, rings quickly rose to the status of jewelry. Many beautiful rings from that era can be found in museums. It is unclear, however, whether Egyptian rings were ever employed as tokens.
Among the Ancient Greeks, however, the very origin of finger rings was connected with the idea of a pledge and keeping something constantly on one’s mind. After Zeus released Prometheus from the never-ending torture in the mountains of Caucasus, the rebellious god had to wear a finger ring forged from the links of his iron chain, “adorned” with a piece of the rock to which he had remained chained for centuries. This certainly sounds like an early promise ring with a simple message: I shall respect the will of Zeus!
Another variation of promise rings – betrothal rings – was well known in Ancient Rome. Anulus pronubus was composed of two rings having oval plates with the engraved names of the betrothed couple. These rings were originally made out of inexpensive iron, but eventually it became legal for all Roman citizens to wear gold rings.
Posie rings had their peak of popularity in England during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. They were often used as tokens of love, affection and the prospect of marriage. These rings are known for the charming short love poems that were usually inscribed on the outside or on the inside. The quantities of the rings that have been preserved indicate that posies were quite affordable.
Memorial rings were once popular among people who wished to be remembered after death by their friends and relatives. Shakespeare, for instance, bequeathed rings to a number of his friends.
Interestingly, the very term promise ring appears to be rather recent. Some people claim that it is only a decade old. The earliest instance I could locate was in a 1970s dictionary of jewelry.
Promise Rings: Modern Types and Traditional Meanings
It is important to understand that the uses of promise rings can be both traditional and extremely creative. The promises that people give to each other vary quite a bit. If you ever feel that certain promises are significant enough to have a ring associated with them that alone constitutes a case where a promise ring is appropriate. Having said that, here are the most popular uses of promise rings:
- Pre-engagement – many couples feel that there is a step in their relationship when an engagement is still far away, but the sense of commitment is already quite strong.
- Purity rings – the most recently introduced variation of promise rings, also referred to as chastity rings. These rings indicate the wearer’s desire to abstain from sexual activities (the limits are variously defined). They can be given by a parent, in which case it is not uncommon to have a simple ceremony followed by the signing of a document that further asserts the agreement between the wearer and the parent/guardian. It is also possible for an individual (most often a teenager) to voluntarily obtain a purity ring and wear it, in order to indicate that he or she wishes to abstain from sex until marriage. Purity rings are intended to be worn until the wedding day, when they are replaced with wedding bands. Originally inexpensive, purity rings have recently evolved in their style and can be often found made out of gold, titanium or platinum. Technically, any ring can be designated as a purity ring. Typically, however, certain inscriptions are very commonly engraved on chastity rings. They are worn both by male and female teenagers alike.
- Promise rings that symbolize an exclusive monogamous relationship – when a couple has no intentions of getting married or engaged, but wants to affirm their strong love and commitment to each other an exchange of promise rings often takes place, or alternatively one of the partners begins to wear such a ring. The style of such rings can approach that of wedding bands, both in the choice of gold and the characteristic use of diamonds.
- Friendship rings – although the emotional importance of friendship rings is understandably not as strong as one associated with romantic relationships, friendship rings have been traditionally common. They may be especially appropriate if a friendship becomes more difficult to maintain because one of the friends has to move etc. Friendship rings do not typically imply exclusivity. Friendship rings are worn by both men and women.
- Promise rings that serve as reminders of a promise to oneself – such rings can be worn in order to preserve the strength of one’s commitment to a personal cause or a crusade. Examples include an individual’s desire to break the bonds of substance abuse, smoking or negative influences and attitudes. Promise rings of this kind can be greatly enhanced by engraved inscriptions that summarize the wearer’s vow.
On what finger do you wear a promise ring?
The most important thing to remember is that in most Western societies the ring finger of the left hand holds the greatest significance, because engagement rings and wedding rings are worn on this finger almost without exception. Therefore, you have to determine how your promise ring correlates with this accepted practice. If you do not mind that your promise ring is mistaken for a wedding band or if the nature of the vow implies strong similarities with engagement or marriage – the choice is simple. Otherwise you can wear the promise ring of the right ring finger. This issue, in fact, can be quite sensitive. If the vows associated with the ring involve another person it is a very good idea to consult with them, using the rule describe above. Any misunderstanding in such cases may be a sign of misunderstood agreements. The rules regarding friendship rings are much more relaxed. They can be worn on any finger, but if the rings match, the fingers on which they are worn might as well be the same. In case at least one of the friends is married or engaged a finger other than the left ring finger should be chosen.
Good luck, and may you keep your promises!
For promise rings see also: