There has seemed to be a huge upswing in the number of people wearing promise rings in recent years – which might lead you to believe that they’re a relatively new type of jewelry. Skeptics might even think that the jewelry industry created promise rings as a marketing ploy, similar to the way the “tradition” of diamond engagement rings was really invented by marketing geniuses at DeBeers, the huge diamond company.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Promise rings have been around almost as long as rings have. All that’s new is the term “promise ring”.
The original promise ring may actually date back to Greek mythology, and their use has been well-documented since ancient Roman times. Today, there are five different types of promise rings commonly given or exchanged, and they’re much more than the “engaged to be engaged” ring most people associate with the term.
Here’s an in-depth look at the promise ring – where it came from, what it symbolizes today, and the many varieties you can buy.
According to the ancient Greek myth, Prometheus was the god who created mankind and then stole fire from Mount Olympus to give to man. Zeus, greatly angered at Prometheus for the theft and several other reasons, imprisoned him and sentenced him to terrible torment for all time. Prometheus eventually found a way out of this seemingly helpless situation, but once released he was made to wear a finger ring made from the links of the chain which had bound him. The Greeks believed this symbolized a promise by Prometheus to always obey Zeus for all eternity – the original eternity “promise ring”.
It’s much easier to document the use of promise rings in the cultures that followed. “Anulus Pronubus” were the betrothal rings common during Roman times; they were made from iron (until it became legal for common citizens to wear gold) and had plates with the names of the betrothed couple affixed to them. In many other civilizations, betrothal ceremonies were held for couples who were to be married at some time in the future (and sometimes even for children whose parents had arranged a future marriage), and rings were sometimes given to the intended bride to symbolize the promise of eventual nuptials.
During the Renaissance, rings were often exchanged to mark love or friendship. The best-known were inexpensive “posie rings” with love poems inscribed on them, ubiquitous in England as symbols of love and the potential of marriage. And “gimmal rings” were also popular during this time; they were a betrothal ring which actually consisted or two or three different, intertwined rings. At the betrothal ceremony, one would be given to the woman and one to the man (and if there was a third, it was given to a witness). During the bridal ceremony, the two or three rings were reassembled for the bride to wear as a wedding ring.
Historical examples of promise rings did not always involve romantic love or intentions. In many religions throughout the Common Era, for example, bishops have worn rings to symbolize their promise of spiritual fidelity to their church. That practice continues to this day.
There’s no definitive way to tell when the term “promise ring” was first coined or who was responsible, but it did appear in a few jewelry guides during the 1970s. It has only become commonly used over the last 10-20 years.
A promise can imply different things in different situations. For that reason, there’s no accepted definition for the meaning of a promise ring. However, there’s a lot more to the story than just couples’ promise rings. The rings are most often used today to represent five types of promises:
- Pre-engagement: These his-and-hers promise rings symbolize that a couple is “engaged to be engaged” when they want to show a real commitment to each other, but aren’t yet ready to become formally engaged and start planning a wedding. A variation on this usage is known as a monogamy ring, worn when a couple doesn’t plan to get married at all but wants to demonstrate that they are in an exclusive and committed relationship. Either way, the jewelry makes a strong statement for a couple; promise rings are the first public sign of taking a relationship to the next level.
- Purity: Also known as chastity rings, these symbolize a commitment to abstain from sexual activity until marriage. They are sometimes given to teenagers by their parents (with the children often signing an agreement to remain chaste), and sometimes chosen by teenagers on their own. The concept is that the purity ring will be worn until it is replaced by a wedding band. Alternately, these are used at times to symbolize a promise to remain abstinent from alcohol, drugs, tobacco or other substances or activities.
- Friendship: These are symbols of a promise to remain friends forever, with no romantic meaning. They’re commonly given when one friend is moving some distance from the other, to emphasize the lasting importance of their bond.
- Personal: A ring can serve as an important reminder of a personal commitment, visible to the wearer whenever he or she needs reminding or reassurance of the promise they’ve made to themselves. This could involve a commitment to a specific cause or a promise to avoid a bad habit.
- Religious: Adherents to particular religions or sects (or even fraternal organizations) sometimes wear rings to promise and show their devotion to the religion, its precepts, a deity, or all members of the group.
With so many possibilities for the meaning of a promise ring, you would expect that the jewelry industry has stepped up to provide many types of promise rings. And you would be right.
Types To Choose From
Everyone knows what an engagement ring is and what it symbolizes. It’s such a common piece of jewelry that traditions have developed around it (even if, as mentioned earlier, the most common tradition was actually created by means of an ad campaign) and there are certain “norms” that most people follow when picking out a ring to represent their wedding engagement.
Promise rings often more obvious and significant to the wearer than to the public at large. They can also look quite different, depending on their purpose. The type of ring suitable for a 14-year old to wear as a symbol of sexual purity is probably not the same kind of jewelry which would be chosen by a 24-year old couple signifying their joint romantic commitment – and certainly not the same type of promise ring worn by a religious devotee.
For that reason the available choice in promise rings, whether sold online or at brick-and-mortar stores, whether costing a few bucks or costing thousands of dollars, is enormous. This is only a quick look at some of those choices; listing them all would probably take forever.
You wouldn’t present a cherished friend or spouse-to-be with the proverbial ring from the bottom of a Cracker Jack box, but you can find cheap and simple promise rings which aren’t more than a notch or two away from that. Plain or engraved stainless steel bands, or even those adorned with fancy-looking synthetic crystals or cubic zirconia, can easily be found for $20 and are a good “starter kit” as couples’ promise rings, or perfect for purity rings. One step up are simple promise rings featuring lab-created sapphires, lower-quality gemstones or small precious stones, which are plentiful for less than $100. They would be an ideal choice for young couples who may think they’re in love – or for older ones who aren’t quite sure about their commitment.
Simple promise rings don’t have to be cheap, of course, just as “simple” wedding bands can cost a lot of money; to some people’s minds, simple really means minimalist. There are many elegant bands made of precious metals and many more decorated with precious stones, in higher price ranges which make a strong statement of commitment, even if that commitment isn’t yet to the level of an engagement. For a truly romantic feel, rose gold promise rings have a wonderful throwback look without looking over-the-top.
By its very nature, this type of jewelry tends to be on the less-gaudy, less-expensive side. Naturally, though, there are many people who simply don’t do “simple”. For that type of couple, promise rings are available in the type of designs and appearances you’d find when looking for engagement or wedding rings. His-and-hers promise rings can be as impressive as platinum bands fully encircled by high-quality diamonds, and some who routinely shop in that price range select rings designed as bridal jewelry to be exchanged when they’re just “engaged to be engaged”. You can find many inexpensive diamond promise rings, but choosing diamond promise rings at this higher price level certainly implies a pretty serious commitment. The same could be said for another popular choice; wearing an infinity promise ring carries a much bigger promise than just spending some quality time together.
There’s also no requirement that a couple must wear matching promise rings. In the same way that a man can select a wedding band which looks quite different than his wife’s, men’s promise rings can either be a more masculine version of the woman’s ring, or one which simply has one or two design elements in common with it. For some men, promise rings may feel a little too close to the “real thing”, so this is a way for them to maintain at least a small sense of independence while still making a girlfriend happy – unless, of course, she insists on matching promise rings. Shopping for men’s promise rings can definitely be tricky.
A promise ring chosen for personal or religious reasons probably has little in common with couples’ promise rings. In these cases, bridal-style jewelry will most likely not be a suitable option. Religious promise rings may be pre-selected by the church or sect, or there may be set guidelines for followers. However, personal promise rings will be as significant to their wearers as their reasons for wearing them, so any ring which carries the appropriate meaning is right for the purpose.
There are accepted rules for where engagement and wedding rings should be worn, at least in the Western world: they go on the fourth finger of the left hand. There are no such rules for promise rings worn by couples, but putting one on the wedding finger could definitely cause confusion among people who don’t know a couple well. This is a particular problem if the woman is wearing a piece which looks just like a wedding ring, like an infinity promise ring or a rose gold promise ring. It could also theoretically create discord between a couple; promise rings on wedding fingers might imply a little “too much” to one of the parties. On the other hand, many women like to wear the promise ring on their wedding ring finger and replace it with the real engagement ring when the time comes. It’s best for couples to discuss where they should wear their promise rings ahead of time, to avoid misunderstandings.
If another finger is going to be used for a couple’s promise rings the most common choice is the fourth finger, but on the right hand instead of the left. There’s certainly no longstanding tradition governing this sort of thing, though, so the rings can really be worn anywhere. It does, however, make common sense for the man and woman to at least wear them on the same finger so that they’re clearly matching promise rings.
Purity promise rings are often worn on the wedding finger since they symbolize the wearer’s choice of sexual abstinence; they’re then replaced by a wedding ring after marriage. It’s the exact opposite for friendship purity rings, because there should be no opportunity for romantic inferences to be drawn from the wearing of rings meant solely to show platonic friendship. Any finger will do, except for the fourth finger on the left hand.