Engagement and wedding rings

Betrothal, the formal engagement, anticipated matrimony's irreversibility. Under Roman law the bridegroom furnished security for the completion of the bargain and the ring and solemn embrace gave the act mystic significance. 'Returning the ring' is still a vital step in breaking an engagement. Guernsey betrothals were marked by 'flouncing', a party at which the pair met friends of their parents-in-law to be. From this point it was unseemly for the girl to as much as walk with another male and the young man dared scarcely speak to another girl, even if courtship lasted for years. If the girl changed her mind after 'flouncing', her fiance could lay claim to half her property; if he recanted she could do likewise.  

The early Christian church had similarly recognized the property implications of betrothal: De Sponsalibus et Dowtionibus ante Nuptias required a contract sworn before witnesses; if either party died during the engagement the survivor and heirs divided the estate between them. In old China, betrothal was so significant that if one (even both) of the pair died, the wedding ceremony went ahead as though nothing had happened; a girl once betrothed was treated like a widow. Actions for 'breach of promise' in which jilted sued jilter brightened English law courts until changes in the law in the 1960s made such retaliation impossible. These actions had survived from a time when the undertaking to marry was of greater import than it is today. 

I suppose that we see the evidence of engagements the get broken off by the rate of cancellation of bookings for our string quartets for wedding ceremonies and barn dance bands or jazz band for the evening reception. It does happen, but fortunately it's infrequent. 

An engagement ring marks the modern betrothal. From the Elizabethan period and earlier the gimmal ring, breaking into three parts — one for the woman, one for the man, one for the witness — and reunited later as the wedding ring, was well liked. Gemmed rings were not usual: gold or silver, perhaps twisted into a lovers' knot, were chosen, and not until the nineteenth-century exploitation of South African diamond deposits did white diamonds (of apposite durability: 'diamonds are forever,' say the jewellers: diamond comes from the Greek adamas, 'impenetrably hard') become both cheap and popular. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries precious stones whose initial letters spelled such words as 'dearest' (diamond, emerald, amethyst, ruby, epidote, sapphire, turquoise), 'love me' (lapis-lazuli, opal, verd antique, emerald, moonstone, epidote) or in France 'regard', 'souvenir' or 'amitie' made popular rings, still sought after in antique shops. The fiance's birthstone is a luck-bringer in an engagement ring. Birthstones vary from country to country, but common dedications are:






June-agate, pearl

July-carnelian, ruby


September- sapphire

October- opal

November- topaz


Gemstones have their own virtues; turquoise helpfully prevents matrimonial arguments; emerald brings success in love; diamond denotes innocence and light; ruby preserves chastity; sardonyx ensures married happiness; topaz signifies fidelity; amethyst, sincerity; bloodstone, courage; garnet, truth and constancy. In America today there is a taste for jade, sapphire and emerald engagement rings but silvery pearls, symbolizing tears, and opals (most unlucky except for the October-born), fragile and unstable and showing changing colours (undesirable attributes for the betrothed), are avoided. German brides neutralised the ill-effects of pearls by wearing them in a tiny

concealed casket — the gegentranen — 'averter of tears'. It is of course ill-omened to lose or damage an engagement ring, lest the contract it represents should suffer, and if another girl tries on the ring the owner's future happiness will be jeopardized. 



In early times fathers had an undisputed right to dispose of daughters to the highest bidders; old phrases recall these hardheaded rituals, in form if not in spirit; a young man asks a father 'for his daughter's hand in marriage'; the latter 'gives the bride away'. But times are changing. On New Year's Day 1975, the age-old ritual came to an end at weddings of the Church of Wales. The Rev Elwern Thomas, Warden and Rector of Ruthvin, and a member of the Liturgical Commission which had recommended the new marriage service, said: 'our aim has been to get rid of the idea of a woman being a chattel at the disposal of her family'. The word 'obey' has been removed from the vows and while the bride's father still escorts her to church he is no longer formally asked to 'give her away'.

In my own wedding ceremony I suspect that some deal had been done between the vicar and my bride-to-be, as when it came to the wedding ceremony itself and we were repeating the words after the vicar, I promised to give all my worldly goods to my wife whilst she only promised to share her worldly goods with me. I didn't realise it at the time, I was in such state of nervousness, but all our friends noticed it and still remind me of it this day. If I'm playing for a wedding ceremony with my string quartet I listen out for this, to see if this is a common practice, but I'd never heard it. I think it was only me that got diddled on this occasion.

In some societies (China, India, Africa, the Moslem world and sections of the Jewish community among them) marriages arranged by parents remain commonplace. This is not considered mercenary; is it not a father's duty to settle his children as favourably as possible? Physical attraction between the pair does not matter much, but it is important that brideprice, and dowry be thrashed out, often with lawyers' help. Social position, politics, religion and property have all in their time been influential in arranged marriages. Only the poor might marry for the luxury of love alone: a girl has always become prettier with a comfortable dowry of cows — or the cash equivalent, 'dry money'; 'a blanket is better for being doubled' might be the slogan of marriage negotiators.

If settlement cannot be reached through negotiation, romance does not normally prevail, although love matches are, of course, sometimes translated into happy marriages with the aid of bargaining. Parents take charge: in villages of North China, Fukien and Kiangsu about 1946, it was found that in 360 marriages, the agreement of only one young man had been sought beforehand: no brides were consulted. It was felt positively foolhardy to allow children to seek their own mates. In the Moslem world many young couples still do not even meet before the wedding.

Despite modern liberalisation in many parts of the world chastity improves a girl's marriage chances. Anneline Kriel of South Africa, Miss World 1974, pointed out that there 'It is important for a girl to be a virgin when she marries.' In Brazil a eirl minus virginity has little hope of marriage at all; in Morocco a bridegroom will pay trom $100—$150 tor a virgin, a mere $50 for a widow. I was in Morocco about 3 years ago on holiday, in a small village hotel up in the Atlas mountains. It was freezing cold and the high peaks were inaccessible because of the snow. In the hotel lounge was a huge log fire around which everyone, including the staff huddled for warmth. We got talking to the staff and remarked on the strange musical instrument that was hanging on the wall but looks like a cross between a viola and cello, but made out of a tree trunk instead. I can't remember what it was called, but one of the staff could play it a little and got it down from the wall to give a demonstration. They found some YouTube clips of this instrument being played in a strange sort of string quartet, wind group come ceilidh band that was traditional to Morocco and often played at weddings. To reciprocate, I found some YouTube videos of me playing with my ceilidh band and string quartet. In one of the staff dug out a guitar that they had and they all sang some traditional Moroccan songs. It was great evening.

In the West where the whole issue is far less emphasised, up until the 1960s and 1970s, girls were nevertheless strongly urged by the more traditional women's magazines, and by parents, to avoid intercourse before marriage lest they 'cheapen' themselves and damage their bargaining power. The implications are plain. Oh how the world has changed!

Bargaining and wedding may more or less mingle. At an Orthodox Jewish wedding in New York a few years ago, Marcia Seligson found the ketubah or marriage contract under animated negotiation, by rabbis, bridegroom, fathers and witnesses, while the bride in full wedding fmery waited patiently next door. The document specified her virginity and, among other things, the payments she would receive if widowed or divorced. Two hours passed in haggling, then suddenly a great shout went up — the ketubah had been signed! The groom danced in to claim his bride and the marriage ceremony could at last begin.

Marriage negotiations have taken many picturesque forms, including the 'choosing of brides' on Whit-Monday at St Petersburg, Russia, in the nineteenth century, when sons and daughters of citizens assembled in the Summer Garden to see and be seen. It was a brilliant display. Girls in best clothes were marshalled along the flower beds by their mothers. To show marriage-worthiness every possible ornament had been collected from mothers' and grandmothers' wardrobes: many girls were so laden with gold and jewellery as to be almost hidden from view. One mother, contriving further additions to her daughter's toilette, made a necklace of six dozen gilt teaspoons, a girdle of tablespoons and arranged punch ladles behind in the form of a cross. Evidence of solid wealth was vital. Young men in best caftans were conducted by their fathers through the rows of girls while parents expatiated on candidates' merits, mothers answered questions about dowries, fathers about prices. Eight days later searching interviews began, and after much consideration, notes were sent to the selected young people and couples were betrothed.