Friday, February 6, 2009

Love Days: Ancient Engagements

With Valentines Day looming, I had to ask the obvious question: why is jewellery so romantic and how has one item in particular come to symbolize love and the matrimonial bond?

While marriage may be as old as the cavemen, it was the ancient Egyptians - worshipers of the sun disk - who are accredited with the engagement ring. The uninterrupted curves of the circle was the ultimate symbol of the eternal, supporting the Egyptian belief that life, love, and happiness had no beginning or end. While it served to embody the never ending, the ring was certainly not a symbol of monogamy - the ancient Egyptians were famous for their concubines.

Continuing the tradition of the ring - although for very different reasons - the ancient Romans used the ring as a symbol of legally binding ownership of the bride. Engagement rings symbolized the transfer of possession of women (along with dowry and social status) by their fathers to their husbands without input from the brides themselves. (This practice remained steadfast for centuries, even into modern times.)

Perhaps one of the most intriguing engagement traditions is the puzzle ring, often referred to as the 'Turkish' ring, despite no clear link to this country as a site of origin. Believed to have been born in the Middle East over 2000 years ago, legend attributes the puzzle ring to a sheik or sultan who was madly in love with his wife ( or possessed incredible streaks of jealousy and mistrust) and in assuring her faithfulness commissioned a goldsmith to create a ring comprised of multiple and complex pieces that would collapse if removed. If ever his wife removed the ring in order to engage in an adulterous affair, the broken ring would be evidence of her infidelity.

The first recorded diamond engagement ring was presented to Mary of Burgundy (pictured to the right) by Archduke Maximillian of Austria in 1477. The archduke commissioned the ring to serves as a symbol of their two powerful families uniting. Such a gesture proved successful as Mary and Maximilian became the ancestors of Spanish, French, and English kings.

During the Middle Ages, diamonds took off as the symbol of the the matrimonial bond, due to their unbreakable and eternal characteristics. However, it was not until relatively recent times that diamonds became available to anyone who was not a member of the aristocracy or nobility.

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