The long tradition of wedding rings

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Poppy Mookerjee

NEW YORK – When Nandini Prabhakar and Deep Jain decided to tie the nuptial knot they wanted their wedding ring to be the mark of their union, a proclamation of their undying love for one another. Nandini, no doubt, prized her mangal sutra but she was convinced she needed something ‘small and delicate like a slip of ring to denote her marital status in life.”

Both, brought up in US, were soaked in Indian tradition. However when it came to marriage, they simply had to have a wedding ring. After all it was part of the milieu, the Hollywood movies that they were brought up on and a product of their High School fantasies.

And why not? The US has not simply been an exporter of jobs. For the last several decades it has been the harbinger of twentieth century culture. And now with globalization being the great leveler of the human race, why should weddings be left behind? So now what we have is a hybrid wedding, with the Indian masala dallying with the American, a hot blend of sequin-studded Indian clothes with chic European jewelry.

But the story of the wedding ring is hardly European in its descent. It all stemmed from the timeless need of mankind to project ritualistic symbolism in all of human action, particularly when an emotion as eloquent as tenderness was being declared to cement a relationship.

And don’t be fooled. The shape of the ring is not a matter of coincidence by any stretch of imagination. The roundness of the sun and the moon, are behind its artistic inspiration.  They were symbols borrowed from the universe to suggest continuity, perfection and eternity  to suggest love that knew no beginning nor an end.

The embedded message was that no matter where one traveled in life, one would eventually return to that sacred circle of timeless affection. Remember the Lakshman Rekha, folks, – the hallowed circle that Sita was forbidden to trespass?

For those faint at heart for a commitment because the wedding ring bankrupts the bank balance, it may offset the pain to remember the poignant tale of a young couple, who desired to get married in the Church of England and used a church key to solemnize their marriage, as they were far too poor to afford all the finery of a ceremony. The clerk, grieved by their plight, took a curtain ring from his house and pledged them man and woman.

Now that simplicity is the essential language of wedding vows.

“The ring has become an established convention in Indian weddings. The bridal magazines furnish the designs and we customize the rings to the patterns selected by young couples. Sometimes they are even accompanied by their parents. So now they have the engagement ring, which is usually set in diamonds, followed by the plain wedding bands that are easier to slip on the finger,” said Kavita Malviya of Emkay Diamonds and Gems in California, a reputed jewelry store with an established bridal line.

“The only difference is that Indian couples do not always conform to the American norms of spending two months’ salary on wedding ring,” she observed.

Of course, what she did not add was that while Indians do not spend as lavishly on wedding rings, they spend lavishly on other jewelry items which far exceed the average American budget.

And so, who amongst us was the first to start this hallowed tradition?

History has it that the caveman was among our forerunners in conceiving the idea of wedding rings, albeit for very unromantic reasons. He would bind a chord of rushes and grass around the hands and feet of his mate to ensure that his mate did not run away from him. Finally, when assured of her fidelity, he would then proceed to tie a reed around her finger, implying that he “owned” her.

As marriage evolved from signifying ownership and possession to a much more dignified statement of love and devotion, the wedding ring too made some illustrious changes down the roads of history

The custom of wearing the ring on the fourth finger, originated with the Egyptians, owing to the superstition that the vein from that finger ran straight to the heart. So as long as love flowed in the veins, the heart beat ecstatically, and everything was alright with the world, to misquote Robert Browning only slightly.

The Romans, who were, again, not the most romantic of our ancestors, believed that marriage was a solemn worldly contract. They upgraded the ring from reed and leather to iron denoting durability and perpetuity of the union. These rings often had a carved key at the center to show that the bride had access to her husband’s heart, or to put it bluntly, the rights to his riches.

The tradition, of the engagement ring and the dual rings for the bridegroom and the bride, started with the Greeks, who used gold for the bridegroom and silver for the bride, the differences in metal denoting their different statuses in marriage. And boy, aren’t you glad  those times are long past?

Or if a couple wished to go the Celtic style, they could simply use bracelets of hair, which women gave to their husbands as charms of love. From the Irish, they the exquisite Claddagh rings, featuring two hands holding a crowned heart, with the engraved words, “Let friendship and love reign.”

Although there is no suggestion of betrothal rings in the Bible to seal a marriage, there is a mention of the Pharaoh, placing a ring on Joseph’s finger in tribute to their friendship in Genesis.

Eventually around 870 A.D. the wedding ring found its way to Christian ceremonies.

The ring, engraved with a phrase from a love poem, became fashionable during the Middle Ages with jewels entrusted with special meanings. Some even carried references to verses of the Bible such as Mt. 19:6: ‘Whatsoever God hath joined together let no man put asunder.” The medieval Italians esteemed the diamond as the nuptial ring, with its sparkle deemed to be the flame of love. Meanwhile, the amethyst became emblematic of Christ’s martyrdom, the sapphire indicated love was heaven-bound while the emerald upheld Christian hope.

In short, the name of the game was innovation.

During the Renaissance, it was not unusual to see men and women sporting the wedding ring on the thumb. Laws were passed to ensure that the privilege of wearing florid jewelry belonged only to the aristocrats. With the elapse of time, however, diamonds became more accessible to the humble.

The Victorians used the old cut diamond surrounded with colored stones, whose first letters, put together, spelled out a word or a phrase. Those who are mesmerized with the antique look, would settle for the serpent rings, popularized by Queen Victoria, whose wedding ring carried the images of two intertwined serpents, expressing the potent magic between soul mates. History has it that after the death of Prince Albert at a young age, his wife never fully recovered from her loss.

However, in Colonial America an intriguing story was being wrought out. The Quakers, who frowned on frippery, dismissed the wedding ring as something frivolous, adhering to pagan superstition. They argued in favor of the thimble as a token of love. After getting married, the women would lop off the bottom portion of the thimble to form the ring.

Through the ardor of the centuries, the crude reed of a plant, first twined around the finger by the ancient man, has now gradually evolved into a promise of everlasting love, perhaps, balancing precariously, on a weighty piece of Tiffany’s jewelry.

“The wedding ring has become a statement of social standing, with the girl, accompanying the boy to choose a ring of her own choice. This creates, at times, a few awkward moments for the boy, who, frequently, cannot afford the best and the whole exercise becomes rather painful for him,” observed Libby Allison, proprietor of Allison’s Custom Jewelry and diamond consultants, at Sidney, Ohio. Her son, Dean, agrees that with the frenzied pace of consumerism in modern society, the fine sentiment of the wedding ring is lamentably lost to the young couple.

“The Tiffany setting of the solitaire diamond, perched on the band is what typically Indian girls prefer as their engagement rings. They also choose the more expensive platinum rings instead of the traditional gold ones. I have also had requests for both the traditional plain wedding bands as well as the Indian long design rings which carry filigree work on them. It all varies from person to person,” noted Amba Jewelers at Jackson Heights, New York.

The princess cut and the round cut diamonds, best known for their characteristic brilliance and fluorescence, are a connoisseurs’ delight. Or it could even be something as precious as rubies, topaz, sapphires, amethysts or birthstones, accented against a larger diamond.

‘The pave` setting with a ribbon of diamonds, encrusted on the wedding band is ideally what all young women cherish. The channel setting with the stones fleshed in with the band is also another favorite,” Allison pointed out. “Alternately you could convert beautiful family heirlooms into wedding rings that would marvelously capture the beauty and sentiment of the occasion. The men’s bands range from platinum to gold to titanium and stainless steel. Often, not being used to wearing jewelry, men prefer to keep their bands simple.”

As times have changed so too the process of buying wedding rings. Many couples skip the routine outings to the mall in search of the perfect ring. Instead they settle for the quick online purchase.

“The trouble with on-line buying is that you do not know whether the item bought is genuine. The risks involved certainly outweigh the benefits. It is most important to know your jeweler well,” added Malviya.

Or if you want to go Pamela Andersen and Tommy Lee style you could simply forgo all of the above hassle and enshrine your love with artwork through a tattoo permanently impressed on your finger. For the most part, during the shopping spree for the trousseau, it eases the burden to remember that the wedding ring is a symbol of  grace. The advice to heed is: spend only what you can afford.

(Poppy Mookerjee is a journalist and a writer for more than a decade with American and Indian publications)