Wedding rings have a long history. Roman men gave betrothal rings, the annulus pronubus, to their future wife to be worn on the third finger of her left hand. They believed that the vein in that finger, the vena amoris, linked directly to the heart. These rings were made initially of iron as the wearing of gold was restricted but by the 3rd century AD, gold was being used. The rings were usually plain, with maybe a simple motif or engraving, often showing clasped hands. This practice became incorporated into the marriage ceremony by the early Christians.
Whether a ring was a betrothal ring and wedding ring was not always easy to distinguish. Rings like the fede ring, with clasped hands, and sometimes with hands carrying a heart, labelled claddagh rings from the 17th century onwards, which came from the Romans as did lover’s knot rings, or the Gimmel rings which came from the Renaissance period, could be used for both purposes. As well, they could just be used as sentimental love tokens. The same can be said for the Posey or Posy ring of the 12th to the 18th century. Simple gold rings with inscription, personal messages and poems inscribed around the inside of the band, they were exchanged between lovers. In the 17th and 18th centuries, they certainly served as a wedding rings.
Gemset rings were certainly used as marriage rings by the wealthy from the 14th century onwards. At the beginning of the 1800s, a variety of rings were used as wedding rings. Some were plain gold or silver gilt rings, inscribed with a posy, while others were a gimmel ring. Some brides received a ring with their new initials in diamonds, often set against a blue enamel background. In France, the alliance ring was in fashion. This was a ring of twin hearts comprised of gemstones usually surrounded by diamonds.
Engagement rings became common in the 19th century. Queen Victoria received an engagement ring shaped as a gold snake set with emeralds, rubies and diamonds. Her wedding ring was an engraved gold band. In the 1850s, half hoop rings set with pearls were popular as engagement rings. Diamonds were not common until about 1875.
Generally through the 19th century, wedding rings were gold bands, often engraved. The width varied from 2mm to up to 8mm.
For a few hundred years, the wedding ring was worn on any finger, sometimes the thumb but by 19th century in the UK, it was back on the third finger of the left hand. Other traditions exist in other countries.
The wearing of rings by men on England was never popular although in some European countries, this was not the case. Rings were often given to the groom after the ceremony. Queen Victoria gave a plain gold band to Prince Albert. the evening of the wedding ceremony. The US jewelry industry began to promote the concept of an exchange of wedding rings during WWII but the practice did not become mainstream until after the 1940s.