Promise Rings and Engagement Rings: Do You Know the Difference?


Promise Rings and Engagement Rings: Do You Know the Difference?

The history of giving symbolic rings as gifts is more interesting than a lot of people realize. Though many other traditions have faded, rings remain some of the most common symbolic gifts. Despite the longevity of this tradition, many people don't know the full story behind some rings.

Promise rings symbolize commitment, while engagement rings symbolize the true intent of marriage. Depending on the meaning, a promise ring may be worn on the left or right hand. Let's delve deeper into the differences, significance, and history of these symbolic rings, and discuss the difference between promise rings and engagement rings.

What Is a Promise Ring?

A promise ring is a ring that symbolizes commitment. Usually, people who are in a romantic relationship, but are too young to get married. Sometimes friends will give each other promise rings as friendship rings.

Often, people will refer to a promise ring as a "pre-engagement ring." It can symbolize the intention to propose and get married when the timing conditions are better.

What Is an Engagement Ring?

An engagement ring is presented as an engagement gift by a partner to their prospective spouse when they propose marriage, or sometimes after their partner accepts the marriage proposal. It represents a formal agreement to future marriage.

Traditionally, a man gives his future wife an engagement ring. Today, it's also popular for people to have engagement ring sets with matching wedding rings.

Engagement Ring vs. Wedding Ring

Marriage proposals usually feature an engagement ring, but sometimes the wedding ring can be presented. A wedding ring is a ring the groom puts on the bride's finger during part of the wedding ceremony. Sometimes the bride will put the groom's wedding ring on his finger as well.

The engagement ring isn't part of the wedding ceremony. After the wedding, the bride usually puts the engagement ring back on and wears it on the outside of the wedding ring.

What Is the Meaning of a Promise Ring?

Promise rings can have numerous meanings. The significance of a promise ring is that it forms a commitment between two people. These commitments can vary.

Here are some of the meanings and how they relate to commitments:

Monogamy: A romantic couple may view a promise ring as a dedication to remain monogamous. It shows that they are only interested in each other. It doesn't have to mean that they plan on getting married.

Traditionally in a heterosexual couple, the man gives the promise ring to the woman. The woman can also give one in return. People in LGBTQ+ relationships also may exchange promise rings.

"Purity ring": Sometimes people buy promise rings to symbolize abstinence. They might choose to do this for religious reasons. An individual can wear a purity ring, or a couple can exchange them.

This means that the couple will abstain from sexual activity until they get married. Some people choose to end this when they get engaged, while others maintain it up until marriage.

Friendship: Friends may buy each other promise rings as a symbol of their bond. This is a thoughtful gift for friends who move apart from each other or are geographically distant. The ring can represent the memories two friends have together and a commitment to always be friends.

Personal promises: Many couples and friends have inside jokes and secrets together. They may also have promises they share only with each other. The ring serves as a reminder to always fulfill those promises.

Familial bonds: Sometimes, older people pass down promise rings to younger family members. This can symbolize the passing down of important shared values, or the bond of family. Sometimes people give them to the bride or groom before a wedding.

Other promises: Individuals may wear promise rings to remind themselves of a promise or commitment. For example, someone may buy or receive a promise ring once they decide to quit a harmful habit, such as smoking. The ring is there to remind them of the promise to themselves, or the family and friends who support them in their commitment.

Physical Differences Between Promise Rings and Engagement Rings

The style of a promise ring varies more than engagement rings. Usually, promise rings are less expensive than engagement rings.


Engagement rings typically contain a central gemstone. Diamonds have been the most popular since the 1940s, but nontraditional engagement rings are gaining more popularity. These rings contain colored gemstones such as rubies, sapphires, and emeralds.

Promise rings usually contain birthstones, but they don't have to. They can be really simple and absent of any gems.

Setting Material

Engagement rings are usually a precious metal. While antique engagement rings were often yellow gold, popular options today are white gold, platinum, or sterling silver.

Promise rings can be made out of any material. Stainless steel, wood, silicone, glass, even cloth, string, or leather promise rings exist.

The History of Promise Rings and Engagement Rings

You might be someone who is curious about the history of your jewelry. You might wonder, which one came first: promise rings, engagement rings, or wedding rings?

Most sources on the internet seem to cite the Egyptians or the Romans as the earliest birthplaces of the wedding ring. It actually dates back earlier. You might be surprised to learn that this began in primitive times.

The First Wedding Rings in History

It's a common misconception that cavemen were brutish and unintelligent. They were most likely intelligent, symbolic thinkers with complex social relations. They developed the earliest precursor to wedding ceremonies.

The earliest origins of the wedding ring date back to early Homo sapiens. Before humans had even invented rings for jewelry, people used other means to show their bond and commitment to each other.

Prehistoric man tied grass around the wrists and ankles of his bride, to symbolize their unity, and to protect her from evil spirits. This early version of "tying the knot" was picked up in African wedding traditions. In traditional African weddings, the bride and groom have their wrists tied together with strands of grass.

The tying of the wrists symbolizes unity and commitment between two people. The grass becomes a circle, a symbol of eternity. This is where the meaning ascribed to wedding rings and promise rings come from.

The Symbolic Rings of the Egyptians

The Egyptians were the first people to start the tradition of wearing rings as jewelry on the fingers. Despite their fondness of gold and other metals, their symbolic rings were made of twisted plant material, such as hemp. These rings served as a sign of wealth and nobility, as well as a symbol of love.

Did the Egyptians invent wedding rings?

Some historians cite the Egyptians with starting the tradition of wedding rings. Hieroglyphs show a man and woman exchanging rings, and they could be spouses. It's uncertain if these rings always symbolized marriage: the rings could also represent eternity, commitment, and friendship.

Given the potential range of meanings in Egyptian rings, they more closely resemble what we would call promise rings. The Egyptians did begin the tradition of wearing the ring on the 4th finger of the left hand. They believed that this finger enclosed a special vein that was connected directly to the heart.

The First Engagement Rings

The first wedding and engagement ring date back to ancient Rome. They made the first wedding rings out of leather, then bone and ivory, then iron.

The first engagement ring dates back to the second century B.C. If a man wanted to marry a woman, he gave her two rings, a gold one which she wore in public, and one made of iron, which she wore at home.

For several centuries it was the custom for Romans to wear iron rings at home, gold rings in public. Like engagement rings today, the gold ring was flashier and meant to be seen.

These rings were also worn on the third finger of the left hand. They adopted the Egyptian belief in the vein connected to the heart. In Latin they referred to it as "Vena amoris," or "vein of love."

The Romans even personalized their wedding rings by carving pictures of themselves into the metal. This gained popularity elsewhere, and when Christianity took a strong hold, a cross was often engraved between them on the ring. This was a symbol of Christ blessing their marriage.

People still engrave meaningful things in their rings. If it interests you, check out our blog post on engravement ideas.

Modern Engagement Rings

Modern engagement rings derive from the Middle Ages. Christianity played a large role in creating marriage traditions. Pope Nicholas stated that in the Western church, the man should give his betrothed an engagement ring.

In following centuries, the popularity of wedding rings and engagement rings fluctuated. In the United States, the popularity of engagement rings dipped dramatically after WWI, but surged in 1945.

The First Promise Rings

The earliest historical examples of "promise rings" came from the ancient Greeks, whom the Egyptians influenced. In mythological tales, Greek gods mentioned rings that caused other gods to forever remember the gods who gave them to them. Some cite the myth of Prometheus as the myth that began the trend of ring-wearing for remembrance.

The first modern promise rings, or pre-engagement rings, came from 16th century Europe. Men who couldn't afford to get married yet gave a "promise ring" to the woman they wanted to marry. This ring served as a placeholder until marriage and a reminder that he loved her.

As time went on, promise rings became more intricate. By the 17th and 18th century, it was popular for people to engrave romantic sayings in them.

In the 20th century, some countries' practices dictate that the woman gives a promise ring to a man. If he accepts it, he wishes to get married to her.

Claddagh and Regards Rings

Throughout the centuries, different styles of rings were popular in different countries. Some of them have faded out of popularity, like regards rings.

Claddagh rings are still popular today. Both rings are similar in meaning to promise rings.

What Is a Claddagh Ring?

The Claddagh ring is an Irish ring that features the symbol of two hands holding a heart. The first Claddagh ring was made in Galway over 400 years ago in Claddagh, a small fishing village in Ireland. The Gaelic word "Cladach," means "rocky beach/shore."

The Claddagh ring can be worn as a token of love and friendship. Partners may give it to each other as a promise ring, engagement ring, wedding ring or band. Friends may give it to each other as a friendship ring, especially if they have a connection to Ireland.

Many people wear the Claddagh as a memento of a trip to Ireland, or as a symbol of their Irish heritage.

People who are single may wear the ring with the hands and the heart facing outward, symbolizing their readiness to give their heart to someone. People in relationships can wear it with the heart facing towards them, to show that they've taken each other's hearts.

What Is a Regards Ring?

Regard rings were popular during the Victorian and Edwardian periods. It's a ring with a row of five stones that spell out the word regard: Ruby, Emerald, Garnet, Amethyst, Ruby and Diamond.

The different gemstones represent different things. The diamonds and rubies represent passion and eternity, emeralds represent love, garnets symbolize truth and reliability, and amethysts show honesty and humbleness.

Regards rings could symbolize a romantic bond, the intention to marry, or a variety of other things.

Promise Rings vs. Engagement Rings: Which Finger?

Promise rings can be worn on any finger, or even on a chain around your neck. The most common way to wear a promise ring is on the ring finger. It will go on the left hand if you're not married, and on the right hand if you are married.

The Takeaway

Promise rings and engagement rings are both great ways to show someone you care. The important thing to keep in mind is that promise rings have many potential meanings. You want to make sure that the person you give a promise ring to understands the intended meaning, and doesn't confuse it with an engagement ring.

If you enjoyed reading about promise rings vs engagement rings and want to learn more about ring meanings, history, types of gemstones, and more, then check out our blog.

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