Why We Wear Engagement Rings On The Left Hand

Creative engagements happen every day, but they all usually share one thing in common: a sparkling engagement ring being placed on the left hand, fourth finger of one member of the happy couple. But, have you ever wondered why this is?

Why that particular finger on that hand? You might have assumed that this has been the custom around the world for as long as anyone can remember. As it turns out, this practice that we find so normal is not the norm everywhere. 

A Little History of the Engagement Ring

Historians believe the wearing of rings to symbolize marriage between two people goes back to the Egyptians, but there is only documented evidence of betrothal rings dating back to the Roman Empire (27 BCE-476 CE). The rings were worn on the fourth digit of the left hand, as is our custom today. This finger was used as it was believed that a vein, dubbed the vena amoris (or vein of love), ran from that finger to the heart. The Roman bride-to-be was actually given two betrothal rings, one in gold for public use and one in iron for wearing in the home while carrying out domestic duties. 

 

The ring warned off other possible suitors by signifying that the young woman was spoken for. Because it was worn only by the woman, some look at the ancient practice as a way of a man having made the declaration “I own you.” However, wedding historian Susan Waggoner believes there was another meaning, stating, “Roman law took a surprisingly modern view of the engagement ring, recognizing it not as a sign of ownership but as a kind of security or down payment paid to the bride-to-be.” This way of thinking continued in the western world for centuries. As late as the 1930s an engaged woman in the U.S. was able to sue a man for damages if he broke off their engagement

Engagement Rings Customs Vary By Country

If you were under the impression that the giving and wearing of engagement rings is consistent throughout the world today, think again! Variations in engagement ring wearing practices fall into three categories: A) The ring hand, B) Type of ring, C) Who wears it. 

 

So, which hand is the ring hand? If you are from the U.S. you might automatically say “the left hand, of course,” and you would be correct-at least in the U.S.! There are actually four possibilities for correct engagement ring etiquette, depending on where you live. Both engagement rings and wedding rings are worn on the left hand in most English speaking countries, including: Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States. Some non-English speaking countries also follow the same custom, including: Croatia, Finland, France, Italy, Jordan, Mexico, Romania, and Slovenia.

 

Many countries, however, take the opposite approach, wearing both the engagement ring and wedding ring on the right hand. These include: Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Georgia, Greece, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and Ukraine.

 

And then there are the countries whose tradition is to use both hands in all matters matrimonial. In The Netherlands and in Germany, the engagement ring is worn on the left hand, however, it becomes the wedding ring after the ceremony and is then switched to the right. But, of course, the opposite has to be the case somewhere, and sure enough, it is! One needs to look to Brazil, Chile, and even the Middle East to find engagement rings worn on the right hand, that are then moved to the left hand during the wedding.

 

Let’s move on to the second category for variations in betrothal ring practices throughout the world: the type of engagement ring one wears. But, isn’t an engagement ring the same, no matter where you live? Actually, they are very similar in much of the Western world, with English speaking countries again being the exceptions. In the U.S., Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand women typically receive beautiful ornate engagement rings from their fiances, usually containing diamonds or other gemstones. The ring is worn until the wedding day, when it is either temporarily removed or switched over to the right hand for the ceremony. After the ceremony, when the bride and groom each place wedding bands on each others left hand ring finger, the bride might then place her engagement ring above her wedding band. She may wear it that way as a wedding set, she might have the two rings soldered together, or she might choose to wear her engagement ring forever on her right hand.

 

In most other Western countries engagement rings are typically simple metal bands, similar to wedding rings exchanged by couples in the U.S. Most engagement bands are made of gold and are used after the ceremony as the wedding ring. In Argentina, the betrothal band is made of silver, but, after the ceremony, the silver band is replaced by one made of gold.

This brings us to our final engagement ring category: who wears the ring or rings? Again, in English-speaking countries, similarities are noted. Until very recently, only the woman received an engagement ring, usually an ornate ring decorated with a diamond or other gemstone. Before the wedding men don’t typically wear a ring to signify that they are engaged to be married. This inconsistency probably dates back to the days when a woman could use the ring as collateral, in case the man backed out of his promise to marry her. Today, more women are financially stable and aren’t necessarily in dire straits if a man breaks off their engagement. What is starting to change in the U.S., however, is that some men are now receiving a ring before the wedding, as well. These rings, cleverly dubbed ‘man-gagement rings,” allow the man, in addition to the woman, to show the world that they are taken. 

 

In same-sex couples both people usually wear engagement rings, which is more similar to what opposite-sex couples do in the rest of the Western world. In most countries both the fiance and fiancee wear engagement rings. As stated above, these are usually simple bands of gold or silver, and the same band is usually worn after the wedding. As the world becomes more global, however, some women in other countries are starting to receive more expensive, diamond-studded engagement rings, in addition to their simple bands.

Other Ring Wearing Practices

Engagement ring customs in the eastern half of the world vary widely, ranging from no engagement rings to ornate nose rings. Today, more couples in Asian countries, like Japan and China, are following Western traditions when it comes to engagement and wedding rings, although practices still depend on the individuals and their family traditions.  In India customs vary by region with some women wearing rings on their toes and some on their noses, but Western practices are starting to sneak in to their weddings, as well! Jewish men typically place the engagement ring on the woman’s index finger, but it is often moved to the ring finger after the wedding ceremony. 

 

Now, the next time you hear someone describe their wonderful, creative engagement story you can ask (in a very worldly way), if both the fiance and fiancee received rings, what type of rings they gave each other, and on which hand are they wearing them! As more men in the U.S receive engagement, or man-gagement rings, we become more like the rest of the Western world in our wedding engagement practices. As the world becomes more global, perhaps one day all betrothed partners will wear a ring before the actual wedding day.