I'm With the Band

A Short Cultural History of Wedding Rings

One day not long ago, Herman Rotenberg, who owns a place called 1,873 Unusual Wedding Rings on West 47th Street, was asked to engrave grape leaves on matching platinum bands for a guy who peeled off the label from his favorite bottle of red wine and brought it into the shop. "Buying a wedding band is not like buying a pair of shoes," says Rotenberg, whose business dates from 1947. (The name is a bit of a misnomer: The shop actually stocks over 3,000 rings with price tags between $50 and $5,500.) "It's the most important part of the wedding, at least in terms of what marriage really means."

Rotenberg has plenty of history to back him up. The roots of his business actually reach 4,800 years, to the ancient Egyptians, who are generally credited with the genesis of wedding band exchanges when they started twisting reedy plants like hemp into rings. These, they believed, were linked to supernatural, immortal love, a circle with no end. The Romans upgraded to iron. (Revoltingly enough, though, for Roman women, bands signified a binding legal agreement of ownership by their husbands, who regarded rings as tokens of purchase.) Both the Egyptians and Romans wore bands on the fourth finger of the left hand because they swore the vena amoris, or love vein, connected directly from that finger to the heart, thereby joining a couple's destiny.

Puzzle rings, with their labyrinthine, twining bands, came next. The rings, which first showed up in Asia more than 2,000 years ago, followed early trade routes to the Middle East, where they were commonly used as wedding bands, especially by sultans and sheiks who required each of their wives to wear one as a pledge of devotion. Sterling silver poesy rings caught fire during the Renaissance and remained a wedding band option for Europeans throughout the 17th century. Poesy bands were etched with verse and frequently cited in Shakespeare's plays. ("Is this a prologue or the poesy of a ring?" asks Hamlet.)

Meanwhile, in the United States, the Puritans renounced wedding bands altogether, because they considered jewelry decadent frippery. Colonial Americans traded wedding thimbles instead of rings, arguing that thimbles were acceptable because they were practical. (After marriage, women often sliced off the bottom of the thimble and—voilà!—created a wedding band.)

Victorians lavished their rings with whimsical "twin hearts" and flowers; the Edwardians mooned over intricate patterns of leaves and delicate filigree. The art deco movement, with its simple, abstract, modern lines, ruled wedding band designs in the 1920s and 1930s. For the first time, during World War II, it became the regular custom for men to wear rings as a reminder of wives back home.

Not every society started off exalting the concept of the ring, though. Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis, for instance, "picked up wedding bands from Western culture," said Ayesha Hakki Niazi, editor of Bibi, a Houston-based bridal and fashion magazine targeting South Asian communities. "People just follow according to wherever they're living."

If they are living in America in the 21st century, what they want, according to Rotenberg, is platinum. But then again, Rebecca Silva of the incredibly rarefied antique jewelry store Fred Leighton says there's also "a trend toward color: thin ruby bands and sapphires. You don't want to do what your mother did." Bibi's Hakki Niazi notes that rose-colored gold is hot, as is estate jewelry. "You get more character, so you and 50 other people might not have the same ring."

For some couples, even personalized grape leaves aren't intimate enough. They want a truly indelible symbol of their love. After "Pamela and Tommy Lee did all that business," tattoo artist Mike Bellamy of Triple X Tattoo on West 36th Street says, he was solicited by three or four couples anxious to ink their fingers with initials or Celtic knots in lieu of wedding bands. Bellamy warns that this is a complicated process. "The difficult way a finger heals up makes it unpredictable," says Bellamy. "It might look blurry or spread out." And of course, unlike a diamond, which, if things turn sour, can always find its way to the pawnshop, it may take some creative thinking to modify the permanent art on your digit. Still, ingenious solutions are possible: When Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee split up, she altered her "Tommy" wedding band tattoo to a "Mommy" winding around her finger.

 
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