What's the difference between an engagement ring and wedding band?

Exchanging rings is an ancient tradition used by couples to announce, to both each other and the world, that they have joined hands in marriage. It’s not only an announcement of your union, but also an opportunity to express your love and show your spouse that you understand and love their sense of style. There are two types of rings that are associated with this type of exchange: engagement ring and wedding band. They serve two distinct purposes in the context of marriage and they are presented at different times. Within different cultures, and at different points throughout history, these rings can carry additional symbolism.

The History of Engagement Rings 

The history of engagement rings and wedding bands can be traced back thousands of years. There has been evidence of the exchange of rings in ancient Egypt and Rome, although we don’t know the full extent of their symbolism during that time. It is known that in ancient Egyptian culture, the circle represented eternity, so we can assume that this exchange of a circle worn around the finger represented that those two people would spend eternity together.

During the Renaissance era, rings set with gemstones became popular for those who desired to show off their wealth, but it wasn’t until much later that the more modern exchange that we are now familiar with came into play. This push of the diamond engagement ring was widely influenced by the marketing campaign of De Beers - “A Diamond is Forever.”

Cultural Importance of Engagement Rings

In modern Western culture, traditionally an engagement ring with a diamond center is presented during a proposal. Although gemstones have become more popular over the past decade, a diamond engagement ring is still the most common choice among engaged couples. Because of modern marketing–which brought the idea of a diamond being a timeless option and a “girl's best friend"–it can be difficult to stray from the norm. The engagement ring signifies the intent to join together in marital union, and it tends to serve as the more important of the two rings, mostly because it is oftentimes flashier and can be shown off to others. Although the significance of the engagement ring and wedding band in Western culture is the most depicted in popular media, it is certainly not the only take on the tradition. For example, in Eastern cultures, instead of exchanging an engagement ring, couples may exchange significant family keepsakes to show their commitment to each other.

Although engagement rings have different meanings across cultures, wedding bands tend to maintain a similar significance. Most often exchanged during the wedding ceremony, the wedding band, typically made of gold or platinum, signifies the coming together of two people to spend their lives as one. This is one of the final acts of the ceremony before announcing a couple as united.

Symbolic Meaning of Engagement Rings

One of the significant ways that engagement rings and wedding bands differ is in their symbolism. The engagement ring is given as a symbol of the desire to get married, as a question to be answered. It is a sign of love and commitment and often features a diamond, which is one of the hardest gemstones and speaks to the durability of the relationship. It is often one of the most expensive and meaningful purchases someone makes in their lifetime, as it symbolizes the beginning of a new chapter in their lives. It can also signify the couple’s story and the wearer’s personality, depending upon how customized the engagement ring is made.

The wedding band itself is a symbol of the marriage, which is why it is exchanged during the ceremony. The nature of the circular shape of the ring is what provides the symbolism of never-ending love and commitment. Since the wedding band doesn’t have a center stone, the emphasis is on the band and shape itself. Some say that we wear the wedding band on the left hand because it is the quickest route to the heart, where our love is kept.

Changing Traditions

While traditions are ever present, they can shift as times change and society progresses. As society has become more open minded to self expression and individuality, so has the concept of engagement rings and wedding bands. Engagement rings have become as much a symbol of personal style as the clothing we wear or how we style our hair. Customization is available in so many ways that almost anything is possible in terms of how your ring can look and how it can represent your relationship.

Colored gemstones have become very popular in engagement rings as couples are looking to use their birthstones or a stone that is special for another reason to them (perhaps the month they met, or the month they plan to marry). Not only does this make the ring more personal, but it no longer looks like the traditional engagement ring that every other person has.

Customization is also popular in wedding bands. Not only can you set stones in bands (diamonds, gemstones, etc.), but you can do inlay of wood, meteorite, or alternative metals. There are even bands made completely of crushed diamonds. You can engrave your wedding band, or choose filigree (an open metal work design), or any number of unique metal finishes (sandblast, satin, hammered, florentine, etc.).

Some people don’t just stop at one wedding band. Stackable bands are now a popular trend that consists of several bands of different designs that can be worn together, which allows you to constantly change up your look. New bands can also be added at different life milestones–birthdays, anniversaries, the birth of a child.

While past traditions typically meant that one partner would purchase the engagement ring without the input of the other person, times have changed. Now it is often a journey that is embarked on together, where it is designed with the input of both parties, and a commitment they are making together (the design, the intent to marry, and possibly the financial aspect).

Keeping with Tradition

If you love the tradition of the diamond engagement ring, make sure you do some research on the 4Cs.

Cut: The traditional style engagement ring you may see is more often than not set with a round brilliant cut diamond. Princess cut (square) diamonds are also very popular, but there are many other options available that are unique and beautiful as well, e.g. cushion, pear, marquise, oval, asscher, radiant, emerald, trillion, rose cut, etc.

Color and clarity are also important aspects of center stone selection. Your jeweler should have a color and clarity chart to share with you, which will show that diamonds range from colorless to rich fancy colors, as well as internally flawless, to very included (visual flaws) stones.

Carat Weight: If your ideal stone is a “traditional diamond,” your goal would be to stay as high on the color and clarity scale as possible, while staying in your desired size range and not compromising your overall budget. Fancy diamonds (yellow, blue, pink) are also available, while they most often fetch a higher price for their rarity. The majority of diamond center stones for engagement rings tend to stay around the 1.00ct size range, but there are no limits on how small or large your stone can be. If budget is an issue, let your jeweler know what your desired budget is for your diamond and they can assist you with suggesting the best diamond for your budget.

While there are some similarities in engagement rings and wedding bands, they do differ in important ways. Beyond just their physical appearances, timing of presentation is the most prominent way that they are different, with the engagement ring presented at the time of proposal and the wedding band exchanged during the marriage ceremony.

General aesthetics also set the rings apart, with engagement rings typically showcasing a center diamond (or gemstone of your choice). They can each hold individual cultural significance in different parts of the world, but overall wedding bands signify the unending bond of the couple. But as society changes so do traditions, and as society continues to evolve, you should expect to continue seeing changes in marriage traditions.