Life & Love

Engagement Ring vs Wedding Ring: What’s The Difference?

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Close up of diamond rings on a woman's finger.
Can you spot the differences between various types of engagement and wedding bands? We’ll help you recognize which is which.
Image credit: Aleona, Shutterstock

In the world of love and relationships, there are many important symbols, rituals, and practices. Engagement and wedding rings are two of the most commonly known symbols of love and long-term commitment. These rings represent a commitment, unity, and a bond between two individuals. What’s the difference between a wedding ring and an engagement ring? Why are engagement rings usually diamonds? There are a lot of questions about these rings, and for good reason. They are particularly important parts of a couple’s life and love story.

As a jewelry enthusiast, a lover of all sparkly things, and a champion of true love, I wanted to know the answers to these questions. So, please sit back, get comfy, and let’s get into it.

Engagement Ring vs Wedding Band

engagement ring next to wedding bands and full set stacked side by side jpg
Here’s an example of the difference between a wedding band, an engagement band, and another band that could be a wedding band (or stacked together).
Photo by Kimberly Alt for Safe Smart Living © Cover Story Media, Inc. 2024.

You may be asking, what’s the difference between an engagement ring and a wedding ring? The basic differences between an engagement ring and a wedding ring involve both appearance and purpose. Though both are symbolic of committed love, engagement and wedding rings are not the same.

5 Key Differences

  1. An engagement ring is a fancy, often expensive ring that boasts a large gemstone, often a diamond. It is a huge symbol of love, broadcasting one person’s intention to commit their life to the other.
  2. A wedding ring is a more subtle, solid band, sometimes with gemstones, worn by both spouses to represent their commitment and continued bond to each other.
  3. Engagement rings represent and promise a couple’s intent to marry. They generally involve a precious stone, historically a diamond, with smaller stones accentuating it.
  4. A wedding ring, or wedding band as they are also called, symbolizes a couple’s lasting commitment and union. Wedding bands tend to be simpler and are often matching his and her designs.
  5. Historically, an engagement ring is presented during the proposal of a hopeful groom to a potential future bride. In more modern times, they are passed from one partner to another in relationships of all sexual orientations. Once an individual has accepted a proposal, the couple becomes betrothed and can refer to each other as fiancées. While traditionally, only the woman would wear a ring, this practice has evolved with the times, and there are many couples, especially those of the same sex, who may choose to both wear commitment bands. The overwhelming majority of men in the U.S. do not.

Along with shifts in thinking, acceptance of different lifestyles and sexualities has also increased by leaps and bounds over the last several decades. Today, it is very common for couples of all sexual orientations to have both proposal and matrimonial bands.

Where Did The Engagement Ring Tradition Come From?

Surprised young woman covering face with hand and smiling while her boyfriend proposing her in the bedroom.
Proposals haven’t always been as over the top as they are today.
Image credit: G-Stock Studio, Shutterstock

Historically, the custom of engagement rings can be traced to ancient Egypt. The ancient Egyptians are the first known culture to exchange rings as tokens of love. These were made of leather or woven reeds. The ancient Egyptians believed that the ring and the circular shape were a powerful representation of love. The continuous band represented eternal life and love. The opening in the middle represented the path to unknown worlds.

The idea of an engagement ring as we see it today can also be traced to ancient Rome. Roman women would wear a ring often made of Flint, iron, copper, bone, or ivory. Unlike today’s fancy pieces, they did not have diamonds or gemstones. Nor were they given from one lover to another as a promise of matrimony.

According to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), these bands could “signify a business contract” or affirm mutual love and obedience. In 850 CE, Pope Nicholas I formerly proclaimed the rings as the symbol of a man’s intention to marry a woman. The rings by that time were primarily made of gold but still did not have the classic diamond we associate with today’s proposal tokens.

What About The Diamonds?

The tradition of including a precious stone in the ring did not start until 1477. Archduke Maximilian of Austria gave Mary of Burgundy the first diamond ring as a marriage proposal. The Duke proposed to her with a unique ring bearing a stone setting in the shape of a capital letter M. However, even then, it would be hundreds of years before diamonds became the classic expectation.

In the 15th century, rings became the symbol of everlasting love and unity between two people. Gimmel rings became popular. These were made up of three connected bands. The process began with each half of the betrothed couple wearing one of the bands. Then, on their day of nuptials, these two bands would be connected to a third ring and worn by the new bride as her wedding ring.

Another variation was the posy ring. Posy rings got their name from the French word “poésy” which refers to a poem or saying. These golden hoops had saint’s pictures, religious sayings, or private messages of both a friendly and romantic nature. The bearer gave the golden bands as a friendship token, a religious symbol, or a gift of love. Posy rings are a much earlier version of the personalized jewelry that is so popular today.

Diamonds fully entered the game in the 1940s. In 1947, the British jewelry company De Beers launched a fresh marketing and advertising campaign. It was then that the slogan “A Diamond Is Forever” was born.

That slogan and campaign launched and changed the marriage proposal and diamond landscape forever. Through years of massive marketing efforts and collaborations with Hollywood’s elite, De Beers crafted the idea that a diamond was a must to show a woman you loved them and wanted commitment. Suddenly, diamonds became the most romantic gesture a man could make to his betrothed. After that campaign, the manufacturing of diamond jewelry and sales skyrocketed. By the 1990s, at least 80% of brides were being proposed to with a diamond-encrusted band.

Why is the diamond so popular? Because it represents eternity. Diamonds are marketed as indestructible, just like the love they are said to represent. Alternative options have become popular in more modern times, but diamonds still dominate the market. 90% of U.S. brides today still receive a diamond ring. Round diamonds are the most popular shape, followed by Princess cuts and cushion cuts.

Wedding Rings

Woman proposing to her happy girlfriend outdoors
The tradition of who pops the question, how, and when has evolved over the years.
Image credit: Rawpixel, Shutterstock

The tradition of wedding bands can also be traced back to the Egyptians and Romans. When the Egyptians were conquered by the Greeks, they adopted the practice of gifting golden hoops to romantic interests to show their devotion. The Romans then took this tradition when they conquered Greece. The rings of this time were iron and copper, but eventually, gold became preferred.

There is also a connection to medieval England and wedding rings. In those times, it was extremely easy for couples to marry each other. They would offer each other consent, represented through the gift of a physical object. This object was often a ring. During the wedding ceremony, rings would be offered and accepted.

Eventually, rings became part of church wedding ceremonies. Before the Christian Church got involved, golden bands were often given as tokens of love, gifts, and affection. However, the Church soon declared that a man could only give a woman a ring if he meant to marry her.

The practice of men wearing wedding bands was not commonplace until World War II. European and American soldiers started wearing these bands to feel connected to their wives, girlfriends, and lovers at home. Eventually, the tradition caught on in the larger population, and both men and women started wearing wedding bands. Wearing a ring to match your partner’s has become a prominent symbol in Western cultures.

Engagement Ring Finger vs Wedding Ring Finger

Gay couple showing off engagement rings in front of a computer video.
Raise your hand if you know which hand wedding bands go on – and why it matters (or not).
Image credit: astarot, Shutterstock

A commonly asked question about engagement and wedding rings is what finger they go on. Do they go on the same finger? If the ring is worn on a different finger, does it mean something different? While some of this may seem like common knowledge, not everyone knows the significance of the ring finger.

What Hand Does The Engagement Ring Go On?

In most cases, an engagement ring goes on the left hand. It can be easy to forget, so remind yourself before proposing. In most Western countries, both an engagement stone and a wedding band are worn on the ring finger, the one right before your pinky on your left hand.

The ring finger is also called the third finger, fourth finger, or leech finger. It is the third digit if you start counting with the pointer finger and count to the left. Sometimes, it is called the fourth digit, with the thumb being the first.

Another way to remember is that it is the finger next to your pinky. That is your ring finger. You have a ring finger on both hands; however, wearing an adornment on the ring finger of the left hand is most generally associated with a wedding or engagement ring.

Today, it is also quite common for these pieces to come in a set. One will wear the proposal ring and then add the band on the wedding day. Then, the two will be worn together on the ring finger from then on.

Why Are Engagement Rings Worn On The Third Finger?

The connection to the ring finger goes back to ancient times. The Ancient Egyptians believed that there was a vein in this finger that connected directly to the heart. To them, the heart was the center of emotion. They called this the “Vena Amoris,” or “vein of love.” Wearing a ring on this finger represented their love, passion, and commitment and bound their fate and love together for eternity.

The ancient Romans had a similar belief. They believed the third finger on the left hand was directly connected to the heart. Wearing a band there, also called the “Anulus Pronobus,” symbolized an eternal commitment of the heart.

Despite the lack of a true connection or vein connecting this digit to the heart, this belief has stuck in many different religions and cultures all over the world.

Not all cultures limit a wedding band or engagement ring to the left hand. The left hand is the norm in the United States and many other Western countries. However, they are worn on the right hand in some cultures. Some brides wear their engagement ring on their right hand once married rather than stack two on the same finger.

James Allen stacked engagement and wedding bands from 3 angles on a ring stand.
Photos from James Allen’s customer service to help a team member’s fiancé visualize how the rings he was considering could stack before purchasing them.
Photo by Kimberly Alt for Safe Smart Living © Cover Story Media, Inc. 2024.

While many of the historical reasons behind these adornments no longer apply, their tradition and practice are still strong. As times have changed, the jewelry traditions, designs, and preferences have shifted.

  1. Engagement & Wedding Band Sets: Many people opt to purchase matching sets for several reasons. First, you know they will match in appearance once worn together (the marriage band sits below, so it’s closer to your heart). Also, a matching set will reduce the risk of mismatched bands pinching your skin if they don’t fit next to each other well. You also may save a little money by purchasing a set. Many modern designs feature curves and contours that are designed to wrap around each other and sit comfortably flush on your finger.
  2. More Than One Stone: While more traditional options have one main stone followed by several smaller ones in a setting, more modern options feature two or even three stones. The three-stone option is popular because one stone represents the present, one stone represents the past, and one stone represents the future. Additionally, many now feature hidden accent stones to add a little bit of additional shine.
  3. Lab-Grown Diamonds: Most of today’s diamonds are lab-grown. They are sustainable, incredibly beautiful, and commonly used as both center and accent stones.
  4. More Colors: While traditional choices tend to be gold with clear diamonds, that is rapidly changing. Many couples choose thicker statement bands that allow for larger or differently shaped stones. Along with that, different colored gemstones, including diamonds, are becoming a popular choice. Along with that, mixed metals and alternative metals like silver and titanium are also more modern options.
  5. Couple’s Rings: A matching set of his and her bands called couple’s rings is becoming extremely popular. These bands represent unity and cohesion and are often the exact same or complementary designs.
  6. Open Bands: Open bands are becoming very popular, especially those designed to fit an engagement ring.
  7. Eternity Band: Eternity bands are solid bands wrapped all the way around with diamonds, symbolizing eternal love.

Alternative Rings

A growing number of couples opt for alternatives to the traditional metal band. These can be made from different materials like wood, resin, plastic, or even something as unique as a tattoo on one’s ring finger. Hand-crafted, vintage, and unique designs are also very appealing.

Using a stone other than a diamond, such as a moonstone, white sapphire, or opal, is also popular. Many couples are also choosing a birthstone, which can be less expensive than a diamond. In some circles, a simpler design or an engraving rather than a big stone is preferred.

For some romantic partnerships, a ring just doesn’t represent the connection the way they want it to. A different piece of jewelry like a necklace, bracelet, earrings, lock it, or body jewelry might suit them better. Or if jewelry in general is not your thing, some couples choose to do something completely unique like custom artwork, planting a tree, or putting the money into a wedding or savings fund.

The Meaning Of Engagement And Wedding Rings (VIDEO)

Learn more about the meaning of these special rings in this video from the wedding website The Knot.

How To Find A Ring Size

So, you’ve found your true love, you want to propose, and you have the perfect ring picked out…but have no idea what your partner’s ring size is. This can put a huge damper on your big day when you pop the question, your heart’s connection says yes, but the ring doesn’t fit.

A ring fits properly when it is loose enough to move about but not so loose that it slides over the knuckle. You also do not want the ring to be too resistant to sliding over the knuckle; it should be worn comfortably. There are a few different ways to get that ring size.

Get An Exact Measurement

The preferred method would be to get an exact measurement of your partner’s ring finger. If possible, you should use a ring sizer, preferably one that is unisex and reusable. Once you have the sizer, you can either sneak a measurement when your partner is asleep or measure a current ring that they wear on the preferred finger. Alternatively, you can try to measure their finger with string and then use that to determine the ring size.

If you can’t measure directly, you have a couple of other options. As mentioned above, you can try to measure an existing ring or try to measure your own finger and then compare it to their size. Again, this can be tricky, as ring measurements vary. In some cases, people will have different ring sizes for different hands.

If you’re trying to go for a surprise proposal, recruit help. You can ask a friend, family member, or roommate to try to get the measurements for you or at least get you a piece of jewelry to measure yourself. If you cannot get an accurate measurement, rather than spend a large amount of money on a ring that may or may not fit, your best bet is to try a temporary engagement. Of course, this takes some of the shock value of a big rock out of it, but again, as most quality diamonds cost at least $500 or more, this is a significant investment, and you want to make sure it is going to fit just right.

How Much Should You Spend?

Jewelry like this starts in the few hundred dollar range and can surpass the $10,000 mark. An old adage suggests that one should spend about two to three months’ salary on an engagement ring. That can add up to a hefty chunk of change in today’s economy. Fortunately, there is no requirement on how much you have to spend on a ring. Spend what is within your budget, but going bankrupt over a piece of jewelry is no start to a healthy union.

Did you know that you can purchase event insurance for your special day? Learn more about how special event insurance coverage can be a safety net for your special day. Your homeowner’s insurance may also cover jewelry, which is something to consider when purchasing a pricey piece. Discover more details about homeowner’s coverage in our guide.

My Personal Experience With Wedding And Engagement Rings

In my life, I have been involved in the purchase and wearing of several types of rings, including engagement rings and wedding bands. I personally wear mine stacked on my left hand, with both my engagement ring and wedding band. Mine are not a matching set, but I do have matching Celtic wedding bands with my husband. I like the personal connection of having the same ring. These rings are an upgrade from our original ones, which turned out to be a bit clunky to wear and were not as high-quality. Upgrading your rings can be a wonderful way to celebrate an anniversary as well. Having seen the other side of it, one of the most important things you can do to prepare, regardless of what kind of ring you are looking for, is to get an accurate measurement!

Where To Buy

In today’s age of Internet shopping, you can buy jewelry from just about anywhere in the world. This is both a fantastic thing and very intimidating when you are trying to find the perfect piece of jewelry to represent your love.

If you’re sure you want to propose but aren’t sure what kind of ring you want yet, you can learn more in our guides on titanium rings, as well as lesbian engagement rings and gay engagement rings.

I’d like to mention a couple of sites that offer a wonderful shopping experience and high-quality products.

Hera

Hera screenshot of rings on website.
Hera offers ethically crafted, sustainable rings.

Visit Website

Hera is a company that aims to eliminate the frustration, confusion, and exhaustion of the engagement and wedding ring process. Their sustainable jewelry uses lab-grown stones, recycled metals, and recycled packaging. Hera also offers inclusive sizing without increasing the price. They offer heirloom-quality, well-crafted rings in an inclusive space for all couples.

Holden

Holden screenshot of rings on website.
Holden offers high-end, custom rings in a wide variety of styles.

Visit Website

Holden is another sustainable jewelry company that emphasizes inclusivity. They create one-of-a-kind rings for each customer and are climate-neutral. The rings are hand-crafted in a family-owned NYC workshop.

James Allen

james allen screenshot of shopping cart for engagement rings on website jpg
James Allen offers a wide selection of top-quality, conflict-free diamonds.

Visit Website

James Allen is an online retailer that offers high-quality diamonds and gemstones for a very affordable price. You can even pick your stones and design your own ring. If you live in Washington D.C. or New York City, you can visit them in person. They also make other jewelry, so you can find something for just about anyone.

Our Personal Experience With James Allen Wedding And Engagement Rings

Kimberly's James Allen engagement rings stacked on hear hand up close.
Photo by Kimberly Alt for Safe Smart Living © Cover Story Media, Inc. 2024.

My husband bought my engagement ring from James Allen, so it was only natural that we would purchase our wedding bands from them. Their customer service was extremely helpful in helping him select the perfect stones and band that fit his budget and the look he was going for. A few years into our marriage, he gifted me with two bands to add to my stack. The customer service team used some stock rings to help him visualize how my ring stack would look.

I love the versatility in my rings, as I opted not to have them soldered together. When traveling, I can wear my wedding band, so I don’t risk losing a ring. I can remove a band in the summer so the rings fit more comfortably since my fingers expand a little in the heat. James Allen’s pricing is much lower than traditional big-name brick-and-mortar jewelry stores, and their ring selection is comprehensive. My husband has had a wonderful experience each time he’s purchased from them.

Kimberly Alt, Jewelry-holic & Writer for Safe Smart Living

Are You Ready To Propose?

Now that you know the history and difference between engagement and wedding rings, are you ready to propose? If you’re still unsure about the ring, you can go deeper and learn more about lab-grown diamonds and find out when the best time to buy an engagement ring is so you know exactly what you are buying. Of course, I know proposing forever to your true love is not as simple as simply picking out a ring. Proposals happen in many different ways. Some are simple, and some are grandiose.

What’s your experience with engagement and wedding rings? I would love to hear about it in the comments.

Why Trust Safe Smart Living

Danielle loves jewelry and supports true love. She is also a crafter, making jewelry and repairing baubles of all kinds. Danielle is a writer, reader, researcher, and lifelong scholar. As a professional researcher, she uses her unquenching quest for knowledge to seek out, scrutinize, and explore what’s around her. Her job is to share information with others, something she has years of experience with from her former career as an educator. Danielle spends countless hours reviewing and researching valuable information to share with our readers.

Danielle DeGroot

Danielle has been a professional writer for many years, working with companies and brands all over the world. She holds a BS in Communication and Marketing from Colorado State University Global and uses her skills to help others share their voices. She has researched and covered a wide range of subjects, from eco-friendly living and burial to healthy living, technology, education, science, small business, and more. Her passion is connecting people with useful information and helping others find their voice. Prior to starting her writing career, Danielle worked in public education, where she worked to support and educate children with disabilities. She works hard to stay on top of the latest changes in safety, technology, and living, which allows her to continue researching and sharing pertinent information to better others’ lives.

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