Wedding Band Etiquette

Jewelry etiquette by Leon Mege

It’s OK to wear a wedding band on any hand you like. Wearing a wedding and engagement ring on the same hand is not backed up by any tradition. Most Americans believe a wedding band should go on the left hand’s fourth finger. This belief has existed since at least the fifteenth century and is based on an outdated mix of ethnic, cultural, and religious traditions that have changed many times throughout history. 

According to Western lore, the left hand’s fourth finger is the weakest and cannot be used independently. Male-centric culture still expects women to wear the band on the left hand’s fourth finger to show subjugation to their husbands. The chauvinistic residue is upheld by the old wife’s tale about a seventh-century burial containing human remains with a gold ring that resembles a wedding band on the left hand.

There is a practical reason for wearing an engagement ring on the left hand because it helps to keep the ring out of harm’s way. Most people are right-handed and use their left hand less often. Unlike a thumb or an index finger, the ring finger is the least used and protected on both sides by the little and middle fingers.

Wearing both rings next to each other will cause damage. The extent and speed of the damage depend on many circumstances. It happens faster when the rings are loose on the finger. When the rings fit tight, there is less movement, and the damage is accumulated slowly. Even then, the rings oscillate on a finger and grind each other.

Even rings modified to fit flush are susceptible to damage unless they are permanently welded to each other. Direct contact between gemstones causes the most extensive and usually irreparable damage. Stones-against-metal or metal-against-metal friction causes the parts holding the ring together to weaken and eventually crack.

The damage manifests itself in several ways. A wedding band can chew through the engagement ring basket, prongs, and gallery, eventually carving a tunnel that looks purposely made. Often an engagement ring rips off the beads holding diamonds on the top of the wedding band, causing them to fall.

We strongly advise wearing engagement and wedding rings on two different hands to preserve their precious uniqueness and beauty. Of course, it’s OK to join both rings for special occasions, but continuous wear will inevitably wreck at least one.

Both rings can be permanently attached to each other (welded, soldered, or fused) into one unified ring. This is a practical option for those who always wear both rings together. However, it makes little sense because the result looks like an engagement ring with a diamond set off-center.

How to wear a wedding band and engagement ring

Do we need to combine the engagement and wedding rings once married? A wedding band next to an engagement ring feels more like an unnecessary extension that steals attention away from it. In fact, with age, most people tend to wear a wedding band solo.

Traditional engagement rings typically have one dominant stone, which either stands alone or is surrounded by additional smaller stones. An engagement ring is usually given as part of the proposal, or if not, at an early point in the engagement.

Modern brides demand more say in the choice and design of the rings and are open to wearing one at a time.

An engagement ring (a betrothal ring) is a mark indicating that the person is engaged to be married. Historically, it served as a token of financial commitment and a placeholder for virginity. Most engagement rings typically have one dominant stone, usually a diamond, symbolizing purity, love, passion, and closeness between partners. An engagement ring is an essential element of the proposal, a cornerstone of a healthy marriage.

Traditionally a wedding ring is a uniform gold or platinum band exchanged at the wedding ceremony as the official symbol of the union of marriage and worn from then on. A diamond-encrusted eternity band is a recent invention made possible by a glut of very small machine-cut diamonds. A wedding ring signifies eternal love, commitment, and happiness.

A wedding band sitting flush with an engagement ring is not recognized as a separate piece, defeating its primary purpose of a marriage symbol. A wedding band designed to fit flush is visually an inseparable part of the engagement ring. It makes the engagement ring look thick and lopsided.

Wearing a band that curves around an engagement ring seems convenient, but it isn’t. Firstly, a curved wedding band looks silly without the engagement ring next to it. Secondly, the addition severely compromises the elegance of a fine engagement ring. The curved border looks awkward and forced, like a car with a mattress tied to its roof.

Even a traditional eternity band can affect the appearance of the center stone. A stone looks smaller next to a large wedding band. We recommend a thin wedding band set low to the finger for most people who refuse to separate the two rings. For pave-set bands, bright-cut pave edges provide additional protection for the stones. Wearing a wedding band and an engagement ring together is not a symbol of everlasting matrimony but a recipe for disaster. Wear each ring on a different hand, so they last an eternity.

Wearing both rings next to each other is often explained as “tradition.” In reality, it is a clever marketing ploy by jewelers to sell more rings. Retailers stand to benefit from wear and tear inflicted by this custom. They argue that rings have to match, making consumers wary of getting wedding bands from competitors unable to match them exactly.

An exact twin of the engagement ring is a popular but uninspired choice. It is usually too dainty and insignificant to be worn by itself. The excessive wear and tear both rings inflict on each other works to the jewelers’ advantage. The friction causes the rings to wear each other out, leading to costly repairs, insurance claims, and more sales.

In the United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Brazil, Iran, Chile, Italy, France, Sweden, Slovenia, and other Commonwealth nations, a wedding band is generally worn on the left hand. In Germany, Greece, Russia, Spain, India, Colombia, Venezuela, and Poland, a wedding band is worn on the right hand.

Orthodox Christians and Eastern Europeans wear the wedding band on the right hand. In Belgium, the choice of the hand depends on the region of the country. In the Netherlands, Catholics wear the wedding ring on the left hand, all others on the right. In Austria, Catholics grace the right hand, but Old Catholics stubbornly use the left hand.

Jewish couples wear the wedding ring on the left hand, even though it is worn on the right hand during the marriage ceremony. Muslims adopted the tradition of wearing wedding rings from the West. While Muslims usually wear the wedding ring on the right hand, there is no set rule or customs. Male Muslims are allowed to wear a ring made from any material except gold. Platinum rings are allowed. In Scandinavia, a jeweler’s dreamland, women wear three rings: one for engagement, the second for wedding vows, and the third for motherhood.

There is no ideal solution, but there are a few possible compromises:
– Welding both rings together. The Frankenring does eliminate friction but makes the ring less elegant. The solution to soften the aesthetic blow is to separate them with a small gap (about 0.3 mm wide). The rings are connected with tiny, nearly invisible pins but appear to be independent.

– Curving the wedding band around the engagement ring. Move your melting clocks, Salvador Dali, for here comes “the melting ring.” The so-called “shadow bands” can be hard to find at high-end jewelers, but plenty are sold on the far side of the shopping mall. Look for a small store right between “Jack’s Closeouts” and “Going Out of Business” outlets.

– Using a spacer. A spacer can be a thin metal band between the engagement ring and the wedding band. Also, a spacer can fit the engagement ring precisely in a lock-and-key fashion while its other side is straight.

– Placing the setting on the top of the shank instead of fitting into it. That raises the center stone and eliminates the gallery.

– Adding tongue and groove connections, which are essentially small hooks to lock both rings and prevent them from grinding each other.

Engagement ring styles have evolved significantly from the past. Contemporary bridal rings are lighter, more delicate, and often set with many very small stones called pave.

Use extra care during the wear to avoid bumping your precious rings into hard surfaces.
Regularly clean the rings by gently brushing them in soupy lukewarm water.
Visit your jeweler at least once a year to clean, dry, and check for loose stones using professional equipment.
By minimizing direct contact between engagement and wedding rings, you can avoid irreversible damage caused by friction.

The Ancient Greeks were known to exchange rings as tokens of love and affection. The Romans turned it into a full-blown betrothal tradition. Placing the wedding ring on the fourth finger of the left hand originated with a romantic but mildly idiotic theory that a secret nerve or vein connects the finger directly to the heart.

A Roman grammarian and philosopher, Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius, got the idea from an unnamed Egyptian priest who insisted that the fourth finger is the most protected. How and where he used his fingers is lost to history. Macrobius went on to promote this “scientific fact” in the social media of the time: the public baths and bathrooms.

Pliny the Elder quotes: “It was the custom to wear rings only on the finger next to the little finger. You saw the statues of Numa and Servius Tullius, didn’t you? Later it became usual to put rings on the finger next to the thumb and even a little finger. Barbarian Gauls and Britons use the middle finger for this purpose. However, in Rome middle finger is the only one excluded. All other fingers are loaded with rings, smaller rings even being separately adapted for the smaller joints of the fingers.”

The prevailing Western custom of wearing the wedding band on the left hand’s fourth finger has existed since the fifteenth century. Isadore of Seville, writing in the early part of the seventh century, declared the fourth finger best suited for a betrothal ring. The Roman Empire likely followed this tradition to its end. The rules governing which side of the body is better suited for engagement and wedding rings have changed many times since Rome fell. Between the 11th and 15th centuries, French ecclesiastical rules placed the nuptial ring on the bride’s right middle finger, except in the rebellious diocese of Liège, which bravely used the fourth finger.

Teenage King Edward VI of England had decreed that the left hand’s third finger should be the ring finger. Luckily, he died from a lung infection at fifteen before making up more ridiculous rules. So until the Reformation, the ring sat on the left hand’s third finger. The 1549 edition of the Book of Common Prayer brought dramatic changes. It required all Protestants to wear the wedding ring on their left hand. These Catholics stuck with the ring on the right hand.

The hippies of the Italian Renaissance hung betrothal rings from necklaces or thin cords and even wore them on hats. The 1493 marriage of Pope Alexander VI’s illegitimate 13-year-old daughter Lucrezia Borgia to Giovanni Sforza was well recorded. The record specified that twin gold rings were set with precious stones and placed on the fourth finger of the left hand, “whose vein leads to the heart.” Apparently, the vein was blocked soon after that because they were divorced in just a few years. Giovanni signed a paper attesting to his impotence, a small price for freedom.

It was not unusual to wear the wedding ring on the thumb during the reign of George I of England (a German who could not speak a word of English), perhaps because enormously big rings were in fashion at the time. A ring was placed on the right hand’s fourth finger during the marriage ceremony. There were exceptions, such as noblemen entering morganatic marriage (marriage between a high noble and a crappy noble or, God forbid, a non-noble) would present his left hand to receive the ring, as in a “left-handed marriage.”

Chinese finger names

According to Chinese tradition, engagement rings are worn on the middle finger, while wedding rings are worn on opposite hands by the bride and the groom. The bride wears a band on her right hand, while the groom wears his on the left. The Chinese believe that a woman is in charge of the household, so her ring should be on her right hand. The right hand exerts influence according to the custom of “nan zhuo, nu you,” male left, female right.

In ancient Chinese philosophy:

  • The thumb represents the parents
  • The index finger represents siblings
  • The middle finger represents yourself
  • The ring finger represents a life partner
  • The little finger represents children

With your hands closed and all your fingertips touching, fold your middle fingers since they represent yourself. You can open your thumbs: your parents will not live with you forever. You can open your index fingers: your siblings will leave you to have their own life and family. You can also move your little fingers: your children will settle with their families. But it is impossible to separate the ring fingers because, as husband and wife, you are destined to be together forever.

In the words of Confucius, “it is harder to wiggle out of marriage than wander into it.” 摆脱婚姻比徘徊更难

illustration wedding band stackUniformed bands stacked together are usually immune from damage. As long as the bands are similar in height and have smooth sides, they are OK to stack. Any scratches resulting from wear can be polished off. An engraving on a band’s side will get burnished and disappear.

Promise rings evolved from medieval “posy rings” inscribed with excerpts from love poems and exchanged between lovers. Promise rings went out of fashion, but some are occasionally gifted by love-stricken adolescents who are not yet ready for a serious commitment. What is promised is not specified but assumed to be either a future engagement or sexual exclusivity. The Promise ring can be placed on any finger, but most often is worn on the ring finger.

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