We generally understand the engagement process that signifies an intention of marriage, but few of us realize that its origins go back a long way. In fact, they go back all the way to Abraham and early Jewish law, which makes the practice of engagement, sealed with a special ring, several thousand years old.
The actual Jewish rituals preceding marriage were complex and quite rigid in their way. There were two distinct parts, the betrothal or engagement ceremony and the actual marriage ceremony itself. The two ceremonies were originally usually separated by up to a year.
The concept of wearing a ring comes from Ancient Egypt where it symbolized a constant cycle. The reason for wearing an engagement ring on the fourth finger comes also from the Ancient Egyptian belief that the fourth finger had a vein leading directly to the heart, and the heart, of course, was considered the seat of love.
In early times the whole process of marriage was in many ways more like a business agreement than an emotional attachment. There was often a very good reason for this, as marriages between families was seen as a very convenient and effective way of securing business relations and keeping the peace.
Whether the two young people involved in the marriage actually loved each other was often immaterial, or at best, of secondary importance. That is not to say that people who married did not love each other. The emotions of people in early times were pretty much the same as they are today, and many marriages, while initially convenient for the families involved, blossomed into love and were very successful.
The Romans used betrothal rings in a similar way as today's engagement ring is used, but it wasn't really until 1215 and Pope Innocent III that engagement rings properly took off in the west. Pope Innocent III decreed that there should be a waiting period between the agreement to marry and the actual marriage ceremony. A ring was given to the bride-to-be to as a visible indication of her changed status.
The social standing of the couple was also indicated by the type of engagement ring worn. Only rich people had the right to wear rings encrusted with jewels. In fact, the first documented diamond engagement ring was one given by Archduke Maximilian of Austria to Mary of Burgundy in 1477.
Today, most couples in the west getting engaged do so with a diamond engagement ring. They can be expensive items, but are generally within reach of most people, and are no longer a reliable indication of a person's social status. However, it is comforting to note that the original meaning and symbolism placed on an engagement ring has remained more or less intact down the ages.