Marriage, ideally, is something that is without end, just like the closed circle of a wedding band. Engagement rings, wedding bands and wedding rings symbolically promise an eternity shared between two people who love each other.
There are three different types of wedding jewelry. The engagement ring, usually featuring a diamond, is given at the time of the proposal. The wedding band is given during the marriage ceremony. And the wedding ring, which is really a more ornate wedding band, can be given at the ceremony or as a gift later on (such as for an anniversary).
Several ancient cultures looked at the circle as never-ending and its center as a doorway to an unknown and promising future. It's believed that the original tradition of the wedding band was started in Egypt nearly 5,000 years ago. At that time, the band was made from reeds woven together into a circle.
Eventually, rings were made from other, more-durable materials, such as leather, bone, ivory and wood. Expensive rings became status symbols. Romans made betrothal rings of iron for permanence and engraved the metal to show their ownership of the women they claimed.
Around A.D. 860, the church started using ornate metal rings as part of marriage ceremonies, but in the 13th century the church discouraged the use of showy ring, preferring simple bands to signify a pure union. Some cultures today still dictate that a wedding band be plain, to emphasize that the union is for love and not for riches.
Modern couples have a variety of band materials to choose from, including gold (yellow, rose or white), platinum, zirconium, tungsten, titanium, steel and ceramic. While diamonds are the most traditional for engagement rings, many other precious gemstones can be used. Many brides-to-be also give their fiances gemstone engagement rings. The couple should look at the cut, color and clarity of the stone. A reputable jeweler can advise about the quality of gemstones.
Aside from personal aesthetic preferences, other factors should be considered when choosing wedding bands and rings, such as one's work, lifestyle and budget. Tungsten carbide is exceptionally strong, scratch-resistant and hypoallergenic, making it a good choice for someone who uses his hands a lot, such as a building contractor. While silver is a popular and economical choice, it will tarnish faster and is also more pliable. This may not be a good choice if one's work or activities put a lot of stress on the hands.
In different time periods and cultures, the wedding band has been worn on different fingers and on either hand. There have been varying explanations given for which finger gets adorned by the ring, such as the location being more protected from work and weather. You may have heard that a vein runs from the fourth finger on the left hand directly to the heart and that the wedding ring is placed there to keep the wearer and the ring giver close to the heart. But this is not true. The artery considered the closest bloodline to the heart actually runs in the right index finger (which is where the ring is worn during Jewish wedding ceremonies).
Whether the husband wears a ring has also changed over time. In the United States it wasn't popular to place matching rings on the bride and groom until World War II, when the sentiment arose that wearing a ring kept spirits up, reminding a soldier he had someone to return home to. Nowadays there are more double-ring ceremonies than single in America.
Fittingly, although the materials, styles and customs of wedding bands and rings have changed over the years, the symbolism has remained the same: Marriage is a never-ending bond.