The most unusual engagement rings in history

With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, what better time to seal the eternal bond between you and your loved one with a glistening engagement ring? If 2020 and 2021 have highlighted anything, it’s that life should be treasured and love celebrated

11 February 2022

By Joshua Hendren

Chocolates get eaten, flowers die, but jewellery is forever. If 2020 and 2021 have highlighted anything, it’s that life should be treasured and love celebrated. So, with Valentine’s Day on the horizon, what better time to seal the eternal bond between you and your loved one with a glistening engagement ring?

Like so many of our customs today, engagement rings can be traced all the way back to Ancient Rome: Roman brides were given a gold ring to wear in public and a ring of iron, ivory, flint, bone or copper to wear at home. In the 1700s, sterling silver poesy rings were popular in Europe, while in New England, Puritan men renounced the traditional style in favour of thimbles, in which their betrothed would slice off the top and wear the rim as a wedding band. Fast-forward to 1947 when De Beers launched its now classic slogan, “A Diamond is Forever”, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today, sales of engagement rings have sky-rocketed due to lockdown, with interest in statement and off-kilter styles especially. From multi-coloured stones in sapphires, emeralds and rubies to unique settings and sculptural forms, those looking to tie the knot are increasingly taking the unconventional route to mark their marriage. So, if you’re on a last-minute hunt for the perfect token of your love this Valentine’s, be inspired by these famously non-traditional engagement bands of past and present.

Katharina von Bora, the wife of protestant reformer Martin Luther, is a shining example of a remarkable woman with an equally exceptional eye for bridal gems. In addition to leading the Protestant Reformation and altering the course of Western history, Katharina was not afraid to flaunt her unique taste in bling. Her golden engagement ring features a finely chased pierced band formed as a crucifix, topped off with a stunning blood-red ruby. As a hidden touch, the inside of the band is engraved with the couples’ initials and wedding date. What is said to be her original ring lives at the Stadtgeschichtliches museum in Leipzig, Germany. 

Engagement Ring of Katharina Von Bora, 1stdibs (1)

If gothic glamour isn’t your thing, Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais’ elegant Toi et Moi ring offers striking inspiration. One of the most influential royal rings of the 19th-century, the unusual design was exchanged by Empress Joséphine and Napoleon Boneparte in 1796. The Toi et Moi ring, which translates to ‘you and me’ in French, describes a particular ring with two gemstones nestled side-by-side on a curved band. Empress Joséphine’s ring came crafted in gold, with a delicate shank holding a pear-shaped sapphire and an antique pear-shaped diamond, each weighing just under 1-carat. While the couple divorced in 1810, the ring is still a coveted symbol of romance and love, selling for just under $1 million at French auction house Osenat in 2013.

Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais’ toi et moi ring

Perhaps less conventional by today’s standards is Queen Victoria’s 18-carat gold serpent engagement ring. Designed by Prince Albert and presented in 1839, the head of the serpent was adorned with rubies for the eyes, diamonds for the mouth, as well as a large emerald set at the centre, representing Queen Victoria’s birthstone. While a serpent may seem an unusual choice for an engagement ring, it is an ancient Roman symbol for everlasting love and was a popular expression of adoration during these times. Certainly, an interesting style to bear in mind this Valentine’s Day.

And who could forget the iconic wedding bands of Hollywood icon Audrey Hepburn? Presented by Hepburn’s beau, Mel Ferrer, in August 1954 in a garden overlooking Lake Lucerne in Switzerland, the trio of thin-banded rings, in three different colours of gold, were meant to be stacked or worn separately but more often than not, Audrey wore them together. Far smaller than most of the celebrity engagement rings of today, Hepburn’s wedding bands offer a fun, versatile take on the traditional style, and are a perfect minimalist choice for those who are wanting a piece that is the very definition of simple. 

It’s not just royalty and silver screen starlets serving up inspiration, however. The celebrities of today are no stranger to experimenting with materials and shape when it comes to engagement jewellery. When Orlando Bloom proposed to Katy Perry on Valentine’s Day in 2019, he did so with a unique (and sizable) flower-shaped ring. Known as a cluster ring, the one-of-a-kind sparkler features a deep pink centre stone surrounded by a ring of eight smaller diamonds. Set on a delicate yellow gold shank, the floral-inspired style is anything but conventional. 

Katy Perry’s Cluster Ring

The same could be said of Kristen Stewart’s heavy metal engagement band. Crafted in platinum with a brushed finish, the ring is sleek, edgy and diamond-free with a flat tabletop design that drops off into the curve of the band, giving a modern twist on the classic signet.

But, if gemstones are a necessity, look no further than Meghan Fox’s sparkling Toi et Moi engagement ring created by Stephen Webster and presented by Machine Gun Kelly under the banyan tree where they first started their relationship two years ago. The design comprises two bands made in 18-carat white gold. Punctuating the centre are two perfectly coordinated pear-shaped gems: one D-colour antique cut diamond and an untreated Colombian emerald encircled by colourless pavé diamonds. 

Stephen Webster moi et toi ring for Meghan Fox

Whether you’re looking for minimalist jewellery with maximum impact or romantic gemstones that are any but clichéd, these famous alternatives to the classic engagement ring are certainly styles to take note of as we approach the most romantic season of all. 

Like this? See our choice of alternative engagement rings