A European tradition encourages the engraving of the name of one's intended spouse and the date of one's intended marriage on the inside surface of wedding rings, thus strengthening the symbolism and sentimentality of the rings as they become family heirlooms.
Among Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christians, the exchange of rings is not technically part of the wedding service, but rather are exchanged at the betrothal. It is always a two-ring ceremony. Traditionally, the groom's ring will be made of gold, and the bride's ring made of silver, and are blessed by the priest with holy water. The priest blesses the groom with the bride's ring, and places it on the ring finger of his left hand; he then blesses the bride with the groom's ring and places it on her finger. The rings are then exchanged three times either by the priest or by the best man. While in modern times, the ceremony of betrothal is often performed immediately before the wedding (or "crowning" as it is more properly called), the actual symbolic act of marriage is not the exchange of rings, but the placing of crowns on the head of the bride and groom, and their partaking three times of the "common cup".
In British tradition, the best man has a traditional duty of keeping track of a marrying couple's wedding ring(s) and to produce them at the symbolic moment of the giving and receiving of the ring(s) during the traditional marriage ceremony.
In more elaborate weddings, a ring bearer (usually a young boy that is part of the family of the bride or groom) may assist in the ceremonial parading of the ring(s) into the ceremony, often on a special cushion or pillow(s).
In older times, the wedding rings did not only signify a sign of love, but were also linked to the bestowal of 'earnest money'. According to the prayer book of Edward VI: after the words 'with this ring I thee wed' follow the words 'This gold and silver I give thee', at which point the groom was supposed to hand a leather purse filled with gold and silver coins to the bride.
Not only in England was the wedding ring considered more connected to the exchange of valuables at the moment of the wedding than a symbol of eternal love and devotion but in most other European countries as well. Sometimes it went as far as being a conditional exchange as this German formula shows: 'I give you this ring as a sign of the marriage which has been promised between us, provided your father gives with you a marriage portion of 1000 Reichsthalers'.
In some European countries, the wedding ring is the same as the engagement ring and changes its status through engraving and the change of the hand on which to wear it. If the wedding ring is different from the engagement ring, the question whether or not the engagement ring should be worn during the ceremony leaves a few options. The bride may wear it on her left ring finger and have the groom put the wedding band over it. She may also wear it on her right ring finger. The bride may also continue wearing the rings on different hands after the wedding – this may prevent the engagement ring from scratching and scuffing. Another option is to have the main bridesmaid keep the ring during the ceremony – there are a variety of ways to keep it: in a pouch, on a plate, etc. After the ceremony, the ring can be placed back on either the left or the right hand.
In other countries such as Serbia, Germany, Norway, Greece, Russia, Spain, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ukraine, and Poland, however, it is worn on the right hand. Orthodox Christians and Eastern Europeans also traditionally wear the wedding band on the right hand. Jewish couples wear the wedding ring on the left hand, even though it is placed on the right hand during the marriage ceremony. In The Netherlands, Catholic people wear it on the left, all others on the right; in Austria, Catholic people wear it on the right. In Belgium, the choice of hand depends on the region of the country. Greek people, many being Orthodox Christians, also wear the wedding rings on the right hand in keeping with Greek tradition. A traditional reason to wear the wedding ring on the right hand stems from Roman custom. The Latin word for left is "sinister", which in addition to this sense also has the same senses as the English word. The Latin word for right is "dexter", a word that evolved into "dexterity". Hence, the left hand had a negative connotation and the right a good one.
Traditionally, in some parts of India among those practicing Hinduism, a toe ring or bichiya is worn instead of a ring on a finger, although this is only for women, and increasingly worn along with a finger ring. In the eastern parts of India, primarily West Bengal, an iron bangle, or 'loha' is worn by women. Increasingly, this bangle is given a gold or silver coating to improve its appearance.
Although in law, and in most religions, a marriage ends on first death, conventions (and perceived symbolism) around the wearing of wedding rings after a partner's death vary considerably. Traditions include the surviving spouse continuing to wear their own wedding ring after their partner's death, but on the ring finger of the other hand; removing their wedding ring at their partner's funeral; and taking charge of, and wearing (sometimes on the same finger as their own), their dead partner's ring. In many cultures, the length of time and way in which a surviving spouse wears their ring is not dictated by a common custom, but varies by family tradition and choice of the surviving spouse.
The double-ring ceremony, or use of wedding rings for both partners, is a relatively recent innovation. The American jewellery industry started a marketing campaign aimed at encouraging this practice in the late 19th century. Learning from marketing lessons of the 1920s, changing economic times, and the impact of World War II, led to a more successful marketing campaign, and by the late 1940s, double-ring ceremonies made up for 80% of all weddings, as opposed to 15% before the Great Depression.
One interpretation states that the woman wears the wedding ring below the engagement ring, thus making it closer to the heart. Another practice holds that the woman should wear the wedding ring above the engagement ring, thus sealing the atmosphere of the engagement into the marriage. Still others prefer that the wedding ring should be worn alone. Further, modern ring sets in the United States are often marketed as a three-piece set, including the man's wedding band, the woman's engagement ring, and a slender band that is mounted to the engagement ring before the wedding, converting it into a single, permanent wedding ring.
Most religious marital ceremonies accept a band of any material to symbolize the making of marriage vows.
To make wedding rings, jewellers most commonly use a precious yellow alloy of gold, hardened with copper, tin and bismuth. Platinum and white alloys of gold are also used, although the slightly yellow "white" gold alloys of the past have been largely replaced by a cheaper nickel-gold alloy, covered with a thin plating of rhodium which must be reapplied after some years of wear. Titanium has recently become a popular material for wedding bands, due to its durability, affordability, and gunmetal grey colour. Tungsten carbide, often with gold or platinum inlays, is recently being used as well. The least expensive material in common use is nickel silver for those who prefer its appearance or cost. Marrying couples are also beginning to use stainless steel, which has the same durability as platinum or titanium, and can accept a finer finish than the latter. Silver, copper, brass and other cheaper metals do not occur as frequently because they corrode over time and thus do not convey a sense of permanence. Aluminium is almost never used.
A plain gold band is the most popular pattern. Medical personnel commonly wear it because it can be kept very clean. Women usually wear narrow bands, while men wear broader bands.
In France and French-speaking countries, a common pattern consists of three interwoven rings. They stand for the Christian virtues of "faith, hope and love", where "love" equates to that particular type of perfect disinterested love indicated by the ancient Greek word agape. Provocatively, this pattern slides off quickly, because the rings flow over each other.
Women in Greek and Anatolian (comprising most of modern Turkey) cultures sometimes receive and wear puzzle rings – sets of interlocking metal bands that one must arrange just so in order to form a single ring. Traditionally, men wryly gave them as a test of their woman's monogamy. However, with time and practice it takes little effort to re-make the puzzle and any intelligent woman can learn.
In North America and some European countries, many married women wear two rings on the same finger: an engagement ring and a plain wedding band. Couples often purchase such rings as a pair of bands designed to fit together. In addition, some women who have been married a long time wear three rings on their finger (from hand to tip): a wedding band, an engagement ring, and an eternity ring. This three-ring combination is especially common in the UK.
Engraving wedding bands is also becoming very popular in the United States.
Celtic-style wedding bands have become more popular in the U.S., Canada and other English-speaking countries with large numbers of people claiming Irish or Scottish descent. This style of wedding band will often be engraved or embossed with a Celtic knot design, which is meant to symbolize oneness and continuity. Sometimes a Claddagh design is also used to symbolize fidelity.
Russian wedding rings are traditionally three interlocking bands of rose, white and yellow gold, worn on the right hand.