Rings

A photo of a stone set ancient ring, Late Roman Empire,2nd century AD-3rd Century AD
Museum of Art
Rhode Island School of Design
Museum Appropriation Fund
Photography by Erik Gould

Click on the above image for a larger detailed view

 

The ring has consistently been the most popular piece of jewelry. It has been said that the ring is "the article of jewelry around which centers tradition, antiquity, utility and symbolic meaning of the greatest reverential character." The eighteenth century English writer, Samuel Johnson, described the ring as "a circular instrument placed upon the noses of hogs and fingers of women to restrain them and bring them into subjection." Luckily, Sam Johnson was not always correct. It is obvious here that he had not studied his history of rings, for they took on many practical and ornamental purposes.

It should be mentioned here that only three cultures have been discovered that did not make use of rings in some form. From all available information, most notably the portraits and sculptures of the time, the Assyrians wore no rings.

Another society where its people wore no rings was the Celts of Ireland. In all the caches of jewelry that have been discovered on the emerald isle, no rings have ever been found which belonged to the Celts. There is another group for which rings hold no attraction, much to admiral Robert Pearyís dismay. On one of his first arctic trips, Peary left well-stocked with rings to barter with the Eskimos. When he arrived, Peary discovered he could not rid himself of them. The Eskimos have never worn, nor do they now wear, rings. Due to their severe climate even the slight pressure of a ring could impede circulation.

An atmosphere of magic and charm has always surrounded rings. There has been a strong believe that both good and bad spirits inhabited rings. One of the many charges levied against Joan díArc was that she owned rings of magic. Because of this feeling, it has been speculated that the greater use of rings was the outcome of convenience. The faith in the curative powers of stones and the protective powers attributed to some of them, induced their owners to carry the stones by setting them in circlets of gold, silver or bronze to be worn on their fingers. For instance, amethysts were supposed to keep one sober and turquoise would change color in the presence of poison.

Rings were extremely popular among the Romans. There were certain rules in the fashion of rings which were strictly observed. Plain signets and bronze rings were worn on either hand, but rings set with stones were considered effeminate if worn on the right hand. Gold rings could be worn on certain occasions, but they were set aside for iron signet rings when one attended a funeral. Wealthy Romans had rings that fit the seasons, with thin ones for summer and large imposing ones for winter. These large rings were most often hollow and could be easily crushed. Annulus natalitus were Roman birthday rings, only to be worn to celebrate ones birthday. It was also the custom for the matron of a roman household to wear a ring with a small key attached. This was a symbol of her authority over the house. By the middle of the first century, the fashion was to wear an extravagant amount of jewelry. Rings fit into this fashion by being worn on every finger, with different sized for each section of the finger.

A photo of a gorgous filigree Persian ring,13th century.

Museum of Art
Rhode Island School of Design
Gift of Mrs. Murray S. Danforth
Photography by Erik Gould

Click on the above image
 for a larger detailed view

Stone rings were not uncommon in ancient times. These were not metal rings set with stones, but rings cut from solid stone. Romans were fond of amber and jasper, worn primarily as amulets. Although the Celts were not ring wearers, prehistoric Ireland has left a history of rings of stone and jet.

During the middle ages rings engraved with the figures of saints were held in high regard. Precious stones were still used to give immunity. The most popular stone to be set in a ring was the sapphire. This magical blue stone was attributed with curing eye diseases, being a poison antidote, preserving the chastity of the wearer, and preventing poverty, betrayal or wrongful conviction. If all these things were true, its popularity was warranted. Medieval rings of silver have often been found, each being hammered by hand, for the drawing of wire was not known until the fourteenth century.

The first Anglo-Saxon rings were primitive bits of wire twisted into a hoop. The third finger of the right hand was known as the "gold finger," for this is where gold rings were worn as a badge of nobility. Later Anglo-Saxon rings were quite technical. Niello was often used extensively on gold and silver.

As rings began to take on more purposes, they are more clearly defined according to what they were used for, instead of the period in which they were found. The first practical use of rings was the signet or seal ring. They developed into full use under the Romans as a method of marking official parchment documents, taking the place of a manís personal signature. A man would also seal his valuables at home, of which historian Pliny noted that "a single ring upon the little finger was no more than an ostentatious advertisement that the owner has property nature under seal at home." The signet ring carried over in the Elizabethan times, for every merchant had his own distinctive seal with which to mark his bales of merchandise

Rings were not always used for good. Hannibal and Demostenes both wore poison rings. Although uncommon, these rings were not rare. Not only could they be used on "friends," but on oneself if the circumstances warranted. Cesare Borgia was noted for his lion ring. The lionís claws contained a poison that could give a very lethal handshake.

Hopefully his acquaintances wore plenty of turquoise.

During the renaissance, quantity was again desirable asset. Rings were not only worn three on each finger, but all over on chains. There were five basic types of rings created particularly in this time. The first of these shall be referred to as ecclesiastical rings. These were badges of office in which the stones played a significant role. Again, the stones had meanings: sapphires gave purity, rubies represented glory, emeralds tranquility and crystal simplicity. Papal rings were given to the popes ambassadors as an assurance of safe conduct. For further protection the rings were made of gilded bronze with paste stones, which all knowledgeable road bandits were aware of. The fishermanís ring is still given to the new pope, the previous popeís ring is crushed at his death and a new one produced. It is made of pure gold and engraved with the symbol of a boat in which st. Peter is represented seated.

For the laity, the favorite designs were of the skull and crossbones. Momento mori became the fashion under Henry II of France, with the idea of remembering death. These are not mourning jewels, for they do not represent a specific loss, but the idea of the inevitability of death.

Two other types of ecclesiastical rings were the reliquary rings and the decade ring. Inserted in the reliquary ring was the relic of a martyr or saint. In the sixteenth century, decade rings gained popularity. These rings, very prevalent among the laity, were knobbed to represent the beads of a rosary and were used for the same purpose.

The second type of ring is the curative or healing ring. On the whole, every society believed that the right kind of ring would heal the ills of the body, soul, or estate according to need. Some popular ones were the cramp ring, worn as a protection against cramps; and the toadstone, a fossilized tooth of a fish that was believed to have many medicinal virtues. An iron ring could cure intestinal problems and garnets were good for bee stings. People would buy these rings in a pharmacy type setting, lending even more credence to the beliefs. Even the simple moving of a ring from the middle finger of the left hand to the middle finger of the right would stop hiccoughs and sneezing.

The third category of rings began long before the renaissance, when the ring became the form of jewelry used to support the total weight of human emotions. These rings of romance were used for an emblem of joy, woe and all the interim emotions. In classical times there were betrothal and wedding rings. By the middle ages these rings were combined into just the wedding ring and was worn only on the right hand. The first change to the left hand was noticed in the book of common prayer of Edward VI (1549). Jewish wedding rings were just ceremonial, only worn on the day of the wedding. This is perhaps a practicality, as the ring consists of heavy metal with a gabled building or Solomon's temple attached.

Other sentimental rings have been popular. The gimmel ring gave the appearance of being a solid ring, but was in reality two rings that could be separated so that each lover could own half of the ring. Fede rings were similar to gimmel rings, only they were joined by clasped hands. Posy rings first developed in the middle ages and continued through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. On these rings were inscribed sentimental mottoes, more in a friendship than a lover vein. Engagement rings have taken the place of posy rings during the past two centuries. Corresponding with the posy rings were rings in which stones were set to spell out a word. For instance, lapis lazuli, opal, verde antique and emerald would spell out love.

The fourth category is a hodge-podge of gadget rings. Most of these rings were self explanatory, one being the compass ring and another a tobacco stopper. Perfume containers, similar to pomanders, were worn on rings and in the sixteenth century they worked in the same way as an atomizer. Rings were made into whistles, dials, watches and puzzles. Hindus rings were worn on the thumb and equipped with small mirrors. In sixteenth century England, small diamond rings were used for lovers to write messages on windows.

Token rings make up the last section of rings. These were given by kings, queens and others of influence, to their friends. In case of emergency, token rings could be a means of pardon or a symbol of protection from high sources. Also in this group are the royal signets, representing the seal of office. These kingly rings were ancient emblems of office, inseparable from the crown jewels. Royal rings were preserved as far in the past as the Assyrian, Egyptian and Jewish kings.

Rings worn simply for beauty became established in the eighteenth century. Rings became the vogue, especially after the development of the marquise setting. This gave the jeweler the opportunity to set in the bezel large cameos of Wedgwood, jasper gems and rare clusters of diamonds arranged in oval or oblong shapes.

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