This little perfect figure may seem to be a trifling matter on which to found an essay; and yet we shall find it connected with history and poetry. It is indeed, a small link, although it has bound together millions for better for worse, for richer for poorer, more securely than could the shackle wrought for a felon. An impression from it may have saved a or lost a kingdom. It is made the symbol of power; and has been the mark of slavery. Love has placed it where a vein was supposed to vibrate in the heart. Affection and friendship have wrought it into a remembrance; and it has passed into the grave upon the finger of a loved one. [1]

In existence for over six thousand years, rings appear in almost every culture of the world. In addition to satisfying purely decorative needs, rings have served a multitude of purposes, both practical and symbolic. Rings have been used to pledge one heart to another, to seal correspondences and authenticate documents. They have served to memorialize a friendship, honor the dead and as talismans to provide protection against the forces of evil. Rings have also been used as symbolic expressions of faith or as tangible evidence of power and wealth. So ubiquitous an item, rings of all periods have survived providing valuable historical insight into various cultures and as a timeline of major design themes and materials in jewelry history.

Ancient and Classical Rings

Ancient Egyptians are known to have worn scarab rings, carved from a variety of stones including lapis lazuli, amethyst, rock crystal and turquoise, threaded simply by a silver or gold wire. They were often engraved on the flat side of the scarab with decorative hieroglyphs, protective symbols, or titles;with a simple swivel the function of both signet and amulet were combined. During the period of the New Kingdom, (1559-1085 B.C.) Egyptian goldsmiths had progressed to casting all metal stirrup-shaped rings bearing the royal cartouche. These rings served not only as visible symbols of rank and power but as means to authenticate documents. Egyptians wore rings as signets or for religious and talismanic purposes and, although the materials were carefully worked and pleasing arrangements of stones and designs are evident, they were worn for a purpose rather than as mere decoration.

The ancient Greeks and Romans wore rings for a variety of different purposes, including purely ornamental ones. Scarab rings were worn by the Greeks as were signet rings engraved with motifs from nature and figures from mythology and literature. Bezels set with gems prized for their beauty, rarity and talismanic properties were worn, as were plain gold rings. Rings could also be ornately worked in wire, filigree and intricate pierced work, (opus interrasile).

In early Rome, during the Roman Republic, the first rings were made of iron and served as seals. The right to wear gold rings, the jus annuli aurei, was at first accorded only to senators and only while serving as ambassadors of the Republic. In time the right to wear rings of gold was awarded to all civilians. During the later years of the Roman Empire, both men and women came to wear heavy gold rings set with rare and costly gems in ever more conspicuous displays of wealth and status. While it had once been rare to wear more than one ring, by the first century AD each finger might be laden with multiple adornments.

The Greeks used rings as tokens of affection and love, frequently engraved with appropriate symbols such as depictions of Eros or Aphrodite. The custom of exchanging rings as tokens of betrothals however is believed to have originated with the Romans. Diana Scarisbrick writes:

Since it was customary to exchange rings to mark the agreement of a business contract, so a ring, the annulus pronubu, was given as a pledge of engagement to marriage-though, unlike the wedding rings of later periods, it did not signify that the union was permanently binding. According to Pliny this ring was originally of iron without a gem, but by the 2nd century AD all who could afford to use gold did so.[2]

Roman wedding rings often featured the image of two right hands clasped in symbolic representation of marriage and fidelity called dextrarum iunctio in Latin. In Roman symbolism, the right hand was considered sacred to Fides, the deity of fidelity – the motif reappears in the Middle Ages as the fede ring. According to ancient texts, the betrothal ring was worn on the fourth finger of the left hand in the belief that this finger had a vein, the vena amoris that flowed directly to the heart. Another motif used for betrothal rings was the marriage knot or knot of Hercules, a simple and symbolic design of two intertwined ropes that is probably the origin of the phrase "trying the knot".

Perhaps the ring style most associated with the Romans was the signet ring. Diana Scarisbrick notes that the wealth of Rome attracted the best and most skilled artists to engrave and set gems. Signet rings were used to seal official documents, with gemstone intaglios frequently engraved with the wearer’s portrait. They were also worn for purely decorative purposes and were often large and ornate. Aspects of everyday life, figures of gods and rulers and portraits of poets and philosophers were among the popular themes. Love was another favored theme and intaglios featuring the heads of lovers face to face were used in signet rings as marriage rings.

Rings of the Middle Ages

The most widely worn piece of jewelry, both by men and women in the Middle Ages was the ring. Decorative and easily worn, hands were often heavily bejeweled with each finger, including the thumb, adorned with several rings on different joints. Rings were sometimes worn in a variety of other ways as well; suspended by a cord or ribbon worn round the neck or tied round the arms, threaded onto rosaries or attached to a hat.[3] By the mid 1300s ring wearing was such a symbol of rank in Europe that sumptuary laws were introduced in an attempt to regulate their wearing at appropriate class levels. Gold and silver rings set with precious jewels were to be reserved for royalty and nobility and base metals such as pewter, gilt bronze and the copper alloy, latten were reserved for those of more quotidian origins.

Decorative rings, during this time were frequently made in a straightforward stirrup style in which a plain hoop inclines up to a bezel containing a gemstone. Most gems were cut en-cabochon until the fifteenth century and their uneven outlines were most easily set with a simple pronged claw setting or a collet setting pressed around the gem. By the fifteenth century settings had become more elaborate with a scalloped bezel surrounding the gem. This scalloped design was sometimes referred to as a "panse" by the English in reference to its flower like outline. [4] The bezel was sometimes supported by more decorative shoulders, worked with designs such as scrollwork, leaves, flowers and dragons and embellished with niello and enamel. As for the gemstones themselves, they were chosen not only for their intrinsic value and beauty but also for the talismanic properties they were thought to possess. Direct contact of the stone with the skin was believed to amplify these medicinal or amuletic benefits and rings were particularly suitable in this aspect. The author Marian Campbell writes of a few of these properties that medieval lapidaries ascribed to certain gems including:

…sapphires could expel envy, detect fraud and witchcraft. Rubies were believed to promote health, dispel bad thoughts, reconcile discord and combat lust. Emeralds were thought to be a cure for epilepsy, helpful for eye troubles and for increasing wealth. And the turquoise was believed to guard against poisoning and to prevent falls when out riding. The diamond (which takes its name from the Greek adamas, meaning invincible or untamed) gave courage, as well as protection from nightmares.[5]

Surviving examples of medieval rings indicate that the most popular gemstones were sapphires, garnets, rubies, amethysts and rock crystal and to a lesser extent, diamonds.[6]

Signet rings were used extensively during the Middle Ages in authenticating messages, sealing business documents and personal letters and as marks designating guilds and merchants. The intaglios carved by the ancient Roman and Greek craftsmen were particularly prized and spurred a revival in the craft of hardstone carving in the 13th century. Bezel and hoops were frequently engraved with the owner's name and various phrases in Latin or French. Rounded capitals, known as Lombardic script was used up to c. 1350 and from then until after 1500, the lettering used in inscriptions was in the spikier Gothic style of script. A significant development in signet rings during this period was the use of heraldry as a distinguishing design. The earliest examples are thought to be Italian but by the 15th century heraldic signets displaying coats of arms and other insignia were widely worn by all who were entitled to do so. A notable enhancement was the foiled crystal insignia in which the brightly colored coat of arms was painted underneath the engraved crystal keeping the colors intact when pressed into wax.

The Middle Ages saw the flowering of chivalry and courtly love. Rings of friendship and love were popular and were frequently inscribed with sentiments of affection. The fashionable posy ring was a hoop of gold with a short poem, a “poesie”, inscribed on the band in either Latin or more typically, in French, the language of romance. Many of the phrases are often repeated suggesting that jewelers carried an inventory of the more popular stock phrases. Some of the favored poesies include mon cuer avez(you have my heart), due tout mon couer (with all my heart), and amor vinicit omnia (love conquers all). More elaborate versions were decorated with simple enameled designs of leaves, flowers and teardrops, expressive of tender emotions. Those with means also used gemstones, most particularly if the ring was to be used as a symbol of marriage. Another popular ring of sentiment during this era was the gimmel ring (from the Latin gemellus for twin) made of entwined double or triple hoops that represented the bonds of friendship and love. Believed to be French in origin, they were often combined with the fede motif of ancient Rome which had made a reappearance as a marriage ring as early as the 12th century in England. Another marriage ring that was created during the Middle Ages was the Jewish marriage ring. Most often made of richly enameled and filigreed gold, these rings featured fully dimensional miniature houses symbolizing the nuptial home or the Temple of Jerusalem. As such, they were reserved for symbolic use during the marriage ceremony being too unwieldy to wear on a daily basis.

Rings of the Renaissance

The Renaissance was the era of the goldsmith. In contrast to the relative simplicity of the Middle Ages, gold work during the renaissance reached new levels of craftsmanship and design. As the art of sculpture and painting reached new heights of mastery, the jeweler’s bench was considered the best training ground to achieve the depth of detail and precision that characterized the eras most accomplished artists. Indeed acclaimed artists such as the painter and sculptor Donatello, the painter Botticelli and the sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini all trained as goldsmiths. This virtuosity was apparent in all types of jewelry but most particularly the ring. As Diana Scarisbrick notes, rings were often submitted as masterpieces by craftsmen seeking admission to the guild of goldsmiths. Influenced by the interest in sculpture and painting, rings were often decorated in arabesque motifs with sculptured shoulders of figural and floral designs and extravagantly enameled in increasingly sophisticated techniques including en ronde bosse. Bezels, were of symmetrical quatrefoil or even multifoil floral design and often chased and enameled. Along with the more elaborate settings another innovation was the hinged ring containing compartments for scented materials or even reliquaries. Perfume rings were a particularly useful design in counteracting the daily olfactory assaults of this period ( in another version they could also be used to conceal poison such as the rings that the infamous Borgias reportedly used to such ill effect) Colored stones remained popular with all who could afford them and the most desired stones were ruby sapphire and emerald. Rings as in medieval times were worn on every finger and on multiple joints. The high fashion of the late Renaissance included elaborate neck ruffs, large padded sleeves and cuffs that limited the forms of jewelry that could be worn. Rings on the other hand were unencumbered by these fashions and could be freely worn.

The more decorative Renaissance signet rings featured portrait intaglios of contemporary European rulers such as Henry VIII of England. Roman emperors and other classical subjects were even more popular themes and gems, either newly carved by masterful artists or preserved from antiquity, were greatly prized and set in highly carved and enameled settings. Heraldic signet rings of a more practical working nature tended to be set in simpler, more functional settings. These were treasured though as heirlooms representing family lineage and bloodlines. The bloodstone was deemed a particularly appropriate gemstone for this purpose. Signet rings featuring the marks of guilds or merchants were appropriately plain and serviceable for heavy use. Initial rings were also popular and were more elaborately designed with the initials linked by knots or forget me not flowers. In some cases they were given as marriage rings with the betrothed’s initials entwined together.

Love and friendship rings retained many of the same themes and forms as from the Middle Ages albeit in more elaborately worked settings. Cupid with his bow and arrow and hearts are two of the familiar motifs used. More unusual was that of a stag eating dittany, a herb that was believed to cure wounds, including those caused by love’s arrow. Diana Scarisbrick also writes of the loyal and faithful dog, adopted as a symbol of fidelity between lovers. The posy ring now had its inscriptions, which were increasingly in roman capitals, hidden inside the band and was used as both a token of love and as a wedding band. Gimmel rings, frequently decorated with a fede motif, had inscriptions both without and within the bands and more elaborate examples had three or more hoops which could accommodate longer inscriptions and more intricate designs. The more valuable gimmel rings featured gemstones either in contrasting or uniform color blocks and in rarer cases, memento mori figures were secreted within compartments underneath the stones.

Reminders of impending mortality have long been a theme in jewelry, most particularly in rings. In the ancient world, such symbols as skeletons, skulls and most poetically, figures of cupid holding a symbolic torch of life upside down were commonly used. Aphorisms relating to the transient nature of life and its fleeting pleasures usually accompanied the imagery. The Middle Ages infused memento mori themes with an emphasis on living a just and moral life in anticipation of divine judgment. The Renaissance continued in this tradition and rings were decorated with coffins, skeletons, hourglasses and most frequently, skulls. During the Renaissance memento mori themes were also used in signet rings, some with bezels that rotated from intaglios to a death’s head, and wedding rings with both fede and memento mori motifs have been found. Diana Scarisbrick describes one particularly imposing 16th century ring:

The most elaborate surviving example has a locket bezel in the form of a book, the cover centered on a skull midst toads and snakes, recalling the biblical quotation ‘For when a man is dead he shall inherit creeping things, beasts and worms’. Inside appropriate quotations from the Bible are inscribed on the back of the lid, above a sleeping child, an hourglass and a skull [7]

Seventeenth Century Rings

Towards the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, a marked change in jewelry and ring styles took place. Just as the renaissance period was highlighted by ornate gold settings this era was distinguished by a growing emphasis on the gemstone. Refinements in cutting and foiling techniques resulted in a greater diversity of shapes and an emphasis on displaying the beauty of the gems themselves. Enamel is now typically used only as an accent in either white or black and while gold is still used for colored gemstones, diamonds are set off in silver. Large stones are now worn and set as solitaires while arrangements of smaller stones are set in a myriad of shapes including stars, rosettes and cruciforms. Details on the shoulders are kept subdued and most often as an engraved foliate motif simply enhanced by black and white enamel.

The prevalence of death was an inescapable part of everyday life in the 1700s. Continued plagues, widespread poverty, famine and war; all these Malthusian factors served to keep death a common presence and the wearing of memento mori rings popular. A variety of ring styles were used with memento mori themes including signets, wedding rings with a skull between two hands, and locket rings featuring skulls and crossbones. As with other rings, gemstones if affordable, added an element of less austere ornamentation. By the second half of the seventeenth century, memento mori imagery began to merge with the mourning ring. Distributed according to wills, seventeenth century mourning rings were inscribed with details such as the individual’s name, initials, coat of arms and date of death. A plain gold band or band of gold enameled all the way around in emblems of death and burial, with an inner inscription were characteristic. Locks of hair were sometimes contained in locket bezels or in hollow hoops. The increasing popularity of bequeathing mourning rings is generally attributed to the execution of the English King Charles I in 1649. Supporters of the monarchy, wore jewelry, most often rings, made of a flat topped quartz crystal which covered a gold wire cipher or crown set upon a background of plaited hair. This style known as Stuart Crystals would continue to be popular into the 18th century.

Ring Styles
Engagement Eternity Fede Gimmel
Gypsy Hololith Lace Lover's Knot
Memorial Mizpah Mourning Posy
Promise Puzzle Signet Solitaire
Trinity Band Regard

Articles of Interest


  1. Edwards P 10.
  2. Scarisbrick.
  3. Bury p.9
  4. Campbell p.16
  5. Campbell P 33.
  6. Campbell p. 28
  7. Scarisbrick p. 164.

Sources Consulted

  • Becker, Vivienne. Antique and Twentieth Century Jewellery. Second Edition. Colchester, Essex:N.A.G. Press Ltd, 1987.
  • Bury, Shirley. Victoria & Albert Museum: An Introduction to Rings. Owing Mills, Maryland: Stemmer House. Publishers, Inc., 1984.
  • Campbell, Marian. Medieval Jewellery in Europe 1100-1500. London: V & A Publishing, 2009.
  • Dawes, Ginny Redington & Collings, Olivia. Georgian Jewellery 1714-1830. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors' Club, 2007.
  • Edwards, Charles. The History and Poetry of Finger-Rings. New York. Redfield, 1855. LaVergne, TN. Kessinger Publishing's Legacy Reprints, 2010.
  • Scarisbrick, Diana. Rings: jewelry of Power, Love and Loyalty. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd., 2007.
  • Tait, Hugh, Editor. 7000 Years of Jewellery. London: British Museum Press, 1986.