The circular form surrounding the finger without beginning or end was subject to numerous beliefs and superstitions. Even if the finger ring initially served a decorative purpose, of all types of jewelry, it has possibly the most personal of meanings for the wearer. Finger rings were worn as a sign of wealth, power, and love and given for special occasions marking various stages of the wearer's life. Rarely can the wearer be identified, yet the choice of symbols, materials, or stones of a ring often identify the function or occasion to which a finger ring adorned the wearer's hand, and tells a personal story.
The ring is a very compact form of jewel, with its dimensions determined by the size of the finger and thus confining the maker to work in a miniature scale. Despite the rigidly restricted form based on the finger, the diversity of the designs throughout the millennia is proof of the wealth of artistic imagination. The small dimensions are also challenging for the jewelry historian, who is often confronted with only minute details to give a precise date to a piece. Unlike any other type of jewelry, the shape of the finger ring has never been dependent on any dress fashions, yet in every civilization their designs mirror the heritage and contemporary art styles of the period or region.
Pictorial images illustrating how rings were worn on the hand are rare in antiquity, either on mummies of Ancient Egypt or tomb sculptures of the Etruscan and Roman periods, more revealing though are portraits of men, women, and children in Western Art from the fifteenth century onward.
Finger rings may have existed since early humankind, yet many of the organic materials used in the prehistoric era, such as bones, shells and plants, would not have survived. Earliest known examples go back to the Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia of the third millennium B.C.E. Decorative examples of gold with inlaid lapis-lazuli or carnelian are very rare; more common are the stamp and cylinder seals of the Ancient Near East, generally made of stone with gold caps and swivel hoops, from which the signet ring, the oldest form of finger ring originated. The early signets had a distinctive function, at a time when the art of writing was known to few; they served as a guarantee of authenticity or ownership, and were used for trade as well as for legal transactions. While wax seals are generally a thing of the past, as late as the 2000s the signet ring remains unchanged.
In the Middle Kingdom of Ancient Egypt in the second millennium B.C.E., the cylinder seal ring developed into a form that was to dominate Egyptian finger rings for many centuries, that of the scarab, the dung beetle carved in gemstones, such as lapis-lazuli, obsidian, jasper, faience or glass imitations, with a drill hole and either a cord or gold wire running through the beetle and encir-cling the finger. The hoops and settings became more elaborate in their design, yet the basic shape remained the same: the scarab could be swiveled on its mount to use the engraved underside for sealing, and the beetle was worn as a decorative ornament on the finger. A scarab with the engraved name of its owner, such as that of the pharaoh or priest, was worn for its magical qualities as a good-luck charm.
The scarab on the revolving bezel was a ring type copied by the Phoenicians, Etruscans, and Greeks, as well as the heavy gold stirrup rings of Ancient Egypt with cartouche-shaped bezels. These were refined in Ancient Greece, and the shapes became more varied and the decorations intricate. The bezel in either gold, silver, bronze, or set with a gemstone, illustrated mythological scenes or beasts transmitting the attributes of deities or the diligence and strength of the animals to the wearer. During the Hellenistic period, rings became fancy, the gold intricate, and settings for stones more elaborate, and the function tended to be decorative.
With the love for gemstones and their availability through newly opened trade routes, the art of cutting gems evolved in ancient Greece and later in ancient Rome, where a stone became an essential element of the ring. The motifs incised as intaglios or carved in relief showed apart from mythological figures, subjects from literature, theater, and everyday life to assist or mark momentous occasions or provide good luck. During the early Roman period, iron rings were common among all classes, and later were only worn by slaves and soldiers, and as betrothal rings. Even though the Greeks had love rings, the Romans appear to be the first to have introduced the betrothal ring given by the prospective husband as a warranty or pledge of marriage. The early examples were circles made of iron. In the second and third centuries C.E. with the ever-expanding Roman Empire and newly acquired wealth, social structures had changed, and this was very much reflected in the bold proportions and designs of heavy gold betrothal rings with devices such as Hercules knots (love knots), the dextrarum iunctio showing two right hands clasped together (both motifs continued into the nineteenth century), and other erotic symbols. The ring became a display of luxury and status, even remarked on in contemporary accounts. By the Roman period, jewelry was accessible to a wider range of social classes, but with the new wealth, restrictions were imposed as to who was allowed to wear gold or silver.
The early Christians used late Roman ring shapes, mainly in gilt bronze or silver, and replaced the pagan divinities and other heathen symbols with Christian motifs as a sign of their allegiance to the new faith; these included the Chi-Rho monogram of Christ, a fish, a dolphin and Agnus Dei. The Byzantines, in turn, adopted in silver and gold with niello, the Christian ring forms and symbols. The iconography, however, was expanded to include images of the Virgin and Child, numerous saints, crosses with coded personal monograms of the owners and scenes-such as the marriage ritual with the couple being blessed by Christ-and also sacred Greek inscriptions. Splendid gold rings from the Byzantine period, with high bezels in ornately pierced gold set with sapphires, garnets, and pearls, also exist. These decorative specimens, which exemplify the goldsmithing art and the technique of inlaying stones of the Byzantines, influenced the numerous tribes crossing Europe during the early Middle Ages.
From the twelfth century onward, while the wearing of finger rings was not restricted to any social classes, the use of gold or certain gemstones was limited by each country according to its sumptuary laws. Many pieces have survived through hoards all over Europe. While it is fascinating to observe the international style of many medieval ring types, it is almost impossible to determine the place of manufacture without knowledge of the provenance. Design ideas often with high constructed bezels appear to have traveled with the trade of gemstones from the Orient. Diamonds, sapphires, rubies, spinels, and amethysts in cabochon cut were favored by the church clerics as a sign of rank. Devotional images, such as various cross forms, the Virgin Mary, and symbolic beasts such as the Pelican and her Piety, often complemented Greek and Latin inscriptions to be worn by the devout. Figures of saints or relics in rings were thought to have protective or curative powers against cramps, fevers, epilepsy, or illnesses of the eyes, kidneys, or whatever ailment the wearer had.
Rings with amorous symbols and messages of love, often in French as the international language of the courts, were popular during the medieval and Renaissance periods. They were worn as signs of affection in courtship and later in marriage. One of the most widespread is the fede ring (Italian for "trust") with two right hands in gold clasped to indicate the pledge of troth, known in Roman times and continued well into the nineteenth century. Rubies and diamonds in table-cut were traditionally symbolic of love and constancy and only affordable by the wealthy. Gimmel rings (gemellus is Latin for "twin") with twin bezels served as settings for this traditional combination, and to underline the significance, figures of lovers or hearts united were combined with inscriptions, such as "What God hath joined together, let man not put asunder" (Matthew 19:6) in Latin or the language of the country of origin. The exchange of marriage rings during the ceremony instead of giving a ring as a pledge of betrothal varied from country to country. The engagement ring, as is known today, was more of an invention of the nineteenth century with the diamond cluster rings.
Whether in gilt bronze, silver, or heavy gold, or even in the splendor of engraved rock crystal with colored foils beneath the heraldry, the signet became a status symbol for all. Even the merchant, gaining ever more influence from the fifteenth century onward, copied the aristocratic codes and practice, and wore a family coat of arms, merchant's mark, or guild rings, taking pride in his profession and position in society.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, signet rings occasionally had a double-sided bezel, which could be swiveled to include a memento mori motif-a death's head, miniature skeleton, or hourglass-and symbols of decay with creeping things, such as worms, reminding people of their transience and preparing them for death.
Mourning rings were popular from about the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, in particular during the baroque period and eighteenth century. Memorial rings with commemorative inscriptions and portraits of the deceased became fashionable, and mourning rings were given at funerals as a token of remembrance; these were black or dark blue in combination with white enamel surrounding the name of the deceased person and their birth and death dates. In the late eighteenth century, memorial rings reached a peak together with the ritual of mourning. Large elaborate bezels illustrated death through symbols such as the broken column, the obelisk, with the most popular being the funerary urn derived from antiquity. These were often accompanied by weeping willows, cypresses, faithful dogs, and lamenting women in classical drapery, either diamond-studded or made of the hair of the deceased, against a dark blue enamel or glass over an engine-turned background.
In contrast to this, the eighteenth century showed an abundance of fancy rings, with hearts entwined in rubies and diamonds, billing doves, love knots, flowers tied with ribbons or filling a basket, and other themes of nature, masquerade or games in polychrome choice of stones. The decorative feature of the ring culminated in the multilayered bezels and clusters of stones in rose-cut and other fancy cuts that became stylish in the eighteenth century, which continues to be popular in the early twenty-first century.
In the nineteenth century, the ring was characterized by romantic iconography with symbols of sentiment and inscriptions: the language of flowers, such as forget-me-nots for memory; from the animal world, snakes as a sign of eternity, butterflies for vanity, or miniature envelopes and purses enclosing love declarations; and the language of stones, such as the turquoise serving as a token of friendship and affection.
As historical portraits of rulers or heroes show, rings were worn as a sign of political allegiance, but they also depicted scenes of historic political events such as the French Revolution or the Napoleonic Wars. Rings also signify allegiance to social groups and institutions.
A small, yet fascinating group of rings exist that are used for specific functions such as the archer's ring in antiquity, the rosary ring for saying prayers, the pipe-stopper ring, sundial or watch rings, squirt rings, vinaigrettes, or those with some scientific novelty such as a spyglass or miniature photograph.
Throughout the millennia of its history, the ring with bezel, shank, and hoop encircled the finger with a round, oval, or derivative shape. In the early twentieth century, the ring had undergone a radical change when, in the art nouveau period, the bezel together with the hoop became a freestanding piece of sculpture that challenged all traditional forms. The foundations were laid for the artist jeweler of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries who creates rings as free art forms. The materials and designs used for rings in the second half of the twentieth century broke all boundaries, and precious metals were combined with nonprecious materials of the period, such as plastics, paper, and everything hitherto unconventional.
Chadour, Anna Beatriz. Rings: The Alice and Louis Koch Collection. Leeds, England: Maney Publishing, 1994.
Cutsem, Anne van. A World of Rings: Africa, Asia, America. Milan: Skira Editore, 2000.
Dalton, O. M. Catalogue of Finger Rings, Early Christian, Byzantine, Teutonic, Medieval and Later. London: British Museum, 1912.
Kunz, George Frederick. Rings for the Finger. New York: Dover Publications, 1973. Reprint of original edition published in 1917.
Marshall, Frederick Henry. Catalogue of Finger Rings: Greek, Etruscan and Roman in the Department of Antiquities, British Museum. London: British Museum, 1968. Reprint of original edition published in 1907.
Oman, Charles C. Victoria and Albert Museum, Catalogue of Rings. Ipswich, U.K.: Anglia Publishing, 1993. Reprint of original edition published in 1930.
Scarisbrick, Diana. Rings: Symbols of Wealth, Power, and Affection. London and New York: Abrams, 1993.