The History of Rings
A ring is a piece of polished gold, silver, or other metal shaped in a circle and commonly worn on the fingers. Some cultures also wear rings on the toes or through piercings in the nose and ears. Although primarily used to adorn the body, finger rings were (and still are) widely used to represent the wearer’s authority, as well as their social and marital status.
Ancient and Classical Rings
Ancient Egyptians wore rings carved from various rare and costly gems, including turquoise, amethyst, and lapis lazuli, threaded by a simple gold or silver wire. These scarab rings (as they often featured a small carving in the likeness of a scarab beetle) functioned as both signet rings and talismans.
The rings worn by the ancient Romans and Greeks also served a variety of functions, including purely decorative ones. Scarab rings remained popular among the ancient Greeks, as did signet rings featuring intricate figural and floral designs. Plain gold rings were also worn, as were rings featuring gems valued for their rarity, beauty, and talismanic powers.
In ancient Rome, iron rings were initially worn by the general public as the right to wear gold rings was reserved for senators. However, this rule was eventually relaxed and both women and men began to wear heavy gold rings decorated with brightly colored gems. While wearing several rings at once was not done initially, by the first century AD it became a common sight to see multiple rings adorning each finger.
The tradition of exchanging rings to signify betrothals is thought to have begun with the Romans. Roman wedding rings often displayed the image of two clasped right hands in a symbolic representation of fidelity and marriage. According to Roman beliefs, the right hand was deemed holy to Fides, the god of fidelity. The motif would reappear as the fede ring during the Middle Ages. Another prominent motif that was often featured in betrothal rings of the time was the knot of Hercules or the marriage knot. The design consisted of two ropes intertwined into one, and probably served as the inspiration behind the expression ‘tying the knot’.
By the Middle Ages, rings were the most widely worn jewelry pieces by both women and men. In the mid-14th century, sumptuary laws were implemented in Europe to regulate the wearing of rings since they had become a significant symbol of rank. Rings made of silver and gold and decorated with precious jewels were only allowed to be worn by the nobility and royalty, while rings made of base metals like gilt bronze, pewter, and latten, a copper alloy, could be worn by ordinary civilians.
The use of signet rings was also widespread during the Middle Ages to seal personal letters and business documents and to authenticate messages. Heraldic signet rings featuring coats of arms and other emblems were especially popular, being extensively used by all who could afford to do so.
Rings symbolizing love and friendship were also prevalent during this time. Two examples of these rings of sentiment were poesy rings and gimmel rings. The former consisted of a plain gold ring with a message engraved on the band, while the latter was made of two or three intertwined hoops that symbolized the bonds of love and friendship. Another ring that appeared during the Middle Ages was the Jewish marriage ring. These rings were representative of the Temple of Jerusalem or the nuptial home, often featuring fully dimensional miniature houses out of richly enameled and filigreed gold.
Jewelry during the Renaissance era reached new heights of craftsmanship following the relative simplicity of the Middle Ages. Goldsmiths began to use increasingly sophisticated techniques and were inspired by the burgeoning interest in painting and sculpting. As a result, rings often featured highly elaborate settings with arabesque motifs.
Along with more ornate settings, another creation of the time was the hinged ring. This invention contained compartments for holding perfume or small trinkets. Colored stones remained all the rage among those who could afford them and the most coveted gems were emerald, sapphire, and ruby.
As in Medieval times, rings were often sported on each finger and on multiple joints. The large padded sleeves and elaborate neck ruffs that dominated the high fashion of the late Renaissance period restricted the kinds of jewelry that could be worn. But rings were exempt from these restrictions and could be worn freely.
Signet rings were still prevalent during the Renaissance and were quite decorative, often featuring the engraved portraits of contemporary European rulers such as England’s Henry VIII. Heraldic signet rings were less elaborate due to their functional nature but were nonetheless cherished heirlooms representing family lineage. Bloodstone was considered a particularly appropriate gemstone for these types of signet rings.
Initial rings were another common sight. These featured intricate details with the initials frequently joined by knots or flowers. They were occasionally given as marriage rings with the couple’s initials intertwined.
Other rings given in friendship and love featured many of the same designs as those from the Middle Ages, albeit in more ornate settings. The posy ring now had its engravings inscribed on the inside of the band and functioned as both a sign of affection and a wedding band. Gimmel rings had inscriptions on both the inside and outside of the bands and often included three or more hoops to allow for longer inscriptions.
Rings of the Seventeenth Century
Just as the Renaissance era was characterized by its elaborate gold settings, the seventeenth century could be identified by its growing tendency to emphasize the gemstone. Advancements in foiling and cutting techniques meant more diversity in shapes and the focus shifted to showcasing the beauty of the gems themselves. While colored gemstones were still being set in gold, diamonds were almost exclusively set in silver. Large stones were now mounted in solitaire settings, which remains the most popular setting for engagement rings today. Smaller stones were arranged in a multitude of shapes, from stars to rosettes to cruciforms.
Death was a common and inevitable part of everyday life for people in the 1600s. Widespread poverty, war, famine, and plagues all contributed to the prevalence of death, which led to a rise in the popularity of memento mori rings. Memento mori themes were featured in a range of ring styles, including wedding rings, signet rings, and locket rings.
The Origin of Engagement Rings
In 200 BC, the engagement ring was a symbol of ownership. Many centuries later, the meaning of the engagement ring became one of mutual commitment and everlasting love. It also wasn’t until 1477 that the first diamond engagement ring made its debut. Archduke Maximilian of Austria commissioned it for his betrothed, Mary of Burgundy. This sparked the trend for diamond engagement rings that still continues to this day.
There are now hundreds of choices when it comes to the cut, shape, and color of the diamond, and brides have the freedom to design an engagement ring that represents their unique personality. Indeed, many brides are choosing to veer away from the traditional diamond ring and, instead, are opting for one with colored stones.
FAQs About Rings
What is the oldest ring in the world?
The oldest wedding ring was discovered in ancient Egypt and dates back to 3,000 years ago. The first known diamond ring was found in Rome and dates back to the late first century AD.
What does it mean when a woman wears a ring on her middle finger?
When a woman wears a ring on her middle finger, it indicates that she is neither engaged nor married. The middle finger is said to symbolize power, balance, and stability.
When did people start wearing wedding rings?
Archeological evidence points to the ancient Egyptians wearing wedding rings as early as 3,000 BC when they exchanged ring-style bands made of hemp and braided reed. The rings were put on the fourth finger of the left hand, a tradition that continues today.
In the 16th – 17th centuries, European men wore gimmel rings, from the Latin gemellus, meaning twin. A gimmel ring is a ring with two or three interlocking hoops that fit together, making one complete ring. These were also called joint rings in Elizabethan England. Men started only wearing a wedding band in the 20th century.
Wedding rings were fashioned after the principle that a circle has no beginning and no end, thereby symbolizing eternity.
What is the most popular metal for wedding and engagement rings – gold, silver, or platinum?
A plain yellow gold ring has long been a classic choice for a wedding ring and is likely to remain the most popular option for the foreseeable future. That being said, platinum and white gold wedding rings are also quite common and are popular among couples seeking a more modern alternative to the traditional yellow gold. Rose gold has also been steadily rising in popularity and is an attractive choice for those with vintage tastes. Overall, the least popular metal for wedding and engagement rings is silver. This is because it is a much softer metal that is prone to tarnishing.
What was the first metal ring made of?
The first metal rings were made of iron and originated in ancient Rome. These were mainly used as authentication seals. Gold rings were only worn by senators or ambassadors. This had changed by the third century, however, when only slaves were not allowed to wear rings. It is also thought that the custom of exchanging engagement rings began with the ancient Romans.
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