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Updated on September 25, 2010

From earliest times ring adornment of the human race has been universal. Lip rings, neck rings, nose rings, anklets, bracelets, and earrings were worn by the people of primitive races of different countries. Orientals, from time immemorial, have worn rings on their toes, married women wearing them on the big toe of the left foot, men wearing them on the big, second, and third toes. The finger ring, strange to say, is not included among the adornments of the aborigines or savage tribes of America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. It appears to have originated with the early Egyptians and to have been evolved from the seal or signet about the 16th century B.C. The intaglio seal affording security and authenticity of ownership was probably carried strung on a cord until the invention of fastening it in a stirrup-shaped loop. A hole was bored longitudinally and wire passing through this entered holes in the extremities of the loop to be fastened by winding around the latter. Fine specimens of goldsmiths' work in this form are in the Louvre, Paris, and in London museums. Since the seal was a sign of power or authority, it was natural that the wearer of the portable seal (a signet ring) assumed dignity. In this sense Pharaoh (Genesis 41:42) invested Joseph with his ring; a ring which after many adventures found its way into the collection of Bertram Ashburnham, 4th earl (1797-1878), may be this very one, as it was found in a mummy case in the Necropolis of Saqqara, near Memphis, having hieroglyphics indicating that it contained the body of Joseph. The step from the ring being an insigne of authority to its becoming an article of adornment is short, for we find that ancient Egyptian ladies wore finger rings, even several on a finger; a number of elegant specimens are extant.

Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans produced lovely finger rings. One quite peculiar form of Roman ring has a key attached to it; some specimens have numerous wards and even the hollow barrel of modern keys. Roman rings are in many decorative forms, the betrothal ring (anulus pronubus) being composed of two rings having oval plates containing the engraved names of the betrothed couple. Like the rings of the Spartans, the betrothal ring was made of iron until the time of Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.). But we have Roman rings made in double, triple, even quadruple form; such were termed polysephi. The first Roman senators wore rings of iron, but when acting as ambassadors a gold one was given them; later they all could wear gold rings. A distinctive mark of a Roman knight was his golden ring. Next, the privilege of wearing a gold ring became so common that even menials wore them and only slaves wore iron rings. When Hannibal's soldiers took the gold rings from the Roman dead after the Battle of Cannae (216 B.C.), they filled almost three peck measures. During the Roman Empire it was a custom to give birthday (anniversary) rings (anuli natalitii). The imperial signet of Constantius I (r. 305-306 A.D.), with its 53-carat sapphire engraved with the scene of the emperor spearing a wild boar, is in the Rinuccini cabinet at Florence. Of Anglo-Saxon rings the British Museum (London) contains that of King Ethelwulf and that of Ethelswith, his daughter, queen of Mercia, of the 9th century.

Other extant rings of historic interest are: the Shakespeare ring, supposed to have been given by Anne Hathaway to the poet, which was found in a field at Stratford-on-Avon; the ring said to have been given to Henry Darnley, her husband, by Mary, Queen of Scots; and the wedding ring which Martin Luther gave to Katharina von Bora when he married her- it is what is known as a Passion ring, carrying the symbols of the Passion. Westminster Abbey, London, has the Essex ring given to the earl by Queen Elizabeth I.

The wedding ring of the Romans was a signet ring and conveyed the meaning that it was the wife's right to seal up the property of the household; it sometimes had a small key attached. It was placed on the fourth finger in early Roman days; the index finger was regarded by the Jews as the hallowed finger and bore the marriage ring; in the days of Queen Elizabeth I of England the ring, after betrothal, was worn on the thumb. The betrothal ring in Britain became the wedding ring about the time of the Reformation.

Ecclesiastical Rings

Closely allied to the wedding ring is the ecclesiastical ring, ceremonially wedding the wearer to the church as well as signifying the dignity of the office. Most important of these insignia jewels is the papal ring, called the Fisherman's Ring (anulus piscatoris), with its gem stone containing an engraving (used by the pope for his seal) of St. Peter in a boat pulling up a fishing net and with the pope's name above. Each pope receives a new ring from the cardinal-chamberlain, to be broken on the pope's death. The stone in a cardinal's ring is not prescribed, but usually is a sapphire. Episcopal rings conferred on bishops and abbots are of gold embellished by a stone; generally an amethyst; the latter must not be cut, as is the papal ring, but left in its natural form, though polished. The stone was formerly green (emerald favored), later blue (sapphire), but rubies, balas rubies, turquoises, chalcedonies, and even opals were used; pearls and garnets appear occasionally.

The episcopal ceremonial ring is worn by the bishop outside his glove and is, therefore, a large ring. When worn on the ungloved hand, such a ring is fitted with a guard to prevent its loss. Nuns wear a plain gold ring. Decade rings were introduced in the 14th century and are so termed from the fact that they had 10 projections on their circumferences. They answer the purpose of a rosary and each knob represents an Ave, while the head or bezel (often with I.H.S. and the three nails) represents the Pater Master.

Peculiar to England and Scotland are the so-called iconographic rings, with their Virgin Mary and Child, or saints' images, in gold or silver. They were made from 1390 to 1520. The Jewish ceremonial wedding ring is frequently a very large and cumbersome device with its bezel towering into the architecture of houses and with raised filigree ornamental circlet. A very noted ceremonial ring is the English coronation ring; it is of pure gold and large, being worn over the glove, generally on the index finger of the right hand except on celebrating Communion, when it is changed to the annular finger. Usually it has a large violet-hued table-cut ruby, and a St. George's cross is engraved on the flat surface; 26 diamonds surround the ruby.

Memorial Rings

In olden times it was the custom to bequeath memorial rings to one's friends, as is shown in many wills. Richard II (r. 1377-1399) left a gold ring to each of his nine executors. Shakespeare bequeathed rings to several friends. Samuel Pepys willed 123 memorial rings to surviving friends. Followers of Charles I, after his execution (1649), wore memorial rings, some with his effigy or name on them, and it established a custom which lasted for many years. Black enamel or niello was favored for memorial rings, but in the 18th century young maidens' deaths were memorialized with rings in white enamel. Hair from the head of the deceased, at the end of the 18th century, was used in forming a device in the bezel. Later very plain rings came into vogue with j ust a motto, as: "To the Memory of . . ." Another motto seen is: "Not lost but gone before," Memento mori rings bore a death's head.

Occult Rings

The fact that in medieval days, certain peculiar-shaped pieces of stone, metal, ore, and horn were considered to have occult powers of great value led to setting such talismans in finger rings to obtain security and portability. Cabalistic words or sentences also served for occult influences and are found on rings. Astrological signs of significance frequently appear on such talis-manic rings. Great curative power was supposed to be possessed by certain mystic rings carried by physicians of olden times: they are known as medicinal rings; Galen (fl. 2nd century A.D.) was renowned as a doctor and tells of an Egyptian king's green jasper amulet which had in it a design representing a dragon surrounded by rays. He said that it was a most potent remedial agent for the digestive organs.

To be numbered among the medicinal rings are the royal cramp rings. St. Edward the Confessor, king of England (who reigned from 1042-1066), instituted the practice, according to the legend, from the fact that one day, when an aged pilgrim had accosted him, the king, having no money, gave him a ring as alms; the pilgrim was none other than the Apostle St. John in disguise, who returned it to the king with word that he had blessed the ring and it now had great curative powers. Since that time and until Queen Mary I's reign (1553-1558), English kings and queens blessed and distributed on Good Friday rings which were said to be a sure cure for the "falling sickness" (epilepsy).

As an antithesis to medicinal rings were poison rings. The Borgias are said to have used rings containing poison, which, by pressing the victim's hand, pricked and poisoned with deadly effect. Such rings dating from that period (15th-16th centuries) are extant; the poison (liquid) was hidden in a small cavity in the bezel. In ancient times it appears to have been a frequent custom to wear a ring containing a deadly poison with which to escape from torture if taken prisoner. Hannibal took a fatal dose of poison from his ring rather than be surrendered to his Roman enemies (183 B.C.).

Birthstone Rings

For each month of the year there is a birthstone around which some special significance is attached. The American National Retail Jewelers' Association has adopted the following list of birthstones as official:

Lapis lazuli


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