The Lore of the Rings

Renaissance rings hand detail“Two souls, one heart” – saying on a poesy ring

“If you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it.” – Beyonce, “Single Ladies”

Susan here – we’ve just had a wedding in our family, and weddings and rings go, well, hand in hand—the giving and receiving, the symbolism and significance of those little metal circlets is very special and significant. Rings and marriage have a long history, and the Wenches have all written about weddings at one point or another. And it's been such a busy month in our household, I've chosen a Wench classic blog – about rings! – to give you today. 

When did couples start giving and wearing rings to symbolize a marriage commitment? The history of rings goes far back in history and lore.

6a00d8341c84c753ef01a73dd34eff970d-120wi.jpgRings are among the oldest bits of personal adornment – a few prehistoric rings have been found, like this ancient bronze spiral found in Sussex – though the purpose of certain ancient rings is too often unknown to historians. In very early societies, a braided twist of reeds or hair admired around a finger may have led to other observations and then meaning – circles are unending, round as the moon, the sun, and so symbolism was quickly associated. Knotted designs could serve as charms against evil and bind lovers in an eternal promise. Pliny claimed that the origin of wearing a ring came from Prometheus’ travails, as he was doomed to wear a chunk of his iron chains forever – though the idea of an endless knot and promises in eternity is much more appealing!

Ancient rings were fashioned from stone, twists of wire, braided reeds, copper, bronze, iron, ivory, gold and silver. They occur in a range of 6a00d8341c84c753ef01a73dd34fcb970d-120wi.jpgvariety throughout history—rings that represented wealth, royalty, authority, a warrior’s promise of loyalty or a lover’s of affection and fidelity; signet rings bearing the owner’s seal and status; rings for kings, queens, bishops, noblemen, clerics, merchants, husbands, wives, ladies and gentlemen; poesy (love poem) rings, poison and compartment rings, betrothal and promise and wedding and engagement rings. Each finger, thumb, knuckles too, could carry rings.

Narrowing the search to rings that signified love, betrothal and marriage still leaves a wide array of historical rings. Papyrus illustrations indicate that ancient Egyptians exchanged rings woven of reeds to fix marriage vows, and there are gold rings and scarab rings found in Egyptian tombs, though their purpose is not always clear. The Egyptians contributed something important, it is believed, to the long tradition of wedding rings—the wearing of the ring on the third finger of the left hand, which is most often the position, though in some cultures it is worn on the right hand. Ancient physicians believed that a major vein ran through that finger directly to the heart, and the connection of the feelings of the heart and the feelings of love, along with the symbolism of the endless circle of life and love and the sun and moon, all were 6a00d8341c84c753ef01a73dd3536c970d-320wi.jpg
intertwined.

In Biblical times, a ring was considered to be an important symbol of the covenant of marriage, and the Greeks may have carried on the tradition of the third finger, left hand. Certainly ornate rings were much in evidence in Greek and related cultures – Phoenician, Minoan, Mycenaean as well as Hellenistic – they created and wore many styles including scarabs, seals, and intaglio designs in gold, silver, bronze, iron, brass, copper, stone, ivory with and without gems like quartz, agate, jasper, and countless semi-precious stones. Whether they preferred them for marriage is not exactly clear, but Romans regarded rings and marriage as a perfect match.

The Romans wore rings to show their wealth, loyalty, social status as well as love and personal loyalties. They were among the first to set diamonds in rings—the Egyptians had done so even earlier—and they also favored sapphires, emeralds, garnets, rubies, pearls, amber set in silver, gold and bronze. Rings were widely used in Roman marriages, and worn on the left hand, using that Egyptian rule of the vein connecting finger and heart.

Among the Celts, rings were more popular around the neck as torcs of gold, bronze or Gold-collar-broighter
silver – and warriors wore finger rings as a symbol of martial and household loyalty. But women would not be left out, and very early on, finger rings were believed by the Irish to bring luck and legality to a marriage. The Scots wore rings, too, with the added tradition of passing hands through curiously circular holes in stones as a means of making a significant pledge. The Vikings were fond of pretty, sturdy rings in twists of silver – and trade routes brought more exotic ring styles from the eastern part of the world back to northern European societies.

Anglo-Saxon women wore rings on the middle finger of the right hand, not knowing about the Egyptian theory of the vein straight to the heart …Anglo-Saxon designs were intricate and exquisitely crafted, and often beautiful twists of silver or gold. 

6a00d8341c84c753ef01a3fd189720970b-120wi.jpgMedieval rings were often intricately detailed and abundantly set with gems, with sapphires considered the most precious of stones, though a full range of stones, including diamonds, appeared too. Diamonds became quite popular in medieval Italy, where women wore stunning betrothal rings of silver or gold, often in elaborately inlaid minutely carved niello designs or set with precious stones. Exquisitely crafted jeweled and carved rings were worn by men and women in medieval England, France,
the Low Countries, Germany, Scandanavia … anywhere there were fingers, there were rings. Circlets worn on knuckles is often seen in medieval portraits of both men and women – a clear indication that a lady, for example, was highborn and did only delicate work with her hands, so that she could wear the pretty things in a somewhat precarious manner.

6a00e54ec9c7bf883301a73dd35438970d-120wi.jpgMedieval women often received rings to mark betrothal ceremonies and marriages. Carvings and painted images depict 6a00d8341c84c753ef01a511c80baa970cmarriages and betrothals with the touching of hands as a ring is passed from groom to bride before the officiant.

Gimmel or gemmel rings were given as betrothal rings in medieval England and France particularly; these were puzzle rings, hinged links that originated in the Middle East. Gimmel rings fitted beautifully together—but should the wife remove her ring for a tryst, and be unable to put it back on properly, the husband would know something was up.

6a00e54ec9c7bf883301a511c80f10970cIn the Renaissance and Tudor eras, poesy rings were especially popular among lovers and betrothed couples, with engraved phrases and verses expressing love and commitment, such as “mon coeur” or “united in love” or “vous et non ultra” or “all I refuse and thee I chuse.” Shakespeare mentioned commonly used poesy rings in Hamlet – “Is this a prologue, or the poesy of a ring?” Poesy rings were wildly popular in Renaissance and Tudor times, and continued into the 17th and 18th centuries, and today are very available in reproductions.

Remb-2The Book of Common Prayer in the 16th century declared that a wedding ring was required, and had to be worn on the ring finger of the left hand – marriages were simply not legal without them, and the rings had to be blessed. Because of the contacts and trade with the New World, gold and silver became more widely available in the 16th century, and the craft of jewelry making, silversmithing and goldsmithing boomed. Rings were beautiful, elaborate things studded with costly jewels. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I owned hundreds of rings among countless other jewelry pieces, and there were barely enough fingers to wear the favorites. Rings appear in portraits on every finger and knuckle.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, rings with engraved phrases were still popular, and the 19Th-Century-Frenchconcept of an engagement ring, a spinoff of a betrothal or promise ring, emerged. After the Marriage Act of 1753, when marriage required a license or the reading and publishing of Banns, promise rings became even more popular during the waiting period. Rings for “engaged” girls were generally sweet, sentimental, delicate twists of gold or silver set with pretty little gemstones (rarely diamond, these were more often modest gemstones or pearl) and wedding rings – plain precious metal bands – were not only expected but required for a Church of England wedding, when a substitute ring might have to be found—a church key, for example, or a curtain ring would do in a pinch.

Now sizeable diamond engagement rings – and elaborately staged proposals – are an established trend, to whatever extent the couple can manage. I’ve seen some whopping, gorgeous (or gaudy) rings lately, and heard of some lovely (or over-the-top) proposals.

6a00d8341c84c753ef01a73dd351aa970d-320wi.jpgMy own ring is an antique, a diamond set in rose gold and white gold Susan ring filigree, which I inherited from my French great-grandmother. The stone sits upright in 19th c. fashion, and I wear a narrow gold band of tiny diamonds with it. The rings mean the world to me – my marriage, and also a connection to my great-grandmother, a very special lady. I wear them on the third finger of my left hand – where there isn’t actually a vein that runs to the heart, but there may as well be.

What’s your favorite ring, marriage or otherwise? Do you prefer antique or contemporary designs?

 

55 thoughts on “The Lore of the Rings”

  1. Susan – I wish you’d included a picture of your own ring. I love rose gold, since my mother’s original wedding ring was a wide rose gold domed band inset with tiny rubies, each with an engraved starburst around it. I’ve never been married, but I do love rings. My favorite is made of yellow nugget gold with 6 tiny diamonds. My mother wanted to buy me a ring before I left for graduate school, so we went to Hutzler’s (may it rest in peace) and as soon as I looked down into the jewelry case, there it was. I loved it then and I love it now – and wear it often. BTW – I couldn’t find a picture on the web, but years ago, I saw an article about ancient Yemeni rings. I believe they were wedding rings. The band was wide and had lovely metallic detail, probably in silver. And in the center of the ring, there was a castle that stood up from the ring. The bride would have worn it on her index/pointer finger, but I’m not sure on which hand. If I can find a link, I’ll post it later. Thanks for the column, Susan. And Mazel Tov on the wedding!

    Reply
  2. Susan – I wish you’d included a picture of your own ring. I love rose gold, since my mother’s original wedding ring was a wide rose gold domed band inset with tiny rubies, each with an engraved starburst around it. I’ve never been married, but I do love rings. My favorite is made of yellow nugget gold with 6 tiny diamonds. My mother wanted to buy me a ring before I left for graduate school, so we went to Hutzler’s (may it rest in peace) and as soon as I looked down into the jewelry case, there it was. I loved it then and I love it now – and wear it often. BTW – I couldn’t find a picture on the web, but years ago, I saw an article about ancient Yemeni rings. I believe they were wedding rings. The band was wide and had lovely metallic detail, probably in silver. And in the center of the ring, there was a castle that stood up from the ring. The bride would have worn it on her index/pointer finger, but I’m not sure on which hand. If I can find a link, I’ll post it later. Thanks for the column, Susan. And Mazel Tov on the wedding!

    Reply
  3. Susan – I wish you’d included a picture of your own ring. I love rose gold, since my mother’s original wedding ring was a wide rose gold domed band inset with tiny rubies, each with an engraved starburst around it. I’ve never been married, but I do love rings. My favorite is made of yellow nugget gold with 6 tiny diamonds. My mother wanted to buy me a ring before I left for graduate school, so we went to Hutzler’s (may it rest in peace) and as soon as I looked down into the jewelry case, there it was. I loved it then and I love it now – and wear it often. BTW – I couldn’t find a picture on the web, but years ago, I saw an article about ancient Yemeni rings. I believe they were wedding rings. The band was wide and had lovely metallic detail, probably in silver. And in the center of the ring, there was a castle that stood up from the ring. The bride would have worn it on her index/pointer finger, but I’m not sure on which hand. If I can find a link, I’ll post it later. Thanks for the column, Susan. And Mazel Tov on the wedding!

    Reply
  4. Susan – I wish you’d included a picture of your own ring. I love rose gold, since my mother’s original wedding ring was a wide rose gold domed band inset with tiny rubies, each with an engraved starburst around it. I’ve never been married, but I do love rings. My favorite is made of yellow nugget gold with 6 tiny diamonds. My mother wanted to buy me a ring before I left for graduate school, so we went to Hutzler’s (may it rest in peace) and as soon as I looked down into the jewelry case, there it was. I loved it then and I love it now – and wear it often. BTW – I couldn’t find a picture on the web, but years ago, I saw an article about ancient Yemeni rings. I believe they were wedding rings. The band was wide and had lovely metallic detail, probably in silver. And in the center of the ring, there was a castle that stood up from the ring. The bride would have worn it on her index/pointer finger, but I’m not sure on which hand. If I can find a link, I’ll post it later. Thanks for the column, Susan. And Mazel Tov on the wedding!

    Reply
  5. Susan – I wish you’d included a picture of your own ring. I love rose gold, since my mother’s original wedding ring was a wide rose gold domed band inset with tiny rubies, each with an engraved starburst around it. I’ve never been married, but I do love rings. My favorite is made of yellow nugget gold with 6 tiny diamonds. My mother wanted to buy me a ring before I left for graduate school, so we went to Hutzler’s (may it rest in peace) and as soon as I looked down into the jewelry case, there it was. I loved it then and I love it now – and wear it often. BTW – I couldn’t find a picture on the web, but years ago, I saw an article about ancient Yemeni rings. I believe they were wedding rings. The band was wide and had lovely metallic detail, probably in silver. And in the center of the ring, there was a castle that stood up from the ring. The bride would have worn it on her index/pointer finger, but I’m not sure on which hand. If I can find a link, I’ll post it later. Thanks for the column, Susan. And Mazel Tov on the wedding!

    Reply
  6. I am fascinated by this article. I have never worn much jewelry; it doesn’t fit me well. Necklaces, earings (once I had pierce my ears), and rings were the exceptions. Nowadays, I’m limited to plain earrings and my wedding band, which is plain gold.
    I DO like to look at jewelry, though, and to read about it’s history. Thank you again for an intereting post.

    Reply
  7. I am fascinated by this article. I have never worn much jewelry; it doesn’t fit me well. Necklaces, earings (once I had pierce my ears), and rings were the exceptions. Nowadays, I’m limited to plain earrings and my wedding band, which is plain gold.
    I DO like to look at jewelry, though, and to read about it’s history. Thank you again for an intereting post.

    Reply
  8. I am fascinated by this article. I have never worn much jewelry; it doesn’t fit me well. Necklaces, earings (once I had pierce my ears), and rings were the exceptions. Nowadays, I’m limited to plain earrings and my wedding band, which is plain gold.
    I DO like to look at jewelry, though, and to read about it’s history. Thank you again for an intereting post.

    Reply
  9. I am fascinated by this article. I have never worn much jewelry; it doesn’t fit me well. Necklaces, earings (once I had pierce my ears), and rings were the exceptions. Nowadays, I’m limited to plain earrings and my wedding band, which is plain gold.
    I DO like to look at jewelry, though, and to read about it’s history. Thank you again for an intereting post.

    Reply
  10. I am fascinated by this article. I have never worn much jewelry; it doesn’t fit me well. Necklaces, earings (once I had pierce my ears), and rings were the exceptions. Nowadays, I’m limited to plain earrings and my wedding band, which is plain gold.
    I DO like to look at jewelry, though, and to read about it’s history. Thank you again for an intereting post.

    Reply
  11. What a lovely article, Susan! I’d love to see more of those gorgeous rings you described. I’m not much for wearing rings, which goes back to my designer days when I didn’t want things on my fingers that could interfere with work. (Especially when working with clay or power tools in my student days.) But my wedding ring, a simple gold band with Celtic designs molded in, stays on my finger. Always.

    Reply
  12. What a lovely article, Susan! I’d love to see more of those gorgeous rings you described. I’m not much for wearing rings, which goes back to my designer days when I didn’t want things on my fingers that could interfere with work. (Especially when working with clay or power tools in my student days.) But my wedding ring, a simple gold band with Celtic designs molded in, stays on my finger. Always.

    Reply
  13. What a lovely article, Susan! I’d love to see more of those gorgeous rings you described. I’m not much for wearing rings, which goes back to my designer days when I didn’t want things on my fingers that could interfere with work. (Especially when working with clay or power tools in my student days.) But my wedding ring, a simple gold band with Celtic designs molded in, stays on my finger. Always.

    Reply
  14. What a lovely article, Susan! I’d love to see more of those gorgeous rings you described. I’m not much for wearing rings, which goes back to my designer days when I didn’t want things on my fingers that could interfere with work. (Especially when working with clay or power tools in my student days.) But my wedding ring, a simple gold band with Celtic designs molded in, stays on my finger. Always.

    Reply
  15. What a lovely article, Susan! I’d love to see more of those gorgeous rings you described. I’m not much for wearing rings, which goes back to my designer days when I didn’t want things on my fingers that could interfere with work. (Especially when working with clay or power tools in my student days.) But my wedding ring, a simple gold band with Celtic designs molded in, stays on my finger. Always.

    Reply
  16. Hi Binnie! So interesting about the Yemini rings, what a lovely tradition. In researching this ring blog, I did see some medieval examples of rings with little castles popped up from the circlet- I wonder if they were examples of Yemini rings.
    Binnie, I took a photo of my ring and added it here. It’s rose gold and white gold, and the setting is typically a late 19th c. sort of design, set fairly high, so that I have to be careful of it! I take it in now and then to have the prongs tightened. I love that it’s unique and has a kind of handcrafted look to it. 🙂

    Reply
  17. Hi Binnie! So interesting about the Yemini rings, what a lovely tradition. In researching this ring blog, I did see some medieval examples of rings with little castles popped up from the circlet- I wonder if they were examples of Yemini rings.
    Binnie, I took a photo of my ring and added it here. It’s rose gold and white gold, and the setting is typically a late 19th c. sort of design, set fairly high, so that I have to be careful of it! I take it in now and then to have the prongs tightened. I love that it’s unique and has a kind of handcrafted look to it. 🙂

    Reply
  18. Hi Binnie! So interesting about the Yemini rings, what a lovely tradition. In researching this ring blog, I did see some medieval examples of rings with little castles popped up from the circlet- I wonder if they were examples of Yemini rings.
    Binnie, I took a photo of my ring and added it here. It’s rose gold and white gold, and the setting is typically a late 19th c. sort of design, set fairly high, so that I have to be careful of it! I take it in now and then to have the prongs tightened. I love that it’s unique and has a kind of handcrafted look to it. 🙂

    Reply
  19. Hi Binnie! So interesting about the Yemini rings, what a lovely tradition. In researching this ring blog, I did see some medieval examples of rings with little castles popped up from the circlet- I wonder if they were examples of Yemini rings.
    Binnie, I took a photo of my ring and added it here. It’s rose gold and white gold, and the setting is typically a late 19th c. sort of design, set fairly high, so that I have to be careful of it! I take it in now and then to have the prongs tightened. I love that it’s unique and has a kind of handcrafted look to it. 🙂

    Reply
  20. Hi Binnie! So interesting about the Yemini rings, what a lovely tradition. In researching this ring blog, I did see some medieval examples of rings with little castles popped up from the circlet- I wonder if they were examples of Yemini rings.
    Binnie, I took a photo of my ring and added it here. It’s rose gold and white gold, and the setting is typically a late 19th c. sort of design, set fairly high, so that I have to be careful of it! I take it in now and then to have the prongs tightened. I love that it’s unique and has a kind of handcrafted look to it. 🙂

    Reply
  21. Hi Sue, thanks, glad you enjoyed it! I don’t wear much jewelry either – a few simple pieces that I love and tend to grab first. I wear mostly small hoops in my earlobes every day, or tiny pearls. I have a lot of fancier earrings, some very pretty dangly ones, but I just don’t wear them much! And rings – I don’t wear them other than my wedding rings. I think it’s because I do so much typing (and dishes, lol!).

    Reply
  22. Hi Sue, thanks, glad you enjoyed it! I don’t wear much jewelry either – a few simple pieces that I love and tend to grab first. I wear mostly small hoops in my earlobes every day, or tiny pearls. I have a lot of fancier earrings, some very pretty dangly ones, but I just don’t wear them much! And rings – I don’t wear them other than my wedding rings. I think it’s because I do so much typing (and dishes, lol!).

    Reply
  23. Hi Sue, thanks, glad you enjoyed it! I don’t wear much jewelry either – a few simple pieces that I love and tend to grab first. I wear mostly small hoops in my earlobes every day, or tiny pearls. I have a lot of fancier earrings, some very pretty dangly ones, but I just don’t wear them much! And rings – I don’t wear them other than my wedding rings. I think it’s because I do so much typing (and dishes, lol!).

    Reply
  24. Hi Sue, thanks, glad you enjoyed it! I don’t wear much jewelry either – a few simple pieces that I love and tend to grab first. I wear mostly small hoops in my earlobes every day, or tiny pearls. I have a lot of fancier earrings, some very pretty dangly ones, but I just don’t wear them much! And rings – I don’t wear them other than my wedding rings. I think it’s because I do so much typing (and dishes, lol!).

    Reply
  25. Hi Sue, thanks, glad you enjoyed it! I don’t wear much jewelry either – a few simple pieces that I love and tend to grab first. I wear mostly small hoops in my earlobes every day, or tiny pearls. I have a lot of fancier earrings, some very pretty dangly ones, but I just don’t wear them much! And rings – I don’t wear them other than my wedding rings. I think it’s because I do so much typing (and dishes, lol!).

    Reply
  26. Thanks, Mary Jo. I know what you mean, I don’t wear rings other than the wedding rings, though I love them on other people – so delicate and elegant and pretty. I never thought about why, but you’re right, I always work with my hands, and I went to art school, where rings just got in the way, or got messy, or could get lost if taken off and set aside.
    I’ve seen your wedding band, and it is just beautiful. I love Celtic wedding rings. They are elegant – and have a spiritual feel that is so special in a wedding ring.

    Reply
  27. Thanks, Mary Jo. I know what you mean, I don’t wear rings other than the wedding rings, though I love them on other people – so delicate and elegant and pretty. I never thought about why, but you’re right, I always work with my hands, and I went to art school, where rings just got in the way, or got messy, or could get lost if taken off and set aside.
    I’ve seen your wedding band, and it is just beautiful. I love Celtic wedding rings. They are elegant – and have a spiritual feel that is so special in a wedding ring.

    Reply
  28. Thanks, Mary Jo. I know what you mean, I don’t wear rings other than the wedding rings, though I love them on other people – so delicate and elegant and pretty. I never thought about why, but you’re right, I always work with my hands, and I went to art school, where rings just got in the way, or got messy, or could get lost if taken off and set aside.
    I’ve seen your wedding band, and it is just beautiful. I love Celtic wedding rings. They are elegant – and have a spiritual feel that is so special in a wedding ring.

    Reply
  29. Thanks, Mary Jo. I know what you mean, I don’t wear rings other than the wedding rings, though I love them on other people – so delicate and elegant and pretty. I never thought about why, but you’re right, I always work with my hands, and I went to art school, where rings just got in the way, or got messy, or could get lost if taken off and set aside.
    I’ve seen your wedding band, and it is just beautiful. I love Celtic wedding rings. They are elegant – and have a spiritual feel that is so special in a wedding ring.

    Reply
  30. Thanks, Mary Jo. I know what you mean, I don’t wear rings other than the wedding rings, though I love them on other people – so delicate and elegant and pretty. I never thought about why, but you’re right, I always work with my hands, and I went to art school, where rings just got in the way, or got messy, or could get lost if taken off and set aside.
    I’ve seen your wedding band, and it is just beautiful. I love Celtic wedding rings. They are elegant – and have a spiritual feel that is so special in a wedding ring.

    Reply

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