While some styles of ring became timeless classics, others have come in and out of popularity over the centuries. Designs vary by trend, culture and symbolism. Bands can be worn purely for aesthetic reasons, showcasing pretty metalwork and gemstones. Others may denote allegiance, like class rings, or serve a utilitarian purpose, like container rings.
Among the most prominent types of band are engagement rings, which keep changing appearance to reflect current tastes and special meanings. They originated during the Roman empire to mark a growing relationship. In 1477, Archduke Maximillian of Austria gave Mary of Burgundy the first known diamond engagement ring, using the jewel to showcase the strength of his love for her. Modern diamond engagement rings may feature three jewels to represent the past, present and future of a couple.
When selecting jewelry, it’s common to look at older styles to help inform your current choices. Maybe there’s a symbol that feels especially romantic, or a design that intrigues you. Paying homage to older traditions can also make the wearer that they’re a part of something bigger, that they can be a part of the love and happiness countless others have experienced.
Gimmal rings, also known as gimmel rings, derive their name from the Latin word “gemellus,” meaning “twins.” These rings are made of two or more bands which are joined as one, inspiring the name. Gimmal rings are connected through a split shank, and may be worn separately. When worn apart, the bands look “incomplete,” with grooves in the band where its other half is supposed to be, or resembling a ring cut in two.
One of the earliest known gimmal rings dates to 1202, a gift from the English king Henry III to a count. Gimmal rings were used as romantic tokens during the Renaissance, and referenced in Shakespeare’s Othello. By the 16th century, they served as popular engagement rings in Germany, England and elsewhere. Often, the two halves of the ring would be worn by each fiancé. During the wedding ceremony, the two pieces would unite and be worn together on the bride’s hand.
Embellishments over the centuries included diamonds and gemstones mounted on the bands. The rings could feature scroll work, phrases engraved onto the precious metal, and romantic motifs such as hearts or hands clasping one another. More elaborate gimmal rings, when separated, revealed hollows with figures such as a baby embossed within.
A relative of the gimmal ring is the puzzle ring. They can have between three to seven interlocking shanks which combine to form an intricate design at the top of the ring. Some may be made of plain metal, or adorned with rows of jewels. Other versions may have images like clasped hands or angels on the bezel. Puzzle rings were exchanged as wedding bands and love tokens during the Renaissance and Baroque periods in Europe.
Posy rings are gold rings commonly worn between the 15th and 17th centuries in Europe, particularly Britain, though there are examples which date as early as 1300 and into the early 19th century. They derive their name from the “posies,” or poetry, engraved inside the band. Posy rings were originally given as signs of love, and possibly as engagement rings or wedding bands.
The messages inside the rings served as a romantic secret, though the Metropolitan Museum of Art has a few posy rings which words on the outside. The phrases were mostly in English, though Latin and French were also used. Messages could have religious connotations, like “God above joyne (sic) our love,” short pieces of verse such as “A Verteuous Wiffe Prolongeth Liffe (sic,)” or heartfelt lines like “Think wel (sic) of me.” Many posy rings were created before written English standardized, leading to creative spelling.
Posy rings were made of yellow gold bands. The outer band was often plain, though a few extant pieces feature gemstones or enamel. Half the ones at the Metropolitan Museum of Art are elaborate, with one featuring enameled stylized animals and shapes and others with intricate borders and symbols. The majority of posy rings in the British Museum, by contrast, have unadorned outer bands. Many of the ones that are decorated are stamped or engraved in geometric patterns. A few posy rings double as fede rings, the clasped hands adding romance to the poetry.
Fede rings, also known as hand in hand rings, get their name from the Italian “mani in fede,” of “hands clasped in faith.” While the exact features vary, all fede rings feature two hands embracing one another. They first appeared during the Roman empire, and were exchanged as signs of love, trust and friendship. Fede rings were worn throughout the Middle Ages into the 20th century, and are still made.
Museums such as the Victorian and Albert Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have fede rings from a variety of places and eras, providing insight to designs. Most of the rings in their collections are yellow gold, though silver was also used. Precious metal could be unadorned, or decorated with niello, gemstones and enamel. The hands themselves may have long fingers, cuffs on their wrists, or feature a tiny “ring” in the form of a gemstone on a finger. Elaborate versions may have the hands clasping a heart or concealing initials.
Fede rings sometimes take on designs of other rings, such as a cameo carved with the image of joined hands. Around the 16th and 17th centuries, fede rings might contain posies engraved on the inner bands. Clasped hands might also appear on the seal of signet rings. Gimmal rings sometimes featured a hand on each shank, which would combine to form a fede ring. This combination would be especially sentimental for engagement rings.
Lover’s knots are more of a decorative element used on rings. It’s hard to pinpoint the origins of the motif, though one museum has a 15th century Netherlandish portrait of a man wearing a lover’s knot ring. The design may also be related to a sailor’s knot known as the “true love’s knot,” consisting of two interlocking cords. While the lover’s knot appearance varies, the symbolism of two people in a strong relationship remains the same.
Imagery may manifest as figure eights, bows with four loops, interlocking circles or whatever the wearer desires. Embellishment is just as varied. Rings may be encrusted with jewels, surround a solitary diamond, or have wires engraved to resemble cord. Shanks may be single, or double to imply two wires tied together.
While many antique rings feature wires shaped into lover’s knots, some variations feature knots engraved onto the band or bezel. The motif may overlap with other styles such as signet rings with lover’s knots as part of the seal. Posy rings may have knot imagery on the inside or outer of the band to highlight the romance of their poetry.
When guard rings originated is unknown, though the term originated in the early 1800s. There are two types, one of which is a slender close fitting ring designed to prevent another band from slipping off the finger. Another is a split shank ring with a gap large enough for a second band to fit in between. The latter was developed to protect more fragile rings from damage.
Guard rings were and still are worn with engagement rings and wedding bands to help protect them from harm, as well as providing additional surface area for decoration. Echoes of this are seen today in wedding ring sets. Modern engagement rings are often elaborate, while the wedding bands that accompany them are subdued, smaller and are worn above the engagement ring.
Split shank guard rings can be an inversion. Vintage pieces from the Art Deco period show rings with stylized edges encrusted with diamonds. They’re designed to blend seamlessly with the central ring, giving the impression of a single elaborate diamond band. Those thinking of giving an older rings new life, or integrate their engagement rings and wedding bands may want to consider this option.
Iron and Gold Bands
Wearing iron rings was a centuries long practice in ancient Rome, originally worn as a mark of distinction. Gold rings too were a status symbol, first worn only by ambassadors. In time, permission to wear gold trickled down until all citizens and freedmen were allowed to wear them. From the second century BCE onwards, brides to be of the Roman empire received two engagement rings, one gold and one iron. The iron was meant to be worn at home, and to be exchanged for the gold engagement ring when heading into public.
The custom of iron and gold appeared in other times and places. Gemologist George Kunz described a medieval Greek Orthodox wedding ceremony where two wedding bands, one gold and the other iron, are blessed. The couple would alternate between putting on the gold and the iron, repeating this process three times before joining hands. Kunz also wrote of a 1917 fad for wedding bands which feature gold and iron melded together, showing strength and beauty melded together.
While iron is harder than gold, it has factors impacting its suitability for jewelry. Gold is a noble metal, making it resistant to corrosion and unlikely to oxidize in the presence of damp air. Iron is prone to rust and lacks the physical properties that makes precious metals like gold and silver durability for wearing.
Other factors probably contributed to iron rings falling out of favor. Ductility, or the ability to stretch without breaking, is important, especially when it comes to making jewelry wire. Malleability, or the ability to change shape through means like hammering or stamping, is another consideration. Gold and other precious metals are easier to transform into wedding rings and other pieces.
Also known as poison, locket and pillbox rings, the distinguishing features of these bands are the hollow spaces beneath the bezel. Through a hinge, chain or other mechanism, the ring could be opened and closed, allowing it to hold small items. The origins of this band is unknown, with some accounts stating Carthage or the Far East, while others say they first appeared in India. Pliny the Elder wrote of Roman officials using these rings, hinting at this jewelry’s age.
Compartment rings were used to hold keepsakes, relics, perfume and other precious items close to the wearer. Stories abound however, of these bands used to carry poison, used by Roman officials to escape enemies and by Renaissance elite to dispatch rivals. It’s unlikely the rings could hold lethal doses of poison, or that its wearers could administer its contents without others noticing.
Gemologist George Kunz wrote in his 1917 book “Rings for the Finger” of a similar piece known as a locket ring. Photographs showed a band with a broad bezel and shoulders at the top of the ring. These sections were hinged and flipped up to reveal hollows underneath. When closed, the ring became a plain band. According to the book, these hidden compartments were used to hold miniature portraits, hair, or other keepsakes.
Compartment rings could be decorated any which way. They might be made of gold, enameled, adorned with precious stones or engraved. The Longfellow National Historic Site has a container band which belonged to poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s family. This ring has a gold top decorated with jewels, and a hollow glass band, allowing the ring to hold a greater amount of liquids such as perfumes.
From the Rococo era through the early 20th century, gemstones were used to convey hidden messages. The first initial of a gemstone name stands in for a letter, and multiple jewels come together to spell a word, often one with romantic connotations. A jeweler to Marie Antoinette, Jean-Baptiste Mellerio, is attributed with creating the concept. Napoleon and his family helped popularize the style, which remained in vogue for decades.
During the heyday of acrostic gemstones, messages were conveyed through many types of jewelry, from bracelets to engagement rings. There were various ways the stones were mounted. Some pieces laid out gems in a row, like letters on text. Others arranged gemstones in a U shape, circle, or even loops. Engagement rings lend themselves to multiple setting styles, from straight lines to spirals.
Among the most well-known acrostics are “dearest,” made of diamond, emerald, amethyst, ruby, emerald, sapphire and topaz, and “regard,” ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst, ruby and diamond. Other words such as “love” and “adore” were also mounted on rings, leading to at least one book publishing lists of sentimental words and corresponding gemstones. Acrostic rings may be a good choice for romantics who enjoy antique style jewelry.