Historically, the ring is jewelry’s most symbolic and colorful piece. The circular metal band may be inscribed or adorned with gems, and both men and women enjoy wearing these elaborate pieces. The majority of the time it is worn around the finger, but rings can also be worn on a toe, which is the custom of married women in India, or they can be worn on the thumb. Thumb rings were a common archery implement in Eastern archery styles.
The ring, universally recognized as a symbol of timeless beauty that has spanned humanity for thousands of years, signifies the change of marital status in many cultures. Throughout history, rings have come to symbolize religion, position, and wealth, as well as being a disease preventative, a good luck charm, a friendship token, and an adornment.
The Symbol of Antiquity
Roughly, 6,000 years ago the first ring was created, and it became a symbol of class stature. Archeologists have shown that the exchange of rings made of gold, silver, or bronze was part of the ancient Hittite, Archaic Greek, and Roman cultures. Different types of rings eventually developed distinctive meanings, and each ring had to be worn on a particular part of the body. Bejeweled rings worn on the right hand of Roman men were considered unmanly. Wealthy Romans wore rings to match the season, and matrons wore a ring with a small key attached to symbolize their household authority.
The Middle Ages
As time progressed, rings developed new meanings and new designs. During the Middle Ages, rings embedded with the outlines of saints were highly sought after because of the emphasis on religion. Precious gems in rings could also be blessed to provide additional benefits, such as immunity from disease or ill fortune, or so people thought. One such gem was sapphire, believed to heal eye diseases as well as bring wealth.
During the Middle Ages, the influence of rings spread, and even the Anglo-Saxons were developing primitive rings made of small bits of wire twisted into a band.
The popularity and significance of rings became even more evident during the Renaissance period, when three were worn on each finger. The religious ecclesiastical rings came to represent position within the church, and particular gems developed underlying symbolism instead of the misjudged benefits of healing and happiness. Some of these significant gems include: rubies, which represented glory; emeralds, a symbol of tranquility; and sapphires, which exemplify purity.
Reliquary and decade rings were two other types of ecclesiastical rings with religious significance. The relic of a martyr or saint was placed in the reliquary ring as a shrine. Decade rings were also known as rosary rings because they were knobbed like a rosary and had ten indentations. These rings were worn by the laity and were used to keep track of one’s place in the prayer by rotating the ring on the finger.
The Middle Ages brought about different distinctions in the ability of rings. People believed particular gems prevented disease, but, on certain occasions, some rings were thought to cure disease. Some of the more traditional healing rings included the cramp ring, which stopped cramps in the individual, which was especially helpful for pregnant women, as well as iron rings, which supposedly healed the intestines.
One of the most common uses for rings today is the display of marital status. The current use of two rings, for engagement and then marriage, was first developed in the Classical Period. Prior to this time only one ring was given as a sign of union, dating back to Ancient Rome. The Romans would adorn the ring on the second finger from the left, on the left hand, because it was believed this finger had a direct connection to the heart.
During the Middle Ages, this practice was lost, and the wedding ring was worn on the right hand until the Book of Common Prayer of Edward VI was developed. This book stated that the ring for marriage was to be placed on the same finger the Romans placed it on. For this reason, that finger has come to be known as the “ring” finger.
The Engagement Ring
Engagement rings are the most popular type of ring to accompany romantic intentions for marriage. Although the trend of the diamond as engagement rings did not emerge until the early 1900s, the idea of giving a ring to a woman preparing to become a future bride started with a royal engagement in 1477. The Archduke Maximillian of Austria ordered the first diamond engagement ring in history for his future wife, Mary of Burgundy.
During the Victorian era, the blend of diamonds and precious metals or gemstones produced elaborate engagement rings that became a favorite among Victorians. These rings were precisely shaped, with stunning floral designs, and were called posey rings. The Edwardian era continued the tradition of placing diamonds and other gemstones in filigree settings for engagement rings.
Rings of Royalty
Token rings were given by queens, kings, and others members of the nobility to close friends. Token rings also possessed special influence, as they represented pardons or protection from powerful people. Royal signets, often bearing a family coat of arms, expressed a seal of office. Royal signets date back to the Egyptian and Assyrian civilizations.
The Diamond: Everlasting Love
Revered as one of the most beautiful jewels in the world, the diamond was known as a luxury for those seeking a beautiful and traditional engagement ring. In the 1870s, African mines were discovered to have an abundance of the dazzling stone. The De Beers company became the sole proprietor of these mines and built a monopoly on the diamond industry. The De Beers Company also played a significant role in the rise of diamonds during the Great Depression, using diamond-adorned movie stars as spokeswomen. This marketing tactic proved to be successful, and diamond sales quickly skyrocketed over the next few years.
The slogan, “A Diamond is Forever,” became the next step in advancing diamond sales. De Beer’s newest label conveyed a stronger and deeper meaning behind the sparkle of the diamond. As the hardest stone on the scale, the diamond’s physical toughness provided the underlying idea of durability for marriage. Because the diamond is able to withstand large amounts of pressure or damage, this expressed the notion that marriage is eternal. The beauty and strength of the diamond have come to represent the global testament of a man’s love for a woman.
The Universal Declaration of Love
As ancient symbols for royalty and love, rings have remained an essential part of humanity's culture. Their use and design have changed to reflect different sentiments, from royal signets to healing powers and love. Whether made with diamonds, sapphires, titanium, or even emeralds, rings represent timeless keepsakes for any occasion.