Reviews Gems & Gemology, Spring 2018, Vol. 54, No. 2

Book Review: Rings


By Rachel Church, 160 pp., illus., publ. by Thames & Hudson, London, UK, 2017, US$24.95.

Rings by Rachel Church is a well-curated overview of ring history based on the jewelry collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Though short, the book is packed with information. 

Six chapters move through time from the Middle Ages, when jewelers were unsung and unremembered craftsmen, to the present, when individual jewelers are known and the work of name designers is sought after and collected. 

Church writes, “to study rings is to study a miniature history of art and design.” However, each chapter outlines the successively shorter time periods it has taken for culture and society and jewelry design to change. The rings in each section reflect shifts in wedding and betrothal practices, religious beliefs and superstitions, memorial practices, and fashion. Rings denoting particular affiliations—with the church, royalty, and political loyalties—show how sources of power have shifted over centuries. 

Chapter One: 1200–1500 explores rings during the Middle Ages, when gifts of rings affirmed the power and status of the giver and rewarded the loyalty and services of the recipient. Rings set with fine gemstones were the prerogative of the clergy, royalty, and the aristocracy. Incised or engraved gems from the ancient world as well as intaglios from the time of the Romans were also revered and set into rings.

As a gift of love, a ring was one of the types of gifts a woman was allowed to properly receive from a lover. Rings could provide talismanic protection when, as they commonly were, engraved with prayers or invocations against illness, accident and evil. 

This was the time that magical lore and many beliefs about gemstones came into common knowledge, the result of translating the works of ancient lapidaries. However, not only precious gemstones, but homely materials became valued for their prophylactic properties. Witness the image of a spectacular ring with heavy engraved shank that is set with heart-shaped wolf’s tooth to protect against toothache and inscribed with an invocation against storms. A toadstone, actually the fossilized tooth of a prehistoric fish, was worn as an amulet against spider bites and other venoms. 

Chapter Two: 1500–1700 shows that, during the Renaissance, rings were still used for personal protection and prayers but became more decorative and showy, with highly carved and enameled bezels and shoulders. Multi-part, interlocking “gimmel” rings became more prevalent and were sometimes used as wedding rings—the separate but joined rings reflecting the state of marriage. “Posy”—from poesie or poetry—rings also date from this time. These gifts of love, betrothal, and marriage were engraved with short romantic lines. They were so popular that for the unimaginative there were even compendiums of phrases from which to choose one’s verse. 

The growing importance of secular, more material society was reflected in the increased presence of signet rings—plain or gemstone set—engraved with a family crest or merchant’s symbol. Extraordinary gold rings, such as the one set with an exceptional emerald and diamonds that is believed to have been given by King James II to his chaplain, were still used to cement loyalty between royalty and those who served them well. 

During the Middle Ages, memento mori rings were intended to remind the wearer of the brevity of life with their macabre skulls and other symbols of deaths. However, during the Renaissance, there was a subtle shift away from emphasis on one’s own mortality to the memorialization of someone else’s passing. The rings were usually inscribed with the name of the deceased and their date of death, and they could be very simple or beautifully enameled remembrances. Simple rings were often given to mourners.  

The introduction of the new rose cut caused many women to have their diamonds recut and reset into fashionable designs often derived from flowers. Enameled designs might be based on the work of French floral artists. Center stones might be surrounded by smaller stones imitating the petals of a flower.  

Chapter Three: 1700–1820 covers the period defined by Rococo and Neoclassical design. During this time, the fashion for floral-based rings grew and became more complex. There was a passion for giardinetti, or “little garden” rings created by setting colored stones into intricate patterns forming baskets and vases of flowers. Diamond rings became a necessary accessory for any gentleman. 

Memorial rings, as bequests to friends and gifts to mourners, became so popular that they were a staple of jewelers who “advertised their ability to make mourning rings neatly and expeditiously.” Large mourning rings would often exhibit painted miniatures, hair under crystal, and enameled images. Not only friends and family were memorialized, but political leaders and military heroes, too, were commemorated. Church has included an image of the illustrated memorial ring made in remembrance of Admiral Horatio Nelson, who died at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). 

As society became increasingly secularized, rings symbolizing an affiliation with political party rather than with royalty or aristocracy or church proliferated. Membership in clubs, social, and fraternal organizations, such as the freemasons, was also marked with the wearing of rings that incorporated their emblems.

One interesting societal and legal change impacted the importance of the ring in marriage. Before the mid-1700s, the “lawful basis for a marriage was simply the exchange of vows in the present tense by the two parties, and a wedding could take place at any time of day.” Often the legitimacy of a marriage was determined by the gift of the ring. However, this could result in the kidnapping of a woman—particularly an heiress—who was forced into an unwanted marriage, and perhaps had a ring forced on her legitimizing the union. The Marriage Act of 1753, however, required that weddings take place in an Anglican church, during the day, and only after the publication of the banns. This meant that while rings were still part of the service, the real proof of the marriage lay in the church register and in the testimony of witnesses.  

Chapter 4: 1820–1900 describes changes brought about by the Romantic movement, when artists looked to the past as idealized eras. Design ideas from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were reinterpreted, as well as those from the Rococo and Neoclassical periods. In rings, loving sentiments were spelled out with gemstones, with each letter of a word represented by the first letter of the name of the stone. For those with a longer message to deliver, there was enamel. The book shows a particularly delightful gold ring with small doors that open to reveal sections of a message much like the “She loves me, she loves me not” of a plucked circle of daisy petals. In this case, each door hides “I love you a little/a lot/ passionately/not at all.” A subtler message of eternal love was delivered by an emerald ring in the shape of a snake, given by Prince Albert to Queen Victoria on their engagement.    

“Romantic” though this period was, it was also practical. Although the value in a wedding ring is primarily in its sentiment, in 1855, Parliament required that all wedding rings bear hallmarks.

Chapter 5: 1900–1950, raises the curtain on the twentieth century and the dawn of the “Me” and “Look at Me” generations. Gone are rings of power, magic, affiliation, and mourning. The demand for fashion rings, started in the previous century, outstripped just about all other roles except for wedding and engagement. It is during this time that the major jewelry houses emerged. 

The Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements led this explosion of design that emphasized originality above almost all else. These designs were often characterized by the use of “semi- precious” stones such as opals, moonstones, and unusual stones such as amber, jadeite, and chalcedony. Art Deco in particular incorporated modern materials such as plastics. 

The use of less expensive materials became pronounced as the Great Depression took hold everywhere, and the trend was to “create an atmosphere of luxury with inexpensive materials that everyone can afford.” But with the return of luxury after World War II, gemstones took center stage as never before as film and stage stars began to wear large faceted gemstones such as citrines, aquamarines, and star stones both on the screen and off. 

Chapter 6: 1950–Present brings the reader speeding into the art and studio jewelry world, as jewelry makers began to emphasize metalwork in their designs. Large rings, either unset or set with gemstones took over the hand. They began to look more like small sculptures than jewelry. Designers used unusual combinations of gemstones and materials. One image that demonstrates this dramatically is Bernhard Schobinger’s “Uhrfragment.” The ring is made from “braided metal wire” and a jeweled watch movement that looks as if it has been heated with a torch and burned. The rough, blackened textures contrast sharply with the single, luminous round pearl set in the center. This is not a ring anyone would have seen in any previous age. 

Individual designers stepped out and became as well known as the celebrities they dressed. Galleries exhibiting studio jewelry opened their doors. The value in a ring might still be intrinsic to the materials used—gold and precious gemstones—but more often the value became attached to the art involved or to the designer’s name. Color, once provided by gemstones and enamel, began to be replaced with acrylics. In short, the only rule in the twentieth century was that just about anything goes.  

Such a reference depends on the number, choice, and quality of the images, as well as the pieces selected. In Rings, the quality of both is exceptionally high. Hand-engraved pieces from 800 years ago look as if they were done yesterday. Full-page images allow examination of the smallest detail. In addition, there are paintings and photos of how rings have been worn and by whom in each era. There are also fascinating pages from old design books and jewelers’ ledgers that record finished drawings of pieces next to a coded breakdown of the labor and material costs.  

The Notes section is fascinating, showing how far afield the study of jewelry can take you, with references to Old Bailey Proceedings, the study of wills, and personal histories as well as titles such as Mistress, Maids and Men: Baronial Life in the Thirteenth Century and At Home in Renaissance Italy. There is an interview with Dame Edith Sitwell. Even Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and John Donne’s poetry serve as sources. In addition, there is a glossary, suggestions for further reading, a brief history of the V&A’s collection, and a short list of other major collections featuring rings.

Rings is an excellent resource for antiques researchers or anyone interested in the story of jewelry in human history. As such, it is a wonderful companion to Cycles of Life: Rings from the Benjamin Zucker Family Collection.

Sharon Elaine Thompson is a Graduate Gemologist (GG) and Fellow of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain (FGA). She has been an instructor at the Gemological Institute of America and has written extensively on jewelry and jewelry manufacturing for more than 25 years.