A Brief History of Rings

by aiowedding on June 19, 2014

A rather small and unassuming piece of jewelry, the ringer ring actually has a long and fascinating history that dates back thousands of years. Unlike other types of jewelry such as necklaces and bracelets which have always been primarily worn for ornamentation, the oldest rings in recorded history were signet rings, which served to identify their wearer and could be used to place a seal on important documents to prevent forgery.

Nearly as old is the custom of exchanging rings at a wedding, another practical use for a piece of jewelry that does much more than just sparkle and look nice.

The Earliest Recorded Rings

The earliest archaeological records of rings date back to Old Kingdom Egypt, about 5000 years ago. Very few surviving Egyptian rings have been found, but many of them are decorated with the famous scarab design. Around 4000 years ago, the Hittite people of Turkey started the widespread practice of signet rings. Most Hittite families had an identifying crest that could be set in a ring.

The Romans and Rings

Rings were quite popular in ancient Rome, where an intricate system of etiquette sprang up around which rings could be worn on which occasions. Plain rings or signet rings could be worn on any finger of either hand, but rings with stones in them could only be worn on the left hand for men or the right hand for women. Gold rings were for special occasions, and silver and bronze were worn for everyday. It was considered polite to put aside precious metals and wear only iron rings to funerals.

Rings in the Renaissance

The Renaissance can be characterized by ring mania throughout Europe. People who could afford it wore up to three rings on each finger, and then strung more rings on chains around their necks. It was also at this time that people began to assign meanings to the stones set in their rings. For example, sapphires represented purity, rubies glory, and emeralds tranquility. Special rings were also assigned to members of the clergy and nobility as signs of their rank.

The History of Wedding Rings

The Egyptians were the first in recorded history to exchange rings when they married. These rings were simple and disposable, made from braided rushes that grew on the banks of the Nile. Wedding rings were given by both the ancient Greeks and Romans, and the tradition spread throughout Europe over the next 1000 years. It’s believed that the Romans began the practice of placing the wedding ring on the fourth finger of the left hand because it was believed that the vein in this finger ran directly to the heart. Until the 20th century, only women wore wedding rings in many cultures, but in the 1900s it became customary for both men and women to wear them.

Poison Rings

One unique type of ring with a more sordid history is the poison ring, a ring with a hidden compartment in which poison pills could be placed. These rings could either be used to assassinate others, or to give the wearer a quick escape and allow them to avoid capture and torture.

Rings are one of the most enduring pieces of ornamentation, and the ones we wear today are part of a long historical tradition.

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