The English prayer book of 1559 did not require that a ring be exchanged in the marriage service. King James 1 (1566 – 1625) observed that he thought ‘they would prove to be scare well-married who were not married with a ring’. During the reign of King Charles 1 (1600-1649) and the Commonwealth of Cromwell (1649 – 1660) some Puritans thought they were both ‘superflous and superstitious.
Noble women, such as Alathea, Countess of Arundell and Surrey wore rings on their fingers as well as tied to their wrist with a black thread, or by hanging a ring on a ribbon around their neck, a fashionable custom
During the seventeenth century in Europe and England, the expansion of trade and industry would lead to a period that would see costume influenced more by currents in art and intellectual thought than by any other factor.
Rings previously worn to commemorate the death of a loved one – Memento mori, were worn as a reminder of the fragility of life.
In an age when the plague was still rampant, they became popular. Wearers hoping they would help to ward off evil spirits, as old superstitions held onto from the Middle Ages continued.
Gems like emeralds that had been coveted since Roman times, when Nero had used one to shade his eyes an early form of ‘sun glass’, now became prized for their intrinsic value and worn by men.
One stunning number conserved at the V & A London belonged to James 11. Set in gold and surrounded by table-cut diamonds it is a tour de force of the goldsmith’s craft.
King Charles II (1630 -1685) completely abandoned puritanical coldness following his restoration to the English throne in 1660, revitalizing both the English people and the economy.
His court was filled with dazzling, frivolous beauties, who boasted they encompassed the gentle virtues; the fear of God, modesty, honesty and truth.
It is not surprising that King Charles wanted to wear fashionable clothes following years abroad in exile.
No doubt he still had vivid memories of the Battle of Worcester in 1651 when he been forced to wear ‘nothing but a green coat and a pair of country breeches on and a pair of country shoes, that made him sore all over his feet that he could scarce stir’.
The ‘posy’ ring engraved with a romantic verse became popular during his reign.
It was given to seal betrothals and sported such phrases as “God alone made us two one’.
Well known diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) recorded that he and his family wrote a verse for his son Roger’s wedding, while they were waiting for their lamb roast to finish cooking.
Men of the period were known for wearing plain gold wedding rings on the fourth finger of their hand, which by now had become a tradition.
English writer, Izaak Walton, author of the now famous and charming book about fishing, The Compleat Angler, had his portrait painted by Jacob Hyusmans shortly after his first wife’s death in 1640.
He is wearing two gold rings on his wedding finger, which lets us know that he had already re-married.
During the eighteenth century the diamond ring became an important aspect of a gentleman’s wardrobe.
One of the most popular rings for men to wear was the ‘diamond’ ring as seen in this portrait of Johann Christian Bach by Thomas Gainsborough painted c1776. It appears frequently in other portraits of the period.
They dazzled with their brilliance.
Rubies and diamonds became fashionable for romantic rings, the gems symbolizing as they did, passion and eternity.
One of the pretties of all creations, little garden rings drew on the current craze for flora from an English field or from far away fields abroad.
The importance of wedding rings now gained momentum, as the basis for marriage was challenged, found to be wanting and changed. Scandals such as kidnapping heiresses and forcing them into marriage in some of the oddest settings imaginable, like a blacksmith’s shop, highlighted the shortcomings of the Anglican church’s requirements.
In 1753 an Act of Parliament in England was passed, which tightened the existing ecclesiastical rules regarding marriage.
It now stated that for a marriage to be valid it had to be performed in a church after the publication of banns (three times), or the obtaining of an official marriage licence.
This would also mean that from then on rings would also become an integral aspect of the wedding ceremony and provide physical evidence of its legality.
The ‘ceremony of the ring’ became an important aspect of recognizing the lawful basis of a marriage especially after the Duchess of Cleveland was called to give in evidence in a bigamy case, a considerable embarrassment.
Clasped hands continued in popularity in the design for rings, often clutching a heart shaped diamond and topped with a crown as this one inscribed to ‘Dudley & Katherine united’.
All of this was taking place at a time when the rapidly growing middle classes in society were grappling with the idea that marriage should also be about love.
Gem set wedding rings came into fashion during the age of Jane Austen, as romantic sensibilities were vividly portrayed in the relationships of her characters.
Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey, who is scheming to find and capture a husband who can give her plenty of money and a fashionable home, is exposed to her friend Catherine whose friendship she does not value at all.
All Isabella wanted was a ‘brilliant exhibition of hoop-rings on her finger’.
An enduring custom for wearing rings to remember friends and family would increase in Jane Austen’s time and into the nineteenth century.
This was when women throughout Europe were set a fine example of devoted love by England’s Queen Victoria.
Her children married into many of the European monarchies and subsequently became guiding spirits of many influential homes.
No longer shackled by official duties, ladies stamped the events of the day with their passion for love and elegance.
The heroic death on the deck of his ship Victory of Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar against Napoleon meant a great demand for memorabilia especially rings.
He left his hair to his lover Emma Hamilton, who would surely have had ‘mourning jewelry’ containing it made. ‘
The admiral’s brother ordered many rings from London jeweller John Salter for family and friends as well as every admiral and post-captain who fought alongside him.
An enameled gold memorial ring by Salter, currently in the V & A Museum at London made c1805 was engraved outside with Nelson’s motto ‘Palman qui meruit feram (Let him who earned it bear the palm (of victory))’ and inside ‘Lost to his country 21 October 1805 aged 47’.
Monarchs across Europe and in England frequently gave rings with their portrait or cipher to acknowledge loyal service and friendship.
An enamelled gold ring also in the V & A collection is set with rose-cut and brilliant-cut diamonds, bears the cipher of Louis-Philippe of France (reigned 1830-48).
He was the last member of the Bourbon monarchy to reign in France.
He abdicated during the 1848 Revolution and was replaced by Napoleon III.
Throughout the nineteenth century the ring remained the most significant of all love tokens.
A snake as a ring as creepy as it may sound, adorned the engagement ring given by Prince Albert to Queen Victoria, the snake being a symbol of eternity
Flowers were a hidden language for secret messages of love. This delightful French gold enamelled ring c1830 opens to reveal inscriptions: I love you a little, a lot, passionately or not at all, much like the romantic rhyme used when plucking petals from a daisy.
The changes wrought by the transition from the nineteenth century into the twentieth century in regard to jewellery design and manufacture were not as expected, with the influence of the arts and crafts movement, art nouveau style aspects of modernism rolling over for the first decade of the twentieth century. The light-hearted spirit continued and the fluidity of the Edwardian style of clothing, where everything was grace and elegance, suited curvaceous, beautiful lines.
During World War I (1914 – 1918) jewels were locked away in security for safety. Precious metals became scarce and restricted and many golden rings were sacrificed to support the war effort.
Some innovation in design, the use of black combined with white breaking free from days of extended mourning, the use of Egyptian motifs as well as those from the Orient and antiquity, had started by 1906 and in 1910 when Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes presented Schéhérazade at Paris the colourful richness of a sultan’s harem.
The Art Deco style emerged during the first decade of the twentieth century as the first universal design style in over a hundred years. The design of rings changed dramatically and their style related specifically to the decorative style that was the hallmark of Paris Salons between 1920 and 1925, where it manifested itself emotionally with zest, colour and playfulness.
Platinum was favoured in Art Deco jewellery because its strength allowed minimal quantities of metal to be used, giving the stones the greatest possible prominence. Set with diamonds and sapphires, this ring in the V & A Museum at London, displays the new practice of precise geometric arrangement of stones, enhanced by its platinum setting.
Gathering design elements from as far away as ancient Egypt, adding aspects of every other style since and then reaching forward to the futuristic world of popular American space cowboy Buck Rogers. It was also about the world of haute couture as dresses aped the lines of the new international architectural style while their owners sought to become style icons.
Paris set the style and the world followed. Avant-garde jewellers took innovation to many extremes and Cartier’s ‘Trinity Ring’ first made in 1924, had three interlocking bands of coloured gold and became the perfect romantic gift.
The second World War brought about enormous privations and the manufacture of jewellery was forbidden after 1942 in England apart from the essentials: wedding rings.
Sewn into the seams of clothing, many people also escaped Europe to start a new life in America or English colonies like Canada and Australia. Gold rings were especially valuable and easily concealed, easily sold for their metal content and helped many people to have a way of survival after they arrived.
This is how so many rings from Europe and England moved around the world. After the war was over de Beers 1947 advertising campaign cemented the tradition of the diamond engagement ring – a diamond is forever. de Beers also developed the diamond ‘Eternity Ring’, which was given to symbolize never-ending love on the occasion of a significant wedding anniversary.
One of their slogans became popular “She married you for richer or poorer. Let her know how it’s going”.
Post war the optimism of the 1950’s would drive design choices as rings became ‘wearable art’.
During the 60’s and 70’s they were billed as ‘attractive and wearable’, as artist-jewellers revelled in designing rings, which were a free expression of their art.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous 50’s fable The Lord of the Rings exploited every aspect of the never-ending circle as the evil Dark Lord endeavoured to snatch the Ruling Ring from the hands of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins so he would be able to take control of the world.
It was the young Frodo Baggins however, defended by so many of his friends, including Gandulf the White wizard who, after an awfully big adventure across the realms of Middle-earth to the Cracks of Doom, penetrated deep inside the territories of the Dark Lord to foil his evil purpose and to destroy the Ring forever.
Giampaolo Babetto trained at the Instituto d’Arte in Padua and his use of gold and geometric shapes heralded the arrival of the bounteous 80’s.
Strong and simple his gold ring drew attention to the purity of the gold used.
It has since entered history in the collection of the V & A at London English Jeweller and designer Solange Azagury-Partridge produced her hot lips ring, using vivid red enamel, giving rings ‘a slick, pop, erotic and modern look’.
Their design was more than likely part influenced by the revival of interest in the various styles of Modernism in the 90’s and first decade of this century, especially the ‘Mae West’ lip sofa.
Designed in 1936 the sofa’s form had been originally modeled on the large luscious lips of Mae West, a Hollywood actress renowned for her ‘come up and see me sometime’ sensual dry and witty repartee.
Solange Azagury-Partridge is renowned for her pieces being of quality and for employing ethical principles of supply and production.
Her Britannia ring was unashamedly patriotic, bearing the Union Jack as an iconic shape of modernity on the sensuous hot lips she had produced before.
Designed in 2000 and produced in 2007 also continued a theme initiated by Azagury-Partridge’s earlier ‘eye’ rings. She wrote ‘if the eyes are the windows to the soul, by contrast the lips express the earthy, sensual side of life.
Contemporarily rings can express humour, wit and social criticism, reflecting the unique charms and hallmarks of an individual.
From ancient times when their design was inspired by a scarab beetle, rings have become miniature works of art, sculptural as well as glamorous pieces of ‘big bling’.
Their future can only be constrained by the imagination of their designers and makers, who have a wealth of history, a proliferation of metals and gemstones available, as well as a society to draw on for inspiration, whose story continues to evolve.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013