Finger rings signify power and prestige – just as much today in TV and movies as they have throughout history. Real or fictional, the glittering presence of medieval rings boldly captures the imagination. Hit shows like Game of Thrones portray the intentions of heroes and villains through their rings and costumes. And like the armies of Game of Thrones, rings triumphantly travel overseas. This braided gold Viking ring shows the masterful craftwork of the Norsemen, and perhaps belonged to a soldier destined for battle. Symbols of power were used by royal and imperial houses across Europe. The double-headed eagle on this German signet ring traces back to the prestige Imperial Rome. Vast empires can even be evoked in a single ring: an impressive sapphire ring from Iran captures the expanse and power of the Seljuq dynasty that stretched from the Mediterranean to China.
June is the traditional month for weddings, when spring turns to summer and roses begin to blossom. Over the centuries jewellery has expressed feelings of deep emotion, romantic love, and the union between couples through precious finger rings — the circular form of the ring is itself a symbol of eternity. In marriage, worn on the ring finger of the left hand, rings were believed to have a direct link to the heart. Miniature in form yet enveloping the finger of the wearer, rings say “I love you” in timeless, intangible ways.
Ancient Romans introduced betrothal rings with motifs, such as the key ring inscribed with wishes for joyfulness (like “Utere Felix”), or with two clasped hands representing the vows given at the wedding ceremony. This motif was even more popular in the Middle Ages, Renaissance and beyond, in the form fede rings (Italian for “trust”), some with twinned hoops interspersed with hearts. The language of gemstones complemented expressions of love: rubies or garnets were emblems of passionate love, diamonds or rock crystals symbolised virtue and constancy, and emeralds signified hope. In England, posy rings (gold bands with concealed love verses) were popular as a sign of loyalty in marriage, with their hidden messages known only known to the wearer and giver.
In June we say “love is in the air,” but the expression of happiness and the union between couples is undoubtedly in the ring.
Your small hand-held iPhone (well they are bigger and bigger these days) sends personalized messages sometimes with images. In bygone days, this was one of the functions of rings. Our post for May with is all about their messages. Perhaps the quintessential message-ring is the posy ring. You can text your sweetheart a short missive today, but how much more romantic to give her a Renaissance posy ring saying, “You never knew a ♡ more true”. A quick message made pithier with an emoji-like heart. Even more abbreviated, the top half of this mourning ring acts as a rebus (a type of pictogram similar to text speak) with the letters "J" and "E", a glass, and the letter "L" together spelling out the French phrase "I adore her." The sentiment is echoed in the ring's lower half where a young maiden stands with a lover's crown and a faithful dog, popular symbols of affection and grief. The eagle on a signet symbolized earthly power, as well as courage and strength (another candidate for an emoji). And, the charming image of a Virgin and Child, surrounded by diamonds and sapphires, poignantly conveys ever-lasting motherly love; it was a gift from mother to daughter.
Rings are a perfect marriage of art and fashion, and were made to be worn. This is true from ancient Egypt to Renaissance Europe, but as displayed in glass cases with perfect lighting, this fact is easy to forget. At Les Enluminures we encourage our clients not only to collect but also to wear their treasures when possible. Wearing an ancient or medieval ring is more than a fashion statement – it is an opportunity to connect with the past. What better time to illustrate this point than during New York Fashion Week in February. We were delighted when VOZ, a leading ethical fashion company, invited us to collaborate on the launch of their Fall/Winter 2017 Collection, “Future Renaissance.” The rings we exhibited, dating from the fifth to twentieth centuries, highlight the intelligence, beauty, and creativity that inspired the collection. Alongside VOZ’s beautifully handcrafted garments, the timelessness of our rings and the desirability of their continued use is easy to see.
This heavy, wide gold band in an octagonal shape and with openwork ornament spells out the Latin words UTERE FELIX or “Use this with [for] luck.” The decorative ivy leaves intricately chiseled out of the gold in our ring concealed a message of friendship and loyalty. Might this ring have been a betrothal or wedding ring? It is possible. The Romans introduced rings with clasped hands signifying marriage, with portraits of bride and groom, and with sayings evocative of love and remembrance in the married state. Certainly the ring bears witness to the trend that developed from the second century AD toward more expensive rings, ones that used greater weights of gold; and it shows that by the third and fourth century the techniques developed by goldsmiths became more ornate, especially evident in the technically sophisticated pierced openwork, described as “opus interrasile.” The present ring is one of the largest and heaviest to have survived in this openwork technique, and its old provenance makes it an exceptional example of its type.
We celebrate Valentine's Day with gifts as symbols of love – from chocolates and flowers to gemstone rings and jewelry. This was also true from Antiquity through the Renaissance with rings and brooches decorated with symbols of love and fidelity on miniature scale. Fede rings with clasped hands (from mani in fede, Italian for “hands held in faith”) were studded with ruby and diamond gemstones as symbols of the heart and eternity. An eighteenth-century gimmel ring (from the Latin for “twin”) joins two hands to miniature hearts – the hands are easily moved apart and hinged together again to create a perpetual embrace. Lover’s fidelity was also symbolized in cameos showing a woman holding a small lap dog. Such a cameo encrusted with rose-cut diamonds was even more a sign of devotion literally etched in stone. So, what did you get for your sweetheart?
How do Posy Rings speak today? Les Enluminures is launching a public contest to create your own social-media-inspired posy inscription! For fun, compose your own posy inscription and you could have the chance to win an autographed copy of “Take this Ring.” Tweet your posy inscription using the hashtag #LEposycompetition, or send it to us and we will tweet it for you!
Ever had too many characters for your tweet and have had to rely on hashtags and emojis to get across what you want to say? Well posy rings, too, were restricted by character counts, able to fit around the inside of the band. Goldsmiths would sometimes rely upon a rebus or two to save space, just like a modern-day emoji.
Of great popularity in Tudor and Elizabethan periods, posy rings take their names and identities from their inscriptions; they are poetic by their very essence. Poetry sounds clearly in the rhyming posies of two rings proclaiming “Gods intent none can prevent” and “Hearts United live Contented.” You can hear it as well in the lilting iambs of two inscribed “Not the value but my love” and “No Riches to Content.”
What was the point of these bits of poetry? Gift to a new spouse or beloved, expressive tokens of friendship… the posies provided a medium for brief messages. Like tweets, these rings imposed strict character limits on the messages their givers could pass along to friends or lovers: 28 characters appears to be the maximum. For the chatty, there were some workarounds, though. As in “You never knew a ❤ more true,” rebuses offered a ready means of packing more words into a short inscription, just as texting language and emojis do now. With inscriptions concealed along the insides of bands or blazoned around their outsides, posy rings could be used to pass private messages or to share them publicly for others to see. Either way, these posies offer us a glimpse into the social exchanges of previous centuries – and provide an enduring means of communicating sentiments!
#LEposycompetition starts with: “we can b heroes 4ever & ever”! [R.I.P. David Bowie]
The gift of a ring is special. Not just dazzling adornments, rings have the power to communicate friendship and love. More than any other form of art, rings speak.
Some rings do this quite directly with words. A Posy Ring declares “I like my choice” in an intimate inscription inside its band, known only to its giver and wearer. A Gimmel Fede Ring (“gimmel” for twin and “fede” for fidelity) promises a “gage d’amitie,” or a token of friendship, in an inscription revealed only when its three gold bands come apart. This ring’s form lends tacit emphasis to its written vow, with a heart-shaped crowned ruby and diamond symbolizing love and with the two hands holding the stones signifying the joining together of two friends or lovers. Other rings speak entirely without words. The mysterious emerald on an elegant Renaissance Cusped Ring represents youth, and also stands for hope. An intaglio of the goddess Fortuna, holding aloft her horn of plenty, surely brought luck to those whose fingers she graced.
In the medieval and Early Modern eras, the practice of gifting these eloquent objects was intimately bound with all sorts of notions of sociability and friendship. Why not follow in the footsteps of our ancestors this holiday season and offer a ring as a gift that speaks from the heart?
November 18th through December 3rd
New York Opening and Reception:
Thursday, November 17th 2016, 6 PM to 8 PM
November 18th through December 3rd
Tuesday to Saturday from 10 AM to 6 PM
23 East 73rd Street • 7th Floor, Penthouse
New York, NY 10021
Tel +1 212 717 7273
The Jewish custom of giving a wedding ring seems to have been known as early as the seventh and eighth century in Babylonia and then spread to other parts of the Diaspora. Possibly to date the first mention of a ring actually being given during a Jewish wedding ceremony, rather than as a symbol of betrothal, goes back to Rabbi Jakob hal Lewi Mölln in the Rhineland, about 1400 and is mentioned in the Maharil (Par. 5). The earliest surviving examples of Jewish wedding rings were found in the Colmar and Erfurt Treasures dating to the first half of the fourteenth century, and during this same period illustrations of the ceremony begin to appear in manuscripts. According to the rituals such rings were not allowed to include gemstones; color is introduced in some elaborate examples through the use of enamel. Most Jewish wedding rings bear an inscription with good luck wishes “Mazal Tov” in Hebrew. Surely they were ritual objects, special ceremonial pieces, not worn by the bride but instead returned to the community and passed down through generations. In one instance, the ring was transformed into a pendant for later wearing, a phenomenon also known from a painting.
November 2nd to November 12th
Shapero Rare Books, 32 St George St, London, W1S 2EA
Gallery Talk: Beatriz Chadour-Sampson “Jewish Wedding Rings” (Thursday November 3rd, 7PM)
Rubies have long been one of the most desirable of gemstones. Known as ‘Ratnaraj’ or ‘King of Gems’ in ancient Sanskrit, rubies appear in Biblical texts attributed to King Solomon and were prized by nobles such as Cardinal Richelieu and Mary, Queen of Scots. They were coveted not only for their crimson hue, but also for their purported talismanic properties. According to Medieval lapidaries, which describe the virtues and application of gems, a ruby had the ability to grant protection and health to the wearer as well as to engender goodwill between people while in the Christian context they also symbolized the sacrificial blood of Christ. During the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the ruby, like the red rose, became emblematic of love, making it a popular choice for betrothal and wedding rings like those found on our site. To this day, the ruby remains one of the most popular colored gemstones with spectacular specimens like the Sunrise Ruby fetching $30 million at auction.
English gold rings engraved with images and inscriptions were highly desired in the 15th century. Iconographic rings were made almost exclusively in England, some with images of three or more saints. This iconographic ring is finely engraved with an image of the Trinity and decorated around a twisting band with flowers. The Trinity (or also Throne of Mercy) is found painted in 15th-century Books of Hours with prayers that urged the reader to picture themselves in the presence of the three-fold God. On rings, the image was thought to protect the wearer against evils and dangers. Here the goldsmith skillfully rendered the Trinity in a thumbnail-sized image, even showing Christ's wound with a single tap of the tool. Rings with twisted bands were also popular in 15th-century England, like the ring engraved "en bon an" in Gothic black letter script. Both French and English were spoken and written in court throughout 15th-century England, with “bon an“ and other well-wishes inscribed in rings that were given as gifts for the New Year.
April 23, 2016
Celebrations abound in April 2016 to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. We want to commemorate the Bard this month with a special grouping of Posy Rings. For those of you still unfamiliar with this enchanting type of ring: “posy” (from poésie or poetry) describes rings with short inscriptions on the inside of the band. “Love me and Leave me Not” is one of the most famous, occurring in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. But, there are countless others, and they often rhyme. “I like my Choice,” “I cannot show the love I owe,” and “In my sight is my delight” are among the dozen or more featured here this month. Sometimes exchanged as wedding rings (“As God decreed, so we agreed” or “A loving wife during life”), they were also tokens of regard, personal gifts between friends. The inscription hidden on the inside of the band assured that only the giver and the receiver knew the message. The earliest ones date during Shakespeare’s lifetime and are featured in his plays and sonnets, and the genre continued unabated through the eighteenth century. Join in celebrating the Bard this month in a unique way with the gift of a Posy Ring!
From the seventeenth century onwards mementoes for friends or family to remember their loved ones were customary at all levels of society. Codicils in wills specified that money be left for rings to be made, distributed, and worn at the funeral, and sometimes even defined the wording of the inscriptions or motifs. They were also tokens of sentiment. The closeness to the deceased determined the choice of materials, size, or embellishment of the rings. Despite their purpose, these rings were often anything but austere in style. Some examples combined skulls with daisy flowers celebrating the vulnerability of life with the promise of a new beginning. Others plaited the hair of the corpse into the gold band of the ring. The colors are striking and stark, black (for married) and white (for unmarried and children). Today such rings are fashion statements. They reflect popular culture’s fascination with death as evidenced in, for example, the setting of the latest James Bond film Spectre during the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) or in Keith Richard’s famous skull ring, now a symbol of Rock and Roll.
What do these three names have in common? The answer is simple: emeralds. The unusually large number of emerald rings now on our site prompts this month’s post. Opaque in appearance, early emeralds are apple green in color and come from mines on the Red Sea in Upper Egypt. Legend has it that these mines once belonged to Cleopatra, so enamored was she of emeralds. Emperor Nero must have watched gladiator games through such an emerald, as recounted by the historian Pliny. The emerald thus became associated with good vision, as ophthalmologists remind us even today. The discovery of the New World brought translucent, dark green Columbian emeralds to Europe, when they became popular in Renaissance jewelry. The famous “Patricia Emerald” discovered in 1920 in a Columbian mine and now in the American Museum of Natural History is 632 carats and nearly three inches long. Today’s laboratories manufacture perfect synthetic emeralds, but our historic jewels preserve all the beauty and flaws of their era.
For many centuries, rings were not simply accessories, worn to match dresses and shoes, but functional objects, often full of symbolism. If you look closely, this agate cameo is that of an African male bust. The person whose finger it would have adorned was likely showing their “worldliness.” Following the Portuguese expeditions of the late 1490’s, new European trading routes were set up along the coasts of Africa and the Indian Ocean resulting in an increased African presence in Europe. They fulfilled numerous occupations, from writers, soldiers, ambassadors and house slaves. One of the most famous soldiers was Shakespeare’s Othello, identified as “a lascivious Moor” with “Thick-lips” (I.I). The names of many have been lost, but their portraits have been retained in paintings, sculpture and jewelry. In this example of a Renaissance Blackamoor cameo ring, the pronounced lips and hairstyle conform conventionally to the sixteenth-century European perception of “the other.”
Now considered a birth stone for the month of December, turquoise was highly prized in the Middle Ages for its talismanic properties, thought to give contentment to the wearer. It was also believed to protect against illness, poisoning, or accidents while riding horseback. Varying from blue to green in color, high-quality blue stones were the most highly valued in lapidary books written in Arabic and Latin. The color of turquoise was thought to change when it was near a poisonous substance, or if its wearer fell ill the color of turquoise would change out of sympathy. Shakespeare places a turquoise ring in the possession of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice that represented his youth; when it was stolen by his daughter and traded for a pet monkey Shylock says that he “would not have given it [away] for a wilderness of monkeys.” In Western Europe turquoise was frequently set in petite flower-shaped bezels and in cluster designs. A lozenge-shaped blue turquoise stone is set in yellow gold and flanked with cut rock crystal in this Baroque cluster ring, creating an opaque, translucent and reflective bouquet. A tall tart-mold ring and a tiny “pinkie” ring are examples of more widely-available designs.
This elegant Byzantine ring preserves an intaglio portraying the goddess Diana. In Roman mythology, Diana is known as the goddess of hunting, shown with wild animals and in the forest. She represents fertility and is a protector of women during childbirth. Known also as the guardian of the lower classes, Diana was especially revered among slaves. We identify this image as Diana by the quiver of arrows draped over her shoulder on the intaglio. Her youthful gaze is captured in this carnelian gem carved by a Roman craftsman in the 2nd century. It is likely that this intaglio was placed into the present ring during the 5th century within the territory of the Byzantine Empire. We presume that the original owner would have worn this ring for her admiration of Diana and called upon her protective and healing powers. Although Christianity was the official religion of both the Eastern and Western Empires, the pagan cult of Diana attracted many followers and rivaled the early Christian Church.
This magnificent gold ring was among the wealth of artifacts lost when the Spanish galleon Conde de Tolosa sank off the coast of the Dominican Republic on the morning of August 25, 1724. The ship was carrying a cargo of mercury from Spain to Peru for use in the silver mines of Potosi. When a hurricane struck, the heavy winds and strong tides snapped ship’s mooring. The current dragged the ship away from its convoy and onto a reef where it ran aground and sank. 560 of its 600 passengers and crew drowned. This sumptuous ring remained in the wreck until 1976, when the government of the Dominican Republic allowed the recovery of the ship by Caribe Salvage SA.
The ring holds a massive square, step-cut amethyst. While the stone bears streaks and other inclusions, it displays the much-admired red and mauve flashes of the highest quality of amethyst. The gold body of the ring is in excellent condition, and there are few scratches to the surface of the amethyst to speak to its two hundred fifty years under water.
Introducing the blue sapphire: birthstone of September and stone of choice throughout history for biblical kings and royal princesses. In the Bible, it was designated for the Throne of God: “and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone” (Exodus 24:10), Marbode, Bishop of Rennes (c. 1035 - 1123) defined it as “the most suitable for the fingers of kings” and in the 12th Century, Pope Innocent II had his bishops wear sapphire rings. Why was the sapphire so desirable? In the Middle Ages, jewelry was often valued more for its power than its beauty. The medieval lapidary, liber lapidum, revealed the magical properties of gemstones and the sapphire was thought to cure eye conditions, preserve chastity and symbolized holiness, wisdom and virtue. And what about today? Forbes Magazine reported that sales in sapphire jewelry have soared since Princess Diana’s iconic sapphire ring was offered in marriage to Kate Middleton, wife of Prince William, the future heir to the British throne.
Perhaps the sapphire is the new girl’s best friend?
Are rings without borders? These two nearly-contemporary rings embody the cultural crosscurrents found in art from medieval Spain. Both are made with twisted-wire filigree and studded at the center with gemstones. Their differences, however, speak to a mingling of tastes and traditions. The ring with square bezel, eight bulbous globules, and sapphire cabochon is made from electrum and echoes earlier Visigothic and Byzantine rings. The ring with the six-pointed star, small seed pearls, and turquoise stone is made from gold, likely by Fatimid craftsmen who often traveled from North Africa to Spain as merchants. Jewelry with a similar range of materials and designs has been found jumbled together in hordes, like the one found in the city of Murcia in south-eastern Spain and hidden away since the time of the Umayyad caliphate (dating to c. 929-1010; this horde is now at the Victoria and Albert Museum). Some of the greatest treasures from medieval Spain show a similar mingling of Islamic, Jewish, and Latin cultures. Amid such exchanges, what does “Spanish” really mean for art from this period?
Although June has always been the most popular month for weddings, July ranks high as a time to get engaged. Over two thousand years of custom associates rings with marriage. Here are some fascinating examples. Already in ancient Rome, the giving of a ring marked the moment of the “contract” or betrothal to marry. Rings with clasped hands engraved on a bezel and those with a portrayal of the standing couple are most probably betrothal rings. By the fifteenth century until today, diamonds went with marriage, such as in this lovely Baroque cluster ring or an unusual ring, fashionably set with twenty-one brilliants and enameled initials “GM.” A document of 1685 specifically identifies a Posy ring that is inscribed “God above increase our love” as a “wedding ring,” even if some posies were just precious gifts between friends or lovers. Jewish wedding rings were intended for ceremonial use, rather than wearing; they often bear scrolled inscriptions on the interior “Mazel tov.” Good luck.
In Act 5 of his Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare’s Gratiano mocked the posy ring as a cheap trinket adorned with “cutler’s poetry.” The two present examples, however, demonstrate that seventeenth-century poets and jewelers often treated the limited space and simple contours of the posy ring as a serious artistic challenge. The short poems on the interiors of both rings economically gesture to the erudition of their composers. In the first, the phrase, “Dopo Dio, Voi,” translates a common English posy into Italian, a language popular among English nobles of the Renaissance by virtue of their humanist educations. The cryptic posy on the second ring, “thinke it not strange, though ever exchaing,” draws language from 1 Peter 4:4 and 4:12, fashioning a veiled statement about married life that likewise draws attention to the poet’s learning. Transforming the otherwise unassuming hoops of gold into tours-de-force of incised and enameled decoration, the goldsmiths matched the wordsmiths in skill and subtlety.
Rings with secret compartments, like this one, often catch the imagination of modern collectors, and those concealing small mechanisms to deliver jets of water reveal much about the history of humor. Documentary evidence suggests that the so-called squirt rings were appreciated not only as discreet receptacles for re-applying perfume in public, but also for their potential as prank devices and entertaining novelties. The first recorded instance of this type of ring, in fact, recounts its use in a prank gone awry. During a banquet at the court of Fredrick the Great of Prussia in 1770, the wife of a Russian diplomat used a squirt ring to wet the face of a pompous French ambassador as he led her to the dinner table. He laughed at the gimmick the first time, but the joke had lost its charm by the second, and he discreetly warned her that a third would be met in kind. To the woman’s surprise and to the embarrassment of onlookers, he lived up to his threat and threw a glass of water in her face. To avoid further confrontation, the woman’s husband shepherded her from the table and apologized profusely for her discourteous behavior.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art presents Treasures and Talismans: Rings from the Griffin Collection at the Cloisters. The exhibition showcases about fifty rings of exceptional artistic quality and historical importance. Related materials in a variety of media explore issues ranging from medieval craft to the role of the ring as an amulet, gift, and symbol of identity.
THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, New York
Glass Gallery, The Cloisters, Gallery 010
May 1–October 18, 2015
Open everyday, from 10:00 am to 5:15 pm
That so icy a stone should embody the first full month of spring is somewhat ironic, and is in fact a relatively recent phenomenon. The high esteem of diamonds first arose in the Roman period, when Pliny the Elder declared their supremacy over all the substances of the Earth. Yet when early Christian and medieval writers equated precious stones with the divisions of time, they tended to ignore the indomitable adamas in favor of gems with ancient pedigrees in Jewish scripture. Thus when St. Jerome associated gems with the months of the year in his correspondence to St. Fabiola, he sought a scriptural precedent in the ancient priestly breastplate described in Exodus xxviii. 13-30 and xxxix. 8-21. The pairing of the diamond with the month of April in fact must be sought not in antiquity or the Middle Ages, but in eighteenth-century Poland. In that century, the custom of wearing birthstones first enjoyed popularity among Polish aristocrats. Perhaps adopting the fashion from Jewish gem merchants, they rearranged the received schedule of gems to feature the diamond rather than the sapphire as the stone of April. The Polish custom later spread throughout Europe, an advance perhaps facilitated by the marriage of the Polish princess Marie Leszczynsaka to Louis XV of France in 1725
October 31 to December 6, 2014
Exhibition Opening and Reception:
30th October 2014, 6 PM to 8 PM
23 East 73rd Street, 7th Floor, Penthouse
New York, NY 10021
tel +1 212 717 7273
Mondays to Saturdays 10 AM to 6 PM
November 2 to 30, 2012
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday
10 AM to 6 PM
23 East 73rd Street, 7th Floor, Penthouse
New York, NY 10021
tel +1 212 717 7273