Rings are probably the most enduring piece of jewellery in the western world, yet surprisingly few of us know much about the history of the jewellery we see every day.
These days we associate rings primarily with weddings, engagements and maybe even with limited scope for design ingenuity. In reality, the variety of finger-wear is huge and has been experimented with since the time of the Ancient Egyptians. Rings have also been adopted as one of the most meaningful pieces of jewellery, so any old ring you might have lying around might not only be valuable, but evocative too.
The history of modern jewellery really begins at the turn of the 20th century with one of the most recognisable design styles: Art Nouveau. Some very important names (and not just in the jewellery world) began making jewellery in this period, such as Louis Comfort Tiffany and René Lalique.
Art Nouveau rings, like other forms of jewellery, placed silver front and centre with enamel being utilised for decoration. Natural forms were embraced by the movement as a whole. In sculpture his often meant the female form whereas in jewellery it often meant baroque pearls and a colour palette of blues and greens.
Precious stones were used in Art Nouveau jewellery primarily to highlight design, rather than as the basis of a piece. This was even true of rings, but it was to be totally rejected following the First World War.
Embracing the beauty of the stones themselves, however, was only one part of this emergent Art Deco. So sudden was the rejection of Art Nouveau, that many jewellers who had been making rings in that style would also be forced to change their ways, and in doing so produced some of their best work. Design remained a crucial aspect of many Art Deco rings and inherited the craftsmanship (and indeed the craftsmen) of the style which it displaced.
It was in this period that the likes of Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels earned their names. Opulence as the order of the day in the ‘20s as large, often ‘chunky’ rings such as cocktail rings became all the range. Precious and semi-precious stones were central to the most expensive jewellery, especially ‘all-white’ jewellery, but obviously ‘fake’ materials such as new plastics also became wearable in their own right.
Ring Styles and Design
Since the mid-20th century the limits of jewellery have been pushed more and more. Jewellery of all types were taken as new canvases for artist-jewellers in from the mid-century and this tradition continues today. There has been even more use of non-precious materials and abstract forms as modern rings become more experimental.
There is, though, nothing new about experimentation with materials and ornamentation. As we’ve seen, the styles of Art Nouveau and Art Deco offered something very new around the turn of the 20th century but there were just as many revolutions in ring design and style over the previous century. New enamels, settings, techniques like granulation, mosaic and also those of machine mass-production began to be used in the 19th century, to name some examples.
Revival has also been an important part of the history of ring styles and the techniques which accompanied them. The 19th century saw lots of revivals across Europe, including of ancient styles like cameos, and of medieval styles such as the Byzantine and gothic. There was, however, less scope to express many of these styles which were possibly better suited to larger pieces of jewellery such as brooches, which were popular at that time.
You might be surprised by how much antique jewellery is still wearable today. We’ve seen that Art Deco, a style that’s almost a century old, is now hugely popular – so why not consider an older ring?
Putting age in a bit of perspective, the vast majority of rings on the market today date from the 19th and 20th centuries, anything dating to the 17th century or before may well be a museum-worthy piece. In the course of the last 300-or-so years, the meaning behind particular rings has actually changed relatively little, although we do use them for fewer purposes than in previous centuries.
Today, when we imbue our rings with meaning we tend to do so to symbolise love (be it romantic or platonic), to symbolise status and belonging (as in signet rings), or simply for their aesthetic quality. Antique rings could be worn for these reasons and more that we have largely lost today – mourning jewellery being an example. Memento mori rings or mourning rings, for example, might not be everyone’s cup of tea when it comes to everyday wear, but offer a fascinating connection with a past jewellery culture and real-life relationships.
Cast the net more broadly and antique rings display even more colour. Toe rings and even thumb rings are popular in some cultures with the latter deriving from finger-protection in archery, predominantly in Asia. Here we have touched on only a small part of the variety to be found in rings and much more can be learned by getting online and exploring that market for yourself!