Sunday, December 20, 2015

An 18th Century Historical Detail of Rings

An 18th Century Historical Detail of Rings
by Kimberly K. Walters of
K. Walters at the Sign of the Gray Horse

“This gem is pledge and image of my heart:
A heart that looks and loves, though not in view.
The jewel has no clearer, purer part –
It may be harder, but is not more true."
~Mary, Queen of Scots to Queen Elizabeth

     I like to focus on the details of historic portraits and prints to see what the artist painted.  I like to ponder whether these details are something that the sitter was actually wearing or an artist's rendition.  In many cases, we will never know whether what was painted was really there, but the detail is amazing and often represents what was commonly worn in the era during which it was painted. 

     Studying such portraits gives me ideas about what to offer my customers, as well as what to wear during my own living history events.  Some of us may have inherited a lovely piece of jewelry or have something already in our possession that we can use at reenactments.  I do offer many items that can augment those items as new pieces for you to cherish.

     In The History and Poetry of Finger-Rings by Charles Edwards, dated 1880, he says that “the ring was generally the emblem of fidelity in civil engagements; and hence, no doubt, its ancient use and functions and distinctions.”  It seems that, throughout the ages, rings meant different things when worn on a certain finger or as given to the intended.  Edwards tries to incorporate into one book what rings meant from the ancients to what he says is “modern times.” 

     His book also goes into some detail about how rings can be connected with power, have supposed charms and virtues, can be linked to degradation and slavery or used for sad and wicked purposes. They can even, Edwards maintains, be coupled with remarkable historical characters or circumstances,  and connote love, affection, friendship (Gimmal or Gimmow Ring) or superstition. He goes on to relate stories about how rings worn in different cultures or worn by saints are supposed to cure certain ailments.

Gimmal or Fede Ring
(Courtesy of The Jewellery Editor – on-line)

     What I like about Edwards' work is that it is heavily sourced, and he will state whether something is true or suspect.  I like the stories, as well, even if they are not based upon fact.  The sentiments are nice.  We are truly appreciative that he took the time to write this work.

     Rings were (and still are) made from many materials.  They were a very popular item and a bestseller even today.  These included, in the early days, bronze, iron, copper, jet, porcelain, tin, and even cut steel, to name a few.  Popular materials in the 17th and 18th Centuries were gold and silver, pinchbeck (or faux gold), and as the old century closed and the new began, plating and finishing in an antique style (or dead gold) was introduced.  Gold or faux gold in rings was generally worn during this time, but there are instances of silver and a combination of gold and silver, as well. 

     I doubt that these were the only materials they used, and further study of inventories, probate records, and purchase orders would need to be done.  Applications of enamel are seen, as well, on rings.  We also see rings set with gemstones (sometimes gold or silver foil on the back), semi-precious stones, or paste (which may also be foiled with a black dot in the center to emulate a certain cut of diamond). Sometimes they feature clusters of stones-and shapes created to great effect, as in the Giardinetti flower basket style, Fede (also meaning Faith, with an Urn, Heart, and Hand) rings, or even rings that looked like belts. In addition, cameos (made of a multitude of materials) and intaglios were seen, rings fit into rings (or twist rings, heart and hand rings) ... and I could go on.

Giardinetti Flower Basket gold ring
(Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum)

     So Edwards then says something really cool:An English work, of but little note, professes to make out 'Love's Telegraph,' as understood in America; thus, if a gentleman wants [a] wife, he wears [a] ring on the first finger of the left hand; if he is engaged, he wears it on the second finger; if married, on the third; and on the fourth if he never intends to be married. When [a] lady is not engaged, she wears [a] hoop or diamond on her first finger; if engaged, on the second; if married, on the third; and on the fourth, if she intends to die maid.”
Threading Pearls, detail from A Portrait of a Woman, by Johann Ulrich Schellenberg, 1745

     When I look at portraits and prints, I see a variety of ways that the rings were worn and no real proof that wearing rings on certain fingers meant anything.  During the mid-19th century we start to see the custom pertaining to engagement and wedding rings becoming more prominent.  In the 18th Century, posey rings were exchanged with lines of poetry engraved inside.  There were also “keeper rings” that were worn on the inside and outside of a wedding ring to ensure that it would not be lost.  The heart was supposedly the most popular motif and was recreated singly, crowned, pierced by arrows, aflame, tied with a lover’s knot, or had a diamond key attached.

The Suitor Accepted, by Jean Frederic Schall, 1788
(Courtesy of Rings Jewelry of Power, Love and Loyalty, by Diana Scarisbrick)

     Edwards goes on about another really neat feature: “Many of our readers are aware that there are name rings, in which the first letter attaching to each jewel employed will mark  a loved one's name or sentiment.  In the formation of English rings of this kind, the terms 'Regard' and 'Dearest' are common. Thus illustrated, R(uby) E(merald) G(arnet) A(methyst) R(uby) D(iamond)  [or] D(iamond) E(merald) A(methyst) R(uby) E(merald) S(apphire) T(opaz). It is believed that this pretty notion originated (as many pretty notions do) with the French. The words which the latter generally play with, in combination of gems, are 'Souvenir' and 'Amitie'…”  The book also describes the stones that are associated with the letters of the alphabet.  I did not include them here, as it would make this article quite long.

REGARD ring, pinchbeck with colored paste settings
(Courtesy of Kimberly Walters)

     Another history of how birthstones came about is in Edwards' book. “The Poles have fanciful belief that each month of the year is under the influence of [a] precious stone, which influence has corresponding effect on the destiny of [a] person born during the respective month," he writes. "Consequently, it is customary among friends and lovers, on birth-days, to make reciprocal presents of trinkets ornamented with the natal stones." The stones and their influences, corresponding with each month, are supposed to be as follows: January, Garnet = Constancy and Fidelity; February, Amethyst = Sincerity; March, Bloodstone = Courage, presence of mind; April, Diamond = Innocence; May, Emerald = Success in love; June, Agate = Health and long life;  July, Cornelian = Contented mind; August, Sardonyx = Conjugal Felicity; September, Chrysolite = Antidote against madness; October, Opal = Hope; November, Topaz = Fidelity; December, Turquoise = Prosperity.

Georgian (c. 1800) rock crystal ring, provenance southeastern America. The stone is a true rock crystal (a type of quartz, like citrine or amethyst), with a curved surface and a simply faceted back. It is tightly bezel set and the yellow gold engraved setting is open backed.  (Courtesy Laurel Scott)

     Then there was the language of flowers, where Mistletoe was for kisses and fertility, Daisies for purity and innocence, and bouquets of flowers stood for the virtues of married life.  The stones were also combined for double symbolism. 

     As to superstitions, it is mentioned that “In Berkshire, England, there is popular superstition that [a] ring made from piece of silver collected at the Communion is cure for convulsions and fits of every kind.”

     Edwards then addresses the matter of "hair" rings. “One of the prettiest rings, used as remembrance, has a socket for hair and closing shutter," he writes, explaining, "It held the hair of a loved one, either alive or passed.”  I have seen these woven into scenes, braided, swirled, and surrounded with gemstones, pearls, or in just a plain ring.  I have also seen a portrait of the person on the front with his or her hair in the “socket” in the back.  In much of my research, these are called "memento mori," which has two meanings. The first is that it remembers a loved one; in the second, it reminds you of your mortality.

Remembrance Ring with purple garnets surround, hair woven into a tree, and white enameling on the sides meant to represent a child or virgin
(Courtesy Kimberly Walters)

     During the Federalist period, rings became thicker with ornamental surfaces.  The signet ring was also appropriated by societies and schools to make emblematic rings.  This may have been the beginning of the class ring for colleges and high schools.

     When searching through portraits of men, many have their hands hidden in their waistcoats or have gloves on, so it is difficult to know whether they were wearing rings.  I did find a few as of this writing that show rings, and they are wearing them on their pinkie fingers, their ring fingers, or both.  I am sure there are rings sitting in a museum or private collection that belonged to many others – but it still does not tell you which fingers they wore them on.

Douglas, 8th Duke of Hamilton, by Jean Preudhomme, 1774

James Farrell Phillips, by Johann Zoffany

John Mortlock of Cambridge and Abington Hall, Great Abington, Cambridgeshire, by John Downman, 1779, Private Collection

Headed Home After Twelfth Night,
The Trustees of the British Museum 
   The ladies' portraits show a wide variety of rings on all fingers.  Some have them on both hands and some just on one.  You will note that there are a lot of plain hoops or bands.  I did find it interesting to find a ring with the initial “S” on it from a 1785 portrait.

Miss Mary Edwards, by William Hogarth, 1742, The Frick Collection

Countess Tolstoy, Ivan Petrovich Argunov , 1768

Mrs Richard Skinner, John Singleton Copely, 1772

Lucy Skelton Gilliam or Mrs Robert Gilliam, by John Durand, circa 1780, Dewitt Wallace

Margaret Whaley Hurst and her daughter Frances, 1782

Lady in Chemise Dress with Blue Sash, Tansey Miniature Collection, 1785

Woman in a Miniature Portrait,

by Gaspare Landi Ritratto di Gentildonna

Detail from Queen Charlotte, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1789

Mother and Child, by Louis Bernard Coclers, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, 1794

Charlotte Schiller, by Louise Seidler, ca. 1815

Kitty Packe “nee Hart,” by Sir William Beechey, 1818-1821

Mrs James Andrew, by John Constable, 1818

Countess Emilia Sommariva Seilliere, by Boulanger Charles Boisfremont, 1833

Mme Ingres, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1859

     Since I am interested in reenacting and living history, I like to end on what types of rings should you wear?  Well, it depends upon your impression.  If you are a camp follower, I would not wear any rings unless it is the beginning of the war.  If you must have a ring on, a plain gold or silver band in place of your modern wedding and engagement rings, if applicable, would be a good choice.  Otherwise, look at your level in society, the dates of your interpretation, and then study the shapes you see in portraits and prints or even on originals.  Be very careful that those originals have not been altered in some way.

The History and Poetry of Finger-Rings by Charles Edwards, dated 1880

Jewelry in America 1600-1900 by Martha Gandy Fales, Antique Collector’s Club, 1995

The new ring guards: the rise in popularity of antique rings with symbolic meaning, The Jewellery Editor, 13 June 2015 (

Georgian Jewellery 1714 to 1830 by Ginny Tedington Dawes with Olivia Collings, Antique Collector’s Club, 2007

Rings Jewelry of Power, Love and Loyalty, by Diana Scarisbrick, Thames & Hudson Ltd., London, 2007

Copyright K. Walters at the Sign of the Gray Horse.  None of this can be copied or used without the permission of Kimberly K. Walters.