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The Roles and Functions of Rings - Part 1

Rings are more than eye-catching jewelry. Since the very beginning, they have been performing the function of an amulet, an indicator of social status, and even a signature verifier. Do you know how else people could use their rings? If your answer is ‘no’, then this article will shed some light on the purpose of this little ornament.

Ring History

Rings, finger jewelry shaped like a rim, hoop or spiral and made of various materials, are common among people of all cultures and religions. Bone rings were worn back in the Paleolithic era. Our ancestors believed that the round shape was able to safeguard from evil spirits. The first metal rings occurred in the Bronze Age. A ring is considered to be a symbol of unity and eternity since due to its circular form, it is impossible to see where it begins and where it ends.

Finger jewelry was commonplace in the ancient world. They were more than a means of decoration; more often than not, they pinpointed the social position of a person. For example, in the Roman Republic, senators and horsemen wore gold rings while regular citizens had iron bands. When the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire, this rule was abolished. Since the 3rd century AD, all free-born citizens could wear gold rings and freed slaves spruced themselves up with silver jewelry.

A ring also attested the right of inheritance. If a warrior died in a battle, his widow received his ring and that made her a legal heir to his property.

Functions of Rings

Besides social status indicators, rings soon became an attribute of certain professions or lifestyles. You can still find ring-style thimbles, which are common among shoemakers and seamstresses. Archers used to rock three rings, on the index, middle, and ring fingers each. Their mission was to protect the digits from bowstring cuts. In fistfights, men often used makeshift brass knuckles that looked like rings with massive stone inlays or bulging metal embossing.

Check out this knuckle duster ring.

Mystical and Religious Significance

Along with that, our ancestors tended to endow rings with religious and mystical meaning. For example, Muslims consider cornelian rings to be sacred since Prophet Mohammed owned a ring with this precious stone. They believe that ‘those who wear a carnelian ring continuously abide in prosperity and joy’. Miraculous properties were attributed to turquoise rings as well. There was a belief that the blue mineral framed by precious metal would become a talisman and bring wealth to its owner.

Check out this turquoise silver eagle ring.

Peoples of the ancient world believed that direct contact between a gemstone and the skin enhanced the healing and protective properties of an amulet. There were even studies that tried to explain what kind of mystical powers a stone could possess. For example, sapphires were supposed to drive out envious people, as well as help detect fraud and witchcraft. People relied on rubies to strengthen health, dispel evil thoughts, reconcile strife, and defeat lust. Emeralds healed eye diseases and contributed to the growth of well-being. Diamonds protected against parasites and boosted courage.

In those days, mysticism and religion walked hand in hand. To prove their faith and also make the connection with the Creator more tangible, people used to wear (and many believers still do) jewelry adorned with special symbols or messages. Rings that feature quotes from the holy books are found in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. For example, many Islamic rings carry Qur'an quotes engraved on carnelian, jade, or lapis lazuli. Quotes, icons, and sacred images could be carved on a gemstone inlay, bezel, or the shank’s inner surface. It was believed that engravings inside the shank have the strongest protective properties since they come in contact with the hand.

Check out this Virgin Mary ring.

Today, many people continue believing in the mysticism of objects, images, and symbols. Take bikers, for example. Despite a tough and somewhat brutal appearance, motorcyclists are superstitious. They believe that a skull ring (as well as any other piece of skull jewelry or even a tattoo) is a talisman that helps avoid death.

Check out this cross skull ring.

Rings as Money

One of the very first roles given to rings was the means of payment (i.e. money). Around the 10th century BC, coins were minted in the form of gold, silver, copper, and iron rings. They carried a stamp to indicate their weight. People didn’t need wallets to accommodate such money because their fingers became ‘wallets’.

Even today, jewelry didn’t really lose its monetary function. You can still see hallmarks stamped on items to indicate which alloy they are made of and the content of precious metals (for example, sterling silver products carry a 925 hallmark showing that it contains 92.5% of pure silver). If you are tight on money, you can sell or pawn your rings. In most cases, their value will be estimated by the weight of precious metal rather than design or brand. The more a ring weighs, the more money you can get.

Rings as a Seal and Signature

Already in antiquity, rings started carrying out their first duties. In particular, they were entrusted with a function of personal signature. The very first specimens of signet rings appeared in Ancient Egypt and soon they became known to Aegeans, Greeks, and Etruscans. Those signets had a carved face attached to a leather or wire frame. Over time, signets started being made of gold. They became the personification of the supreme power in ancient Egypt. The right to own such rings belonged exclusively to pharaohs. Much later, gold rings turned into bling and became available to regular Egyptians.

Antique signets.

In the ancient world, it was customary to wear a signet ring on the index finger of the right hand. Whenever a person needed to set his seal, he poured melted wax onto a document or letter and left an impression with his signet. This impression normally carried his initials or family crest. Needless to say, only rich and noble people could have such rings since commoners couldn’t even spell their names. Later, signets spreader among merchants, money-lenders, manufacturers, doctors, and other untitled but respected or wealthy people.

Betrothal to the Church

For Catholic bishops, a signet ring is a sign of their authority. Each Bishop receives an Episcopal ring in the rite of consecration to certify his betrothal to the church. Normally, Bishop rings are crafted of gold and feature a massive amethyst inlay. In the Middle Ages, precious stones had an engraving that turned the ring into a personal seal. Over time, when sealing documents with wax was no longer necessary, the engraving disappeared. A Bishop ring doesn’t belong to a Bishop, it is property of the church. Along with that, Catholic ministers can have multiple rings and most of them are made to order. In most cases, bishops wear personal rings every day while the official Episcopal ring is only for special occasions. 

Check out this Oval Bishop ring.

Popes also have special rings an official part of the regalia. Those pieces are called the Rings of a Fisherman. They as if verify the status of a Pope as the governor of St. Peter on earth. Pope’s rings used to be crafted of various materials (lead, bronze, silver, etc.) but since the Middle Ages, gold pieces have been prevailing. More often than not, the Ring of a Fisherman carries the papal emblem - crossed keys or a triple crown.

Check out this  Christian Crosier Ring

Along with that, each ring manifests individuality. Every Pope could come up with a unique drawing (Pontiffs may add a symbol or initials to the design) and then a ring was custom-made for him. It was done to make sure that nobody can copy a Pope’s signet and forge his signature. After a Pope’s death or resignation, his ring was destroyed. For special merits, copies of papal signets were given to pilgrims and Catholic Church ministers. Today, Pontiffs don’t use their rings to seal documents. Nevertheless, the centuries-long tradition to wear a ring as a symbol of their authority remained.

Rings as a Pass

Later, rings started acting as a kind of pass or identity item. With a special signet, one could attend secret meetings of Templers, Jesuits, or Masons. For example, a pass ring of the Mason Order looked like a cast-iron signet that depicted the Skull of Adam, crossed tibia bones, and a saying “You will be so.”

A small fishing village in Galway, Ireland, is home to the world-famous Claddagh ring. However, not many people know that the Claddagh ring, which is now a symbol of love and marriage, was originally worn by local fishermen. Every fisherman who lived in Claddagh carried a copy of this ring to show his belonging to the community. If Claddagh’s fishermen met a boat whose crew didn’t have such a ring, they had the right to destroy it. This, Claddagh rings symbolized the right to fish in the waters near the Claddagh village.

Even today, there are plenty of rings that denote belonging to a group, club, or society. Those are college class rings, army rings with emblems of a certain regiment, battalion, squadron, or unit, MC club rings, and even Championship rings. Normally, these rings feature unique iconography associated with the history or insignia of this group.

Check out this Championship ring.

Secret Compartment Rings

History knows many examples of secret stash rings. Since the hidden compartment was tiny, it usually accommodated substances, for instance, incense. Odorous substances came in very handy given that many centuries ago, people rarely washed and street drowned in sewage.

While perfumed rings were the privilege of the fair sex, men saw them as an opportunity to hide weapons. Perhaps the most striking rings of this kind belonged to the infamous Borgia family. Cesare Borgia was known for taking the life of anyone who offended him or stood on his way and his favorite instrument of murder was a deadly ring.

Secret compartment rings

Design-wise, his rings had a lid similar to that of lockets. It hid a cavity intended for poison. Some of the rings featured a swivel or sliding panel that opened the stash while others had poisoned pull-out needles. During a seemingly friendly conversation, Cesare Borgia could discreetly open his ring and add some poison to the conversationalist’s cup. He also had a lion's claw ring, innocently beautiful at first glance but deadly in its essence. As soon as Borgia turned bezel inwards, it revealed its poisonous ‘claws’. In a crowd, Cesare could grab the hand of his victim, shake it, and then puncture it with a poisoned thorn.

Anti-stress, Puzzle, and Transformable Rings

The next step in the evolution of stash rings is transformable pieces. The first ‘transformers’ appeared during the late Renaissance and they thrived during the entire Baroque period. The idea to turn one piece of jewelry into another based on economic grounds. Even the richest families could not afford to buy a new ring every time they attended a social event or ball. Thanks to transforming jewelry, ladies who traveled did not have to take all their treasures with them. It was enough to have a few items that could be divided, or vice versa, combined, to create multiple unique pieces.

There are a great many rings that could change their shape or appearance. Some models allow replacing certain elements with others (to easily switch between several precious stones of the same size, for instance). One of the most intricate styles benefits from a bearing-like band (the so-called spinner ring). The middle portion of the band rotates around its axis to showcase a pattern or inlay or to hide it. Many people consider these rings to be an anti-stress toy- if you like twirling something in your hands, a spinning ring can be this something.

Check out this Gothic spinner ring

You can also see rings constructed of several interconnected parts. A huge ring resting on your finger will definitely make a lasting impression. And if you need a smaller and more modest piece, just separate one part from the rest and wear it individually.

Puzzle rings also belong to the category of transformable jewelry. Usually, they feature a setting constructed of several parts. You can rearrange the elements of the setting to create a new pattern or, when finding the right combination, open a secret compartment. Such rings are not just intricate and original ornaments but also brain training.

 

Rings have many more functions than we mentioned. We’ll talk about their role of love and friendship symbols, funeral attributes, and memento mori in the next post. 

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