We live in a world of documents: passports, contracts, business cards, letters, emails. Our powers and protections derive, in no small part, from the existence of these documents and the faith people place in them. For much of history, agreements and bonds were made and kept not by the pen in your hand but the ring on your finger.
Rings made promises and vows, they were your honor, your wealth, and your signature. They were, as they still are, objects of decoration and adornment, shaped by craft traditions and changing fashions. But they were also objects of great power, through which deals were done and obligations made and met.
In the ancient world, seal-rings (like modern signet rings) acted as personal identification and signature. By pressing a seal-ring into wax, or ink, the wearer can make a stamp unique to the owner. At least in theory. The classical biographer Diogenes Laërtius reports a law forbidding seal-makers from keeping the impression of a ring they have sold, suggesting that identity theft was already a problem in Classical Athens.
The Romans used iron signet rings as personal identifiers, and as the wealth of Rome increased, they began to wear them in gold. Rings were also tools of the state, and an emperor would sometimes entrust his ring to others who could then act as his agent. Emperor Augustus wore, at different times, a ring with a sphinx, the head of Alexander the Great, and an image of his own head (a fashion statement whose time has surely come). When Augustus lay dying, a vital question of state was raised by his handing over of his ring.
The uses of rings in medieval and renaissance Britain (to give just one more example) were many: signets for identification, rings with merchant’s marks (as a kind of early branding), rings for party identification and political causes, rings to demonstrate professional rank. Devotional rings, to remind you to pray. “Cramp rings” said to protect the wearer from epileptic fits, sometimes blessed by the touch of the King. Gem-set rings, for decoration and demonstration of wealth. And of course, the purpose for which most men now wear rings: to symbolize marriage. Many of the best examples come from the Cheapside Hoard, a huge discovery of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century jewelry buried under a busy London street until its discovery in 1912.
With all their social, spiritual, political, and business uses, rings performed a similar purpose to tattoos: as indestructible markers, messages worn on the body to remind wearer and observers of his commitment to a person, a cause, or a group. A ring will survive your death. It can display its message (like a signet) or conceal it, like a wedding band with a motto engraved on the inside.
More than ever, our written and digital identities define us to others in advance of physical contact. But rings persist as an embodied message.
Today few people use rings as legal identification or medical charms. I know Americans with class rings from college, but in Britain, the best you will get is the gold sovereign ring: a signet containing a valuable coin (or, more realistically, an imitation of one) that signals the wearer graduated from the school of hard knocks. Otherwise, it’s for engagement, marriage, or decoration and personal expression.
As with all areas of style, the range of options has only got broader. Key influences on contemporary ring design include Art Nouveau designers such as René Lalique (maker of the Rolls Royce hood ornaments) who produced complex naturalistic designs, inspired by ivy, leaves of grass, and ears of wheat, and the industrial, angular, Art Deco styles inspired by industrial design and modernist architecture. You can go modern or traditional, complex or plain, subtle or brilliantly glittering.
If you’re interested in signet rings, one classic option is Deakin & Francis, a London-based company dating back to 1786, which bills itself as England’s oldest manufacturing jewellers. Signets can be made up with initials, a crest, or an image, and are made using deep hand-engraving.
Another traditional signet specialist, Rebus, offer hand-engraved rings in a variety of metals, as well as good-value ready-to-wear initial rings and handsome, restrained gem-set signets in bloodstone, cornelian, and lapis lazuli.
If your tastes run to the more elaborate, Italian jeweler Marco Dal Maso makes complex, eye-catching, even slightly coarse rings. They are highly masculine, textured rather than polished, and made with deep cuts and enamelled crevices. They look like pieces recovered from some indistinct fallen empire, not from the nobility but from the artists, musicians, and warriors.
At the other end of the spectrum are the minimalist, clean designs of Alice Made This. These pieces are thoroughly modern: polished bands in plain silver, copper, brass, and gold. Their signets are circular rings subtly flattened on one side. They’re not made by hoary artisans at ancient forges, but precision milled in a British factory which specialises in Aerospace engineering. If we still have to do plumbing in a thousand years, this is what the replacement parts will look like.