It is a tale they narrate, saying the Titan Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and gave it to men, bringing them warmth and light, and Zeus punished him for his presumption, chaining him to Mount Caucasus and sending each day an eagle to peck out Prometheus’s liver, only for it to grow back overnight, ready to be eaten again the following day. In time, Zeus relented and freed Prometheus, but in order to fulfil his vow that the Titan would forever be tied to the mountain, he forced Prometheus to wear an iron ring, into which was set a fragment of stone taken from Caucasus, on his finger forevermore. Thus, decorated rings came into the world.
Out of the realm of myth, the earliest rings were simple ornaments amongst ancient peoples, often just simple bands of metal, but sometimes decorated, either directly into the metal or with inlaid stones. In Ancient Egypt, it was common practice to seal personal possessions with an inscribed seal-stone, and a convenient method of keeping the seal readily available was to drill a hole through it, pass a wire through the hole and twist it around a finger. Over time, these developed into the familiar signet ring; the modern ‘wedding ring’ was originally a seal-ring, given by a husband to his new wife, so that she might seal her stores of provisions and food with his mark.
|Ancient Egyptian sealing a pot|
In Egypt, doors were secured with a cord, and a seal attached, so that it was immediately apparent if the door had been opened by any unauthorised person; over time, as locks were developed, a key served a similar purpose, and although key-rings were once used, these were unwieldy and separate keys for separate locks became the norm.
|Egyptian seals and rings|
Alongside signet rings, rings inscribed with a variety of messages were made. The French antiquarian, the Comte de Caylus, in his masterwork, (1752-5), includes an illustration of a Greek ring bearing the inscription KIPIA KAΛH, ‘Beautiful Ciria’, and another of a triple ring inscribed ZHCAIC, ‘Mayest thou live.’
|Caylus - Greek KIPIA KAΛH ring|
Caylus writes that this type of ring was extremely popular with the Greeks and Romans, and all manner of messages were included on them. Later, in early nineteenth century France, a different kind of message ring emerged, it is said from the workshop of Jean-Baptiste Mellerio, jeweller to Marie Antoinette and the Empress Josephine. Mellerio set his rings with precious and semi-precious stones, the initial letters of their names spelling out an acrostic word or message.
Thus, if he set a ring with a jacinth, an amethyst, a diamond, an opal, a ruby and an emerald, the first letters of these stones spell out J’ADORE – ‘I love you’. Although the name of your sweetheart might be picked out in this manner, by far the most popular messages were Souvenir and Amitié (Remembrance and Friendship); let’s face it, some amours do not last as long as a precious stone and having to have a ring reset can be pricey.
|Elle Vous Va - It Fits You (think Cinderella - if it fits, you're the one!)|
Although England was then at war with France, the fashion spread over the Channel, and acrostic jewellery became very popular, sometimes retaining words or messages in French, sometimes in English. The most popular words were REGARD (Ruby, Emerald, Garnet, Amethyst, Ruby and Diamond) and DEAREST (Diamond, Emerald, Amethyst, Ruby, Emerald, Sapphire and Topaz).
This fashion grew throughout the Regency period, reached a peak during Victoria’s reign and continued well into the twentieth century; in 1863, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), presented his bride to be, Princess Alexandria, with a ring set with a beryl, an emerald, a ruby, a turquoise, a jacinth and another emerald, thus spelling the name by which he was most commonly known – Bertie – (the jacinth was used for the ‘i’, as i’s and j’s are classically interchangeable). This devotional sort of jewellery was fine if you had fallen for an Anne, a Beth or a Colin, but if your beloved was a Catherine, a Bartholomew or an Alexandrina, you would have to use a little imagination. Bracelet, brooches, necklaces were obvious solutions, but lockets or snuff boxes could also be set with the correct stones to spell out a longer name.
|Caylus - Greek ZHCAIC ring|
In addition to messages of love and devotion, political acrostics were also employed, to surreptitiously indicate one’s espousal to a cause or faction. Wearing a ring set with a ruby, an emerald, a pearl, an emerald, an amethyst and a lapis lazuli, showed that a person was a supporter of the repeal of the Corn Laws.
If you’d like to try it out for yourself, here is a list of possible stones that you could use - there is no definitive list, and in keeping with the origin of the practice, names are given in French.
A. Amethiste. Aigue-marine.B. Brilliant cut Diamond.C. Chrisolithe. Carnaline. Chrisophrase.D. Diamant.E. Emeraude.F. No StoneG. Grenat.H. Hiacinthe.I. Iris.J. Jasper.K. No Stone.L. Lapis lazuli.M. Malachite.N. Natralithe.O. Onix. Opale.P. Perle. Peridot. Purpurine.Q. No StoneR. Rubis. Rose diamant.S. Saphir. Sardoine.T. Turquoise. Topaze.U. Uraine.V. Vermeille (especially yellow garnet)X. Xepherine.Y. Z. No Stones.
|Anne of Cleves - with a thumb and two finger rings|
As ‘k’ and ‘w’ are not used in French (apart from in loan and regional words), and because some letters have no stones, English jewellers might substitute a coloured stone for a missing gem, with the initial letter of the colour standing in for the name of a precious stone. This makes for difficulties in interpreting the meaning on some pieces of jewellery, the meaning of which may only have been known to the jeweller and the owner of a piece. Bear in mind too that stones have different names in different languages – Emerald/Emeraude is fine for the letter ‘e’ in English and French, but it is called Smaragd in German, so would stand instead for an ‘s’.