The concept of a 'Rebus' comes from the Latin phrase, 'non verbis sed rebus', meaning 'not by words but by things'. From this, you might be able to guess that rebuses are a kind of puzzle made from pictures and sometimes individual letters, instead of words. They are often engraved on the bezel of a ring, either on precious metals or gemstone, where the pictures and letters represent words or sounds which, when solved, spell out the name of the owner of the piece of jewelry. The most common examples of rebuses are signet rings, but they are also found on pendants, tokens, and other jewelry. In some cases the pictures have several interpretations or are hard to decipher, keeping the name of the owner an unsolved mystery.
Carnelian Georgian rebus intaglio from a seal, set in the 1970s into an 18-carat gold statement ring. The rebus creates the message: 'Time flies, but Friendship lasts’ - a lovely sentiment. Reading backward because it is for use on a wax seal: hourglass (time), flies, a cask of wine (a unit of measurement called a 'butt'), clasped hands (friendship), lasts
A History of Rebus Puzzles
Rebus puzzles or pictogram/phonetogram puzzles have been around since ancient times but were particularly popular in the Middle Ages, used as a form of Heraldic expression to spell out surnames on things like coats of arms, banners, badges, etc. These puzzles ranged from the simple to the complex and specific. For example, the surname 'Salmon' was commonly depicted using an illustration of three salmon fish. In a similar way, the clergyman William Harrison adopted a motif of a hare in a sun. A more complex example is the rebus of Bishop Walter Lyhart of Norwich (d. 1472), depicting a stag (also called a hart) lying down (Ly) in a conventional representation of water (Walter).
Another historical example of rebus puzzles are the notes supposedly exchanged by Voltaire and Frederick the Great while at Sanssouci Palace. Frederick is reported to have sent a picture of two hands below the letter P, and then the number 100 below a picture of a handsaw, all followed by a question mark. In French, this would be 'deux mains (two hands) sous Pé (under P) à cent (100) sous scie (under handsaw). Solved, the sounds combine to make the question, 'Demain souper à Sanssouci?' (supper tomorrow at Sanssouci?). Voltaire supposedly replied with 'Ga!'. A big G and a small A, in French, 'Gé grand, A petit!' = J'ai grand appétit! (I have a big appetite/I'm very hungry!). These are a bit like modern-day dingbats.
Being such delightfully and secretively coded puzzles infused with such sentimentality, rebuses also appealed enormously to the sentimental Georgian and Victorian era inhabitants of Europe. Instead of bearing a coded version of the owner's surname, however, they often bore sentimental messages of love, friendship, or mourning.
On rebus signet rings the letters are often engraved backward because the ring would have been used to apply the wearer's personal mark to the sealing wax on a document. The seal declared the document to be official and legal, bearing the identification of the issuing authority or person.
Gold signet-ring with a circular bezel engraved with a rebus consisting of a cluster of hops and a tun, for the surname 'Hopton'. The inner face of the hoop is inscribed in black letter, 'AMOUR FAIT MOULT ARGENT FAIR TOUT' (Love does a lot, money does everything), England, early 16th century
This gold signet ring with a circular bezel shows the letters 'wy' and 'ot' engraved on either side of a tree, perhaps an elm. The letter R is at the base of the tree. Possibly made for an R. Wylmot, England, c.1500-50
A silver signet ring, the shoulders fluted with beaded edges, the circular bezel engraved with a rebus containing the letter 'U', a wing, and a cross or mast, c.1500-50. The solved word remains a mystery
A gold signet ring, the oval bezel engraved with a hand holding a flower (possibly a sunflower), between 'T' and 'S', with a pearled border, c.1550-1600. If this is indeed a rebus, the solved word remains a mystery. If the flower is truly a sunflower it would have been a very recent introduction from the New World. Sunflower seeds were brought over from the Americas to Europe in the mid-16th century, with the first record of them being brought to England describing them as the 'Hearbe of the Sunne', ' greater than a greate Platter or Dishe' and coming in 'divers coulers'
A gold signet ring, the oval bezel engraved with the letters A and R, with a raised hand between them. The hand may form part of a rebus on the owner's surname, possibly Palmer? c.1600-1650
The inscription on this posy ring uses full words and pictograms in its message. In full, the message reads, 'Our (hands) and (hearts) with one consent Hath tied this (knot) till (death) prevent', where the words in brackets are represented by pictograms, England, 17th-18th century
A Neoclassical rose-gold Rebus memorial ring, France, c.1770-1790. On the oblong octagonal bezel are two sections under curved glass panels. Below is a scene painted in grisaille on ivory depicting a young maiden standing next to an altar of love with turtle doves. In one hand, she holds a lover's crown of myrtle over the altar and with the other strokes a faithful dog standing at her feet. Above is a rebus in gold lettering made of fine gold wires set against a background of plaited brown hair. A lace-like frame surrounds the letters and symbols: 'J', 'E', an image of a glass, and 'L'. 'J' and 'E' spell 'je', a glass is 'verre' in French, and the letter L is for 'elle'. Together, these spell out: 'Je révère elle', meaning 'I revere/admire/adore her'
From Les Enluminures
A rebus ring of gold with a convexly curved glass bezel and a grain-set seed pearl border. Below is a rebus in silhouette, in fine yellow gold sheet with a patterned border on a background of black-brown hair, embroidered in parallel rows. The rebus consists of the letters 'JE', a musical score with a violin key and the note 'Re', as well as a glass, a wooden shoe, and the letter 'T'. The rebus can be deciphered as follows: Je, révére (the note 're' + a glass, which is 'verre' in French) sa beauté (the wooden shoe is a 'sabot' in French, and the letter 'T' pronounced in French is Té) = Je révére sa beauté (I admire her beauty). French (Paris), c.1782-1789 - From Rings: The Alice and Louis Koch Collection by Anna Beatriz Chadour, page 299
A rebus ring of gold with a convexly curved glass bezel in a rectangular shape with beveled corners. Below is a rebus in fine yellow gold sheet with a dotted border on a background of light-brown hair. The rebus consists of the capital letters '10', a glass, the capital letters 'TI', followed by a 'C' in cursive, 'VOUS', and a pair of billing doves. The number 10 is 'dix' in French, a glass is 'verre', TI is 'ti', C is pronounced 'ce', and VOUS is the final word. Together, the sounds combine to make: 'Divertissez vous' ('enjoy yourself' / 'amuse yourself'). The message is visually completed with the image of the pair of doves, which is one of the attributes of Venus and is used as a symbol of desire
A rebus ring of gold with an upright rectangular bezel with beveled corners and a grain-set seed pearl border. Underneath a layer of convexly curved glass in fine gold sheet with a dotted border is a three-line sentimental rebus inscription reading, 'Du BIEN ME'. The rebus can be deciphered as follows: 'Du bien-aimé' ('from the beloved', or, 'belonging to the beloved), where M and E are pronounced separately in French to form the sound of the word 'aimé'. ) French, c.1780-1790 - From Rings: The Alice and Louis Koch Collection by Anna Beatriz Chadour, page 299
A fascinating French rebus love token ring, c.1780. The high carat gold shank supports a compartment set with a plaque of foiled cobalt blue glass. The plaque is surmounted by glass pearl letters 'ME', a sepia-inked 100, a glass pearl letter D, and a depiction of a tower, all under crystal. 'ME', when each letter is pronounced individually in French, sounds like the word 'Aimer', 100 (cent) sounds like 'sans', and the D and a tower (tour in French) together combine to made 'détour' - 'Aimer sans détour' (love without turning/to love directly) - From Rowan and Rowan
French Rebus ring c.1780. The message reads 'M Moi 100 CC'. M pronounced in French sounds like 'Aime', 100 is 'cent' which sounds like 'sans', and the letters 'C' and 'C' pronounced in French sound like 'cesser'. Together it reads 'aime moi sans cesser', 'love me without ceasing' or 'never stop loving me', and is set under rock crystal, the base behind the lettering a foiled blue glass
French sentimental medal c.1900. The message reads 'M Moi 100 CC'. M pronounced in French sounds like 'Aime', 100 is 'cent' which sounds like 'sans', and the letters 'C' and 'C' pronounced in French sound like 'cesser'. Together it reads 'aime moi sans cesser', 'love me without ceasing' or 'never stop loving me'. The message frames a pansy, which sounds like the French word 'pense', meaning 'pense a moi' (think of me)
A rebus ring of red-gold supporting a diamond-shaped ring head made of silver with a red-gold layer. Seed pearls in silver grain settings form a double-row X-shape in the middle of the ringhead, resulting in four diamond-shaped gussets, each of which are adorned with a letter painted in gold on blue paper spelling out 'L M M E'. When each letter is pronounced individually in French it sounds like 'Elle aime aimer' (she loves to love). Above this is a transparent glass plate with beveled edges. French, c.1780
French rebus ring c.1790 in gold with a lock of hair 'tied' with a gold bow under crystal. The letters, C and D, when said in French, are pronounced like the French word 'Cède', meaning 'to cede/to yield'
Early Georgian Rebus ring with a curved blue Bristol glass plaque and over 4 carats of cushion/old cut diamonds - with the message LM lui ML or elle aime lui / lui aime elle (she loves him, he loves her)
Antique French sentimental rebus brooch. At a first glance, it looks like a mourning piece for 2-4 people with their initials, but if you say the letters the way they’re pronounced in French, you have the phrase, 'Elle Sait Aimer', or in English, 'She Knows How to Love'
A rebus ring with a rectangular bezel with beveled corners in light blue enamel with a golden dotted border. In the enamel is a four-line rebus inscription in gold letters which reads: 'L fait mes d', followed by a gold Lilly below and to the right. Deciphered, the rebus reads: 'L' (which when pronounced in French sounds like the French word 'Elle'), fait mes d, and a Lilly (which in French is 'lis' or 'lys') = 'Elle fait me delices' ('She makes me happy'). French, late 18th century - From Rings: The Alice and Louis Koch Collection by Anna Beatriz Chadour, page 299
French rebus ring, c.1780. Gold letters on a background of hair: 'Elle seulle fait mon bonheur', where the 'L' makes the sound of the French word 'Elle' ('She alone makes me happy')
French rebus ring, c.1800, in gold with a low-dome crystal which magnifies the contents inside. A true sentimental love token, this shows the flame (passion) on the hymeneal altar (marriage), draped with a garland of roses (love) on a background of hair. The enameled initials, L•H•R•E, when each letter is pronounced individually in French, make the message, 'Elle est Chère'- 'She is Dear'. The 'G' is presumably that initial of the giver or receiver of this ring - From Sarah Nehama (@sarahnehama) via Instagram
Gold hoop with beveled edge set with two enameled plaques. One bears a depiction of a pansy, evoking the French word 'pensée' or 'pense' - meaning thoughts, to think, or in this case, simply 'think'. The other plaque is inscribed 'A votre ami', meaning 'of your friend'. Between the plaques can be seen two small green glass stones. This would have been a romantic gift from a man to his love, c.1819-1838
'Pense A Moi' (think of me) two-way swivel plaque ring made from 18-carat gold. On one side is a pansy and the words 'A MOI'. The other side is set with crystal vitrine (window), behind which is another pansy crafted from the beloved's hair. The plaque is set within a bezel that swivels north/south but inside that frame is an inner plaque that swivels east/west, c.1820
A French antique regional Normandy ring dating to the 19th century. 18kt gold and enamel, depicting a pansy (which sounds like the French 'pensée') = pensée à moi (think of me)
A carnelian rebus intaglio, originally an antique Georgian fob but converted to a signet ring in a c.1900 14k gold mounting. In this rebus, the eye and the ear represent seeing and hearing, and the French words 'et ce taire' (roughly, 'and I hush up about it') create the message, 'I see and hear but keep it secret', perhaps used to seal important documents or letters of a clandestine nature, passed on in secret
A Victorian gentleman's fob with a rebus on 'Farewell', spelled out with the letters FARE and a depiction of a well below, all engraved on a deep orange Carnelian stone. The setting for the stone has curves and chasing, gold, late 1800s - Stacey Fay Designs
The middle ring is an intaglio rebus reading 'I hope you are well' (eye, anchor for hope, yew, are, well). The smaller intaglio rebus ring on the right reads 'Hand to Give, Heart to Forgive'
A Victorian rebus intaglio seal fob. The seal matrix is hand-carved carnelian, and the rebus reads: 'I saw your friends who are all well'. Eye (I), Saw (saw), Ewer (your), Friends, Who, R (are), Well (well). The setting is 10K yellow gold in a ribbed pattern - From Caldwell's Miscellaneous Fancy Goods via RubyLane
A Victorian rebus puzzle intaglio wax seal fob depicting an eye (I), winged cherub/cupid holding a bow (love), and a yew tree (you) = I love you. The last photo shows the impression in play-doh, indicating what it would have looked like pushed into the wax seal of an amorous loveletter
A Victorian rebus puzzle wax seal fob. The blue glass intaglio depicts an eye (I), maiden leaning on an anchor (hope), yew tree (you), the letter R (are), and a well (well) = I hope you are well
An antique French silver charm. 'Ton' is under (sous) 'venir' = Ton Souvenir + fait battre mon coeur (heart). In English, this translates to 'remembering you makes my heart beat' or 'your memory makes my heart beat'. On the other side is a flower made up of the words espérance (hope), sante (health), succés (success), amour (love), félicite (felicity), constance (constance), jalousie (jealousy), fidélité (fidelity)
Antique silver rebus pendant, France, c.1900. The message reads 'M Moi 100 CC'. M pronounced in French sounds like 'Aime', 100 is 'cent' which sounds like 'sans', and the letters 'C' and 'C' pronounced in French sound like 'cesser'. Together it reads 'aime moi sans cesser', 'love me without ceasing'
A rebus token for an abandoned child, amongst the artifacts left at the Foundling Hospital in London over the years. The heartbreaking rebus on this token shows a child in a Moses basket—a universal symbol for a child who was given up. The rebus shows an eye, W, an ant, the letters RE, and a leaf, spelling out 'I want relief' above the child's date of birth, asking the foundling hospital to relieve them of their child
Here's a challenge for you: Can you help solve the rebus on this ring? No one has managed to decipher it yet. It's believed to be British, although that doesn't mean the message or name won't be French...
Rebuses are a perfect example of the personal nature and value of jewelry, cleverly hiding or revealing all sorts of information about its owner. Far more than just being fashion statements or displays of wealth, antique jewelry is like these pieces are often a rich record of history, both general and personal, filled with sentimentality and significance.