Holding hands, asking for someone’s ‘hand in marriage,’ making a pinky-promise, pointing the finger, clasping hands in prayer, giving someone 'a hand', shaking hands - even giving someone the finger. Hands are an amazingly expressive feature in human communication.

It’s no surprise, then, that jewelers and designers throughout history have used this most gestural body part in their jewelry as symbols of connectedness, strength, loyalty, and romance.

Fede and Gimmel Rings

One of the oldest forms of hand symbolism in jewelry is the fede or gimmel symbol, frequently used in rings. The names come from 'mani in fede' which means 'hands in faith' in Latin. Gimmel comes from the Latin 'gemellus' meaning twins, as it refers to the double hoops of the ring design. In fede and gimmel rings, two hands clasp together in a symbol of connection. These could have been friendship rings, but also were used as betrothal rings, particularly later on in the Middle Ages.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, fede rings would be used as engagement rings that also had possible extensions to the ring shape; sometimes the hands could swivel open to reveal a heart shape or an inscription.

This fede seal stone was probably given as a keepsake between two friends, whose names are engraved above and below the clasped hands. The intaglio engraved carnelian dates back to 200 BC. Photo © The Victoria and Albert Museum.

A 3rd-century marriage ring with clasped hands, originally from the collection of Benjamin Zucker. Via The Jewellery Editor.

A gimmel ring comprises two or sometimes three interlaced hoops with separate bezels that can be joined snugly together. The inscriptions inside the hoop of the ring probably refer to a wedding between Cornelisie, the daughter of Engels and Symon, the son of Cornelis. The joined hands and interlocking hoops form a visual symbol of the union which marriage has created. Enameled gold set with turquoise, 1575-1650.

Photo © The Victoria and Albert Museum.

17th-century fede ring with enameled gold, diamonds and ruby. Photo © The Victoria and Albert Museum.

1607 fede ring. Around the inside of the hoop is the inscription in German 'Clement Kesseler, 25th of August 1607.' This suggests that the ring was made and worn to commemorate a special occasion such as a wedding. This ring would originally have been brightly colored with enamel, much of which has now been lost.

Photo © The Victoria and Albert Museum.

18th-century fede cameo ring with applied oval bezel with an emerald glass paste cut in cameo to represent two clasped hands and surrounded by garnets. Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum.

18th-century broad hoop with pearled edges expanding from back to the front where there is a rectangular plate with monogram concealed by two clasped hands at end of foliated band hinged from the back. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Beautifully intricate gold and enamel fede ring with crystal. Hungary, 1800-1898.

Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum.

A rare Georgian fede ring. C.1820-1830. Via The Jewellery Editor.

The hoop of this ring can be divided into two interlocked circles, making it a gimmel ring. These rings were especially popular as love gifts, the joining of the hoops symbolizing the bond between lovers. These rings continued to be made into the 19th century, the hoops on later rings are typically joined by a small pin rather than intertwined. 1800-1950.

Photo © The Victoria and Albert Museum.

Claddagh Rings

Claddagh rings are much like fede rings in that they feature two hands clasping in friendship, love, and loyalty. However, claddaghs stem from the Irish tradition. Most often, Claddagh rings feature hands reaching together to hold a heart shape, representing love, topped by a crown, which symbolizes loyalty. Claddagh rings are considered a type of fede ring but originated in the town of Galway, where many Claddagh rings were produced. Myths indicate that the ring takes its origins from a small fishing village near Galway called Claddagh.

Made in Galway, 1750-1800, this engraved gold ring is a traditional Claddagh.

Photo © The Victoria and Albert Museum.

18th-century gold Claddagh ring with marriage initials engraved on the inner band. Also made in Galway. Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Although this ring was made in England, it clearly adheres to the Claddagh version of fede rings, with a heart and crown between the hands. This ring is set with a large rose-cut diamond heart under a diamond crown, clasped between two enameled hands. The inscription 'Dudley and Katherine united 26 March 1706' identifies it as a wedding ring. 1706. Photo © The Victoria and Albert Museum.

Dextrarum Iunctio Rings

Other rings that featured the clasping hand symbol used two right hands to show a handshake-type gesture rather than a romantic one. These rings were known as 'dextrarum iunctio,' meaning 'right hands joining.' This symbol could denote unity, loyalty, harmony or greeting outside of romantic settings.

A 2nd-century 'dextrarum iunctio' cameo ring in gold and black onyx. 

Via The Jewellery Editor.

Hands With Other Symbols

Artefacts that are held by hands in jewelry are also rich in symbolism. Depending on the item and the intention, the item can be seen as being given or accepted as a gift of affection, or held up in a symbol of desire, love or protection related to the item.

Hands depicted as holding flowers signify friendship and affection. If the flower is a forget-me-not, it is also associated with mourning and remembrance.

This is an unusually large and colorful example of a late 19th-century hand brooch, with a pink cuff, flesh-colored hand, vine in two colors of gold, and a blue flower centered by a diamond. The blue flower speaks the language of love, and the diamond claims eternity. 1880-1900. Photo © The Victoria and Albert Museum.

Pearl and gold earrings of hands holding floral weaths from the 18th century. Via Salon Uber.

Victorian era antique brooch. The cuff with the floral design that shows to glimpse into the clothes of this era dotted 13 natural sea pearls; the hand with a "gold ring" on the finger made in the mother of pearl; this hand holds a rose which its leaves are made in 5 rose-cut diamonds and the rose in carved natural red coral. Photo via Ruby Lane.

A Victorian brooch of a hand holding a paper labelled 'souvenir' via the Antique Jewellery Company.

Victorian gold and enamel hand holding a horseshoe for good luck. Via the Antique Jewellery Company.

Memento mori finger ring with clasped hand back, gold, enamel, diamond, ruby emerald and sapphire 1525-1575. Photo © The Victoria and Albert Museum.

This intricate wedding ring is decorated with symbols of love and quotations from the marriage ceremony. It is not quite a fede, given the heart between the hands, and not quite a Claddagh, given the lack of a crown, however the ring has similar intentions. There are three connecting hoops, each with an attached hand or heart, fit together and appear as one band when worn. The inscriptions can only be read when the hoops of the ring are opened out. Gold, enamel, diamond, 1600-1650. Photo © The Victoria and Albert Museum.

Victorian coral hand pendant necklace in 14k gold, with a sterling silver heart, two turquoise stones, and black enameling. Via Ruby Lane.

Gold and coral bracelet, early 19th century, set with a carved coral horse's head within a gold surround, held by carved coral hands accented with small turquoise cuffs, backed by alternating coral and gold links. Via Sotheby's.

A lone hand, open to a multitude of symbolic interpretations. Georgian silver and rose-cut diamond hand stickpin, via Lang Antiques.

A gallery of AAJ's own hand jewels:

To see more gorgeous antique jewelry, follow AAJ on Instagram.

Sentimental jewelry is unlike any other; where gemstones and expensive metals usually denote value, the true worth of sentimental jewelry is determined by the wearer's emotional connection to the piece. Such is the case with tooth jewelry; precious stones they are not, but they hold infinite value because they symbolize loved ones.

"With material value all but eliminated, the sentiment becomes the currency, the raison d'être of the piece." - Charlotte Gere and Judy Rudoe, Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria.

Throughout history, children losing their milk teeth has been an important rite of passage to be commemorated. The Vikings had a tradition where children could trade in their baby teeth for money, and in Medieval England, children were instructed to burn their milk teeth or else risk eternal damnation. In some thirteenth-century Norse cultures, warriors wore children's milk teeth as necklaces as good luck charms for battle. Nowadays, of course, we have the tooth fairy, who swaps fallen-out teeth for money or treats.

'Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, With Butterflies, Flowers, and Jewels Attending, Thus Your Fairy is Made of Most Beautiful Things' by Sophie Gengembre Anderson, 1869. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

Superstition and tradition surrounding children's milk teeth have existed for centuries. In Victorian times, this celebration happened to take upon a sentimental, jeweled form. Wealthy families would keep their children's teeth and commission unique jewelry pieces incorporating them, often in the place of gemstones. These pieces would then be worn mostly by the children's mothers. The jewelry acted as a sentimental dedication to their beloved children, but would also remind mothers of the earlier days of childhood.

Queen Victoria, despite her reputation as a reluctant and even cold mother, commissioned a brooch (below) to incorporate the tooth of her eldest daughter, Victoria. Later on, Victoria would go on to commission even more pieces containing her children's teeth. As the Queen and therefore the ultimate influencer of the era, Victoria's jewelry choices often became mainstream trends. However, the process of designing individual pieces to incorporate teeth was expensive and only available to the wealthiest families. As a result, surviving milk tooth jewelry is few and far between, incredibly rare and special.

Hair jewelry, on the other hand, could be made in pre-designed or mass-produced pieces by jewelers, and then fitted with the individual person's hair afterward. As such, hair jewelry was easier to partake in as it made for far simpler customization techniques.

Victoria and Albert's eldest child, Princess Victoria, lost a baby tooth when they were on holiday in Scotland so it was made into a brooch in the shape of a thistle – with the tooth representing the seedhead that you get at the top.

Photo via the Royal Collection Trust © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2018.

A pendant and a pair of gold-mounted enamel earrings in the form of a Fuschia flower set with milk teeth from Princess Beatrice (1857-1944), Queen Victoria's youngest child. Fuschias represent 'taste' in the Victorian language of flowers, linking thematically to the teeth. These are suspended from an enameled ribbon. Via the Royal Collection Trust.

A necklace given to Queen Victoria by Prince Albert. Around the outside are the teeth of a stag he shot on the Balmoral Estate. Sometimes teeth were also set into jewelry to commemorate successful hunts, though this is less of a sentimental effect and more of a display of pride and hunting prowess. Via the Royal Collection.

This gorgeous charm bracelet also got a shoutout from us in our previous post about Queen Victoria's story as told through jewelry. This piece was also a sentimental gift to commemorate Victoria's children: the gold and enamel bracelet was given to Victoria by Albert in November 1840, three days after the birth of their first child, Victoria. Another enameled locket was added for each of the couple's children to come: pink for Princess Victoria, turquoise blue for Albert, red for Princess Alice, dark blue for Alfred, translucent white for Helena, dark green for Louise, mid-blue for Arthur, opaque white for Leopold and light green for Beatrice. Some of the lockets also contain the hair of the children.

Photo and info via the RCT.

Yet another piece of jewelry to celebrate Victoria's children: a bracelet with miniatures of Victoria, Princess Royal, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, Princess Alice, Prince Alfred, Princess Helena, and Princess Louise c.1845-50. 

Royal Collection Trust © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2018

Victoria, Albert and their nine children in portraits.

To learn more about Queen Victoria's jewelry specifically, visit AAJ's previous blog on the topic.

Other milk tooth jewelry designs from the Victorian era bore intricate and varying designs, despite not coming from royal provenance.

Victorian Ruby Milk Teeth Ring. Two milk teeth surrounded by a halo of glittering rubies in an intricately pierced, openwork setting. Gold, rubies, baby teeth, 1860. Via Louison Rare and Fine.

A gold ring set with children's teeth and diamonds.

Sold by Woolley & Wallis in July 2018.

Ring set with a milk tooth, via Bell and Bird.

An antique 14ct gold brooch set with a central diamonds, rubies and 8 milk teeth.

Sold by Ewbanks Auctioneers in March 2018.

Gold Victorian ring with baby tooth, via KC Auction company.

Baby Tooth Ring – gold, sapphire, diamond, and baby tooth. English. Centering a baby tooth framed by sapphires and rose cut diamonds. Circa 1890. Courtesy of Doyle & Doyle.

Victorian milk tooth ring. Two pearly whites sit side by side, possibly symbolizing two children, in a golden ring. Via The One I Love NYC.

Gold brooch set with four baby teeth and diamonds, via Les Bijoux Des Français.

Gold ring with baby teeth, via Les Bijoux Des Français.

French Victorian gold, ruby and milk tooth ring via The Moonstoned.

An incredible collection of Victorian milk tooth jewelry by Beatrice Temperley via Instagram.

Beatrice's entry into our #AAJ100kGiveaway #AAJ10storeystack also features some milky whites! If you haven't already, find out more here to enter the giveaway.

Via Beatrice Temperley on Instagram.

To feast your eyes on more beautiful antique jewelry, follow AAJ on Instagram.

Getting to know hallmarks can seem like an intimidating task. What with assay office marks, maker's marks, time stamps, and different symbols for different countries, there is an extensive, seemingly infinite library of hallmarks out there. Luckily for you, AAJ has compiled an easy beginner's guide to the most common and important hallmarks.

Types of Mark

Hallmarks are marks struck into precious metals as certification of their quality and authenticity. They essentially act as a guarantee that a piece contains the fine materials stated. Initially, they were introduced for consumer protection. They are called 'hallmarks,' because, in English tradition, the marks would be granted by Goldsmith's Hall before being sold. To be classed as a hallmark, an official assay office must be involved in the process.

Although in the UK, there are only three compulsory marks required for hallmarking, hallmarks themselves can have up to five different symbols constituting the mark:

'Anatomy of a Hallmark,' via The Assay Office.

Sponsor's marks are Assay Office approved marks that show the person or company that has sent the piece for hallmarking. For example, this might be the manufacturer, seller, or importer of a piece. Nonetheless, to bear a sponsor's mark, the sponsor must be registered and approved by the Assay Office.

Standard marks / millesimal fineness marks show the fineness of the metal used. They correspond to the purity of the metal as parts out of 1000. 1000 corresponds to 24 carats and is essentially a metric way of expressing purity. For example, '750' is equivalent to the 18-carat gold standard. In antique jewelry, the number of pure carats out of 24 is somewhat more commonly expressed than the millesimal system.

Modern millesimal fineness marks for various materials.

Traditional fineness marks indicate the material used. These are optional parts of hallmarking. Common symbols include a crown for gold, a lion for silver, and an orb for platinum.

Traditional fineness marks often found on antique jewelry in particular.

Assay Office marks indicate which particular Assay Office has approved and marked the item.

The main UK and Irish Assay Office marks from historically prominent jewelry-making cities, via the Antiques Trade Gazette. Nowadays, only the Birmingham, Edinburgh, London, Sheffield, and Dublin offices are in operation, the others having closed down in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Date letters act as timestamps, dating the piece by year. To use recent examples, 'p' corresponds to 2014, 'q' to 2015, 'r' to 2016, and so on. This is also an optional mark and varies by city as to which year has which mark. Therefore, it is important to check the date mark alongside the assay office mark to determine the correct year.

Birmingham is an important jewelry making city in the UK. These are Birmingham's date letters from 1773-1974.

Click through the gallery above to see more date letters from key UK cities.

Maker's marks are marks found on metals that are struck on by the maker of the jewelry. These do not bear official certification, but they can be useful in antiques for determining the maker of the piece.

Gold ring with plaited hair and five surrounding letters spelling REGARD. The hallmark is for Birmingham 1863, in 18-carat gold. The sponsor mark reads 'EV.'

Photos: © The Trustees of the British Museum.

What does the Assay Office do?

Assay Offices are official organizations that test or assay metal to ensure that the composition meets legal requirements. In the past, this was done by scraping a small amount of metal from the piece and testing it. This was called 'sampling.' In the 1990s and early 2000s, a new method was pioneered as an alternative that would not leave scraping marks on the metal, thus necessitating further polishing after the assaying process. X-Ray Fluorescence is now the established alternative method for testing metals.

For the hallmarking itself, hand-operated or hydraulic presses are commonly used, and laser marking is also becoming increasingly popular.

Engraved gold and blue enamel snake ring with a band of ribbed brown hair. The serpent has ruby eyes. Full hallmarking, complete with the maker's mark. The hallmark indicates that the maker is WV, made in London in 1848 in gold. Unfortunately in this image, the hallmark shows upside-down! Photos: © The Trustees of the British Museum.

What if there's no mark?

For a long time, particularly during the Georgian and Victorian eras, jewelry was often sold without proper hallmarking. In fact, hallmarking only became compulsory on all precious metals around the 1920s. As a result, the Assay Office carries a pre-1950s exemption from hallmarking. If a piece was manufactured before 1950 and bears no hallmark, it is exempt from the Assay Office's usual requirements. An antique jewelry expert, however, should be able to determine the materials and time frame of the piece without a hallmark in place.

This means that dating and determining the authenticity of an antique piece may sometimes be more difficult, so it's important as a customer to deal only with trusted and reputable sellers when hallmarks are unavailable. Being a certified member of LAPADA (The Association of Art & Antiques Dealers) is a good sign to look out for, as it means the dealer has been externally approved by the association.

A gold memorial ring with an enameled bezel featuring a ducal coronet and the device of the Duke of Northumberland. The hallmark reads 'L' alongside the London assay office mark, for 1846-1847. The crown along with the '18' indicates 18-carat gold. A maker's mark is also included, 'TE' for Thomas Eady.

Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Hallmarks in the USA

Jewelry made before about 1900 in the USA rarely has any marks. In 1906, the Jewelers' Liability Act was introduced, meaning that the maker is responsible for the accuracy of the metal when the metal is marked with a purity mark. In 1961, responsibility marks became mandatory for jewelry that bore purity marks, meaning that the jeweler's responsibility to accuracy must be marked on the metal itself. The responsibility mark is usually the name of the maker in full.

Purity marks and makers marks are not compulsory, however. Unlike in the UK, where precious metals must be marked by an assay office in order to be advertised as gold, silver, or platinum, in the USA metal can legally go unmarked.

For this reason, USA-made antique and modern jewelry will often be unmarked. If it does have a mark, however, it can be distinguished by the American spelling of carat/karat as 'kt' rather than the British 'ct'.

Hallmarks in France (Information courtesy of Lara Fenyar @antikdevotion)

Hallmarking is also compulsory in France, as it is in the UK. In fact, the French hallmarking system dates back to the 13th century and is the most complicated system, with the most variety of potential marks. French law requires that all gold jewelry must have a minimum of 18 carat, so only items destined for exportation may be marked with symbols indicating lower purity levels.

In France, there is evidence of silversmith hallmarks going all the way back to Gallo-Roman times. However, in the late Middle Ages, there was a pressing need to harmonize the laws surrounding hallmarks due to continued fraud and counterfeiting. In the late 13th century, Philippe III implemented the introduction of official hallmarks guaranteeing the silversmith mark. Eventually, goldsmith hallmarks would follow in the early 14th century and by the 15th century. Two separate hallmarks became required: one indicating the goldsmith or silversmith and another showing the quality of the respective metal. 

During the 16th and 17th centuries, French hallmarks became more and more complex, culminating in the 1674 reforms by Colbert and the establishment of la Ferme générale. Under the new laws, les fermiers généraux were responsible for controlling gold and silver pieces in each town and region. Most pieces were required to have 4 hallmarks, unique to the specific town or region. In addition, some places required up to 6 distinct hallmarks. Collectors today love to investigate hallmarks found on surviving pieces, as it provides a unique journey into some complex history.

Everything changed with the French Revolution. We tend to forget that revolutionaries favored not only the abolishment of what they perceived to be privileges held by the nobility but any form of regulation when it came to enterprise. Out went the guilds and in came complete deregulation. There were no longer any indirect taxes and “anyone” could enter into any profession. However, this led to widespread fraud, corruption, and eventually diminished fiscal revenue for the state. The State was quick to rectify this problem and developed the hallmarking laws that mostly survive today. Most of the French antique jewelry that exists today will most likely demonstrate some of the hallmarks of the late 18th century as well as those from the 19th and 20th centuries. During the 19th century, particularly after 1838, the state sought to streamline the hallmarks. Included in the requirements were the silversmith or goldsmith’s stamp followed by the traditional fineness hallmark. In France, the fineness hallmark and what would be the assay hallmark were often combined.  Some common hallmarks found on French antique jewelry include : 

  • Eagle’s head (Gold 750 (18kt) 1838- present). There are several variations. Assay: Paris (1838-1919). After 1919, all of France. 

  • Horse’s head (Gold 750 (18kt) 1838-1919). There are several variations. Assay: All departments outside Paris. Found often on 19th century regional jewelry. 

  • Owl (Gold 750 (18kt) 1893-present). Indicates either an imported piece or piece without any clear origin. 

  • Coquille (Shell) (Gold 585 (14kt) 1994- present). Usually imported pieces. 

  • Boar’s head (Silver 800, 1838- present). There are several variations. Assay: France & controlled in Paris. 

  • Crab (Silver 800, 1838- present). There are several variations. Assay: French departments (outside Paris). 

  • Other fun ones to look for from the 19th century: the sheep’s head, weevil, greyhound head, slug, bear, rat, rose, and the bulldog.

Eagle, horse head and owl, shell, boar, and crab hallmarks often found in French jewelry.

For further reading about French hallmarks check out:

  • Les poinçons français, D'or, d'argent et de platine de 1275 a nos jours by Yves Markezana (silver and platinum)

  • Les Poinçons de garantie internationaux pour l’or, le platine, Éditions Tardy (gold and platinum)

  • Poinçon d’Argent, Édition Tardy. (for silver)

Examples of French marks indicating provincial origins. These marks were used as far back as the 16th century.

Via Hand Book to French Hall Marks on Silver and Gold Plate, ed. Christopher A. Markham. This handbook is great for French marks - it contains 431 stamps.

There you have it - the antique jewelry beginner's guide to hallmarks. Visit AAJ's Instagram to see some of the beautiful pieces you can flex your newfound knowledge on!

Many thanks to Lara Fenyar for her help and knowledge of the history of French hallmarking!

  • Facebook Clean Grey
  • Instagram Clean Grey

© 2020 Maison Kitten Limited trading as Antique Animal Jewelry. All Rights Reserved.

Vat no - 237285982  company number - 08537746