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A Language of Connection: Hand Symbolism in Jewelry

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 labeled '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:

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