Antique Gadget Jewelry
A piece of antique jewelry is almost never the purely aesthetic fashion accessory it might seem. Many pieces of antique jewelry hold wonderful secrets when you look close enough, whether that's conveying hidden messages and meanings in a code of gemstones or flowers, or acting as memorial pieces, love tokens, and even expressions of political or religious support. Where it gets really interesting though is where jewelry has fold-out parts, hidden or disguised secondary functions, and super-secret compartments for various purposes - nefarious or otherwise. That's right, today's blog is all about the joys and mysteries of antique gadget jewelry.
Danish gentleman's 'poison ring', 18k yellow gold with black onyx top concealing a hidden compartment.
Via Lang Antiques
Yes, you read that right - people actually used to carry poison around in rings. Poison rings were designed to have hidden compartments, usually under a hinged or removable bezel, where poison was kept in powdered form. The wearer would loosen the clasp and, when their victim wasn't looking, they could simply turn their hand over and deposit the cyanide, arsenic, or poison of their choice into their victim's drink. Lucrezia Borgia is thought to have used poison rings to dispose of her enemies, but it’s never been proven.
That said, not all 'poison rings' were used for carrying out murder plots. Many such rings might have been used for carrying something else instead. such as other powdered concoctions, perfume, smelling salts, relics, locks of hair, miniature portraits, or other mementos. In any case, these rings have a lot of charm and mystery about them and never fail to fire up the imagination.
Victorian gold quartz poison ring or locket ring, 14k rose gold, c.1880s
Via Lang Antiques
Victorian poison ring in 18k gold with a central casket flanked by two ram’s heads (an occult symbol). The casket, which is enameled in green and set with a large emerald, opens to reveal a sizeable inner chamber that would easily meet all your poison-storage needs.
Victorian hinged poison ring, 14k gold, set with garnets
There are several examples of rings with syringe-like mechanisms that may have been used to administer poison in liquid form into someone's drink, however, the less subtle nature of the attachment means that their use as poison rings is highly debated. Other suggestions for what their purpose might have been include perfume rings to be able to reapply perfume throughout the evening, laudanum rings to administer tiny drips while out and about (laudanum was widely available in the early 1800s and many famous writers, artists, and poets were hopelessly addicted to it), or a trick ring that squirts water at an unsuspecting person.
Early 19th-century poison/laudanum/perfume/trick ring
Described as a 'brass, glass, gold, and marcasite finger ring with a syringe for spraying perfume'
Silver and gold finger ring with a cylindrical mechanism and a calyx-like ring head featuring an octagonal sundial with Roman numerals and an arrow-shaped pointer. The outside of the cylinder is engraved with satyrs crouching and playing the flute. At the bottom is a movable pin - when the pin is pulled out liquid is pumped in, and when the pin is pushed in the liquid sprays out of the ring head. This ring is thought to be a water 'squirt ring' (popular in the late 18th century) or a perfume ring, c.1840-50.
From Rings: Alice and Louis Koch Collection by Anna Beatriz Chadour
Compasses, Watches & Sundials
The Renaissance saw an explosion of interest in scientific discovery and the natural sciences. This was reflected in rings like those shown below, which incorporate compasses and sundials into the design, often with hinged or rotating parts to cleverly disguise the secondary purpose of the jewelry. Though they were soon replaced by miniature watches of a more sophisticated nature, the charm of these hidden, manual and practical tools meant they remained popular long after they were obsolete.
Finger ring with an inbuilt watch and Crucifixion triptych depicting instruments of the Passion, Jakob Weiss, gold and enamel, c.1585. Via Kornbluth Photography
19th-century mechanical sundial and compass ring. The bezel shows the carved head of Christ and is hinged. When opened, it reveals a fully functioning miniature compass and sundial.
(Deutsches Goldschmiedehaus Hanau Museum exhibit 2011) Via Bell and Bird
Gold sundial and compass ring, possibly German, c.1570. The hinged oval bezel is designed as a seal and engraved with a coat of arms, opening to reveal a sundial and compass, on a plain gold hoop.
This sundial ring is engraved on the outside with the initials of the names of the months and has a small applied shield with a stag rampant. The sliding central band of the ring has a sighting hole with a hand and a star engraved next to it. On the inside of the ring, hour marks are inscribed as individual dots, numbered with pairs of hours. The equinoxes are at 10 March and 10 September approximately.
18th-century brass Armillary Sundial pendant with inscription 'Sol Rex Regnum' - ‘Sun, King Of Kings’
Armillary spheres (also known as spherical astrolabes, armillas, or armils) were used by astronomers to study and make calculations. Armillary spheres show the movement of planets in the sky, indicating the lines of celestial longitude and latitude, as well as the ecliptic (the plane of Earth's orbit). They usually consist of a set of spherical rings centered around Earth or the Sun: where they centered around Earth they were known as 'Ptolemaic', and where they centered around the Sun they were 'Copernican.'
These armillary sphere rings may or may not have been usable as actual armillary spheres, but were often worn anyway by astrologers as a sign of their interest in the heavens.
Gold ring of interlocking hinged hoops, which unfold into a miniature armillary sphere with a crystal bezel containing a lock of hair. The interlocking hoops are concealed when the ring is closed, c.1780
Via Rowan and Rowan
Armillary sphere finger ring formed of a rounded outer hoop in two parts, two flat middle hoops, and an interior hoop in two parts. The interior hoops are almost concealed when the ring is closed, c.1760
Finger ring which unfolds into an armillary sphere. The ring is formed of an outer hoop and three interior hoops. The exterior hoop is chased with enameled black scrolls and the three interior hoops show the signs of the zodiac, stars, and other figures, c.1759. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Armillary Gimmel Wedding Ring, 1864, inscribed ‘Ambrose Lambert Marie Coppinger 26 Oct 1864'
Calendar rings were a very popular way of keeping track of the day and date. On perpetual calendar rings, the inner band rotates so that you can align the year and the month and find the right day of the week,
A gold calendar ring. The hoop is enameled with black figures representing the days of the week and the months of the year, c.1830. From Rings: Jewelry of Power, Love, and Loyalty by Diana Scarisbrick
Perpetual Calendar Ring
Antique Animal Jewelry
Perpetual Calendar Ring Rings: Alice and Louis Koch Collection by Anna Beatriz Chadour
One moment a fashionable ring, the next a Galilean telescope, ready to be folded up and worn again when you're done. In the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly during the Napoleonic era, miniature telescopes were all the rage and were incorporated into all sorts of novelty items such as fans, perfume bottles, and walking sticks.
Galilean telescopes are named after Italian scientist Galileo Galilei, who first used one to discover Jupiter’s four largest moons, spots on the Sun, the phases of Venus, and the hills and valleys on the Moon. The first known telescopes were not very powerful, and it wasn't until Galileo created the combined lens system that such magnification was possible. That telescope was much bigger than these miniature gadgets are, of course, but even at such a small size they function well as low-powered binoculars.
A ring with a Galilean telescope, French, c.1820. The ring opens up to reveal a Galilean telescope with the combination of a convex or converging lens and a dispersing lens. Antique Animal Jewelry
A ring with a Galilean telescope, French, c.1820. Each lens is enclosed by a narrow frame enameled in white with black script, with each French inscription relating to the lens type. The one surrounding the converging lens reads, ‘qui pourrait attirer mes regards ils sont fixer sur vous’ (who could attract my attention, it's fixed on you), and the dispersing lens reads, ‘de pres et de loin toujours je vous aime’ (from near and far I will always love you). From The Power of Love by Beatriz Chadour Sampson, page 95, also featured in Rings: Alice and Louis Koch Collection by Anna Beatriz Chadour, page 445
Do you have a top-secret document or keepsake box in your office but are scared of losing the key or forgetting where you hid it? Well, these Victorian rings with secret fold-out keys were the perfect way to make sure you always had the key close to hand, and that it was kept ingeniously hidden from prying eyes.
Victorian 18kt intaglio signet ring, set with a bloodstone agate, and concealing a hidden key, c.1880 Via A.Brant + Son
Victorian kidney bean locket with a secret key. Modeled in 15k rosey, yellow gold. The key is hinged and folds out so you can close the bean again with it still exposed. Antique Animal Jewelry
Signet rings, one in bloodstone with a carved ship and castle battlements, the flag announcing 'Montevideo', and the other set with lapis lazuli in the shape of a diamond. In both cases, the key is hinged and folds away into the back of the ring face where it can be secretly stored.
There are some pieces of gadget jewelry that can transform so amazingly that they just take your breath away, turning from one piece of jewelry into a completely different one, or separating out into several beautiful pieces...
Victorian bracelet ring - a testament to the skill and ingenuity of the Victorian goldsmith. A high carat gold ring in eight folding sections bound together with a clasp set with an old cushion-shaped diamond, within a diamond and royal blue enamel surround. When the clasp is undone, the ring folds out to be worn as a bracelet, c.1848. Via Rowan and Rowan. For similar models of Italian origin see Catalogue entries 1649 and 1650 in Chadour’s Rings: Alice and Louis Koch Collection
Rare French transformational ring set with turquoise and ruby on a stack of 18 carat gold bands, all finely engraved. It has a secret catch to open the ring up into a bracelet, c.1840-50
A very rare Victorian transforming book bracelet in high carat gold, engraved with a spine set with turquoise. The pages open to reveal the word SOUVENIR, meaning 'remember', c.1840.
A transforming book bracelet, gold and set with turquoise. The pages unfold to spell, 'I love you' @artcurial__ auction in Monaco, January 20 - @jvalade_artcurial_jewels Lot 352 Video by @sandrinemerle via Instagram
A Victorian-era locket that folds out to hold no less than eight individual photos, c.1860-90
High carat Victorian locket that opens down the center to reveal fold-up glass lockets to hold four photos total, front and back. Finely caged with a pretty foliage pattern, the center is decorated with a belt and buckle, a favorite Victorian motif that symbolizes protection. Antique Animal Jewelry
Carriage covers/coach covers, c. 1882-85. These strange orbs are carriage covers, designed to conceal large gemstones for a lady when she traveled by carriage to avoid gathering the attention of highway robbers. Made in a variety of finishes from vibrant 18k gold to enamel, the orb was hinged onto a piece of jewelry to disguise the true value of the gem. Metropolitan Museum of Art
A beautiful friendship ring with six hoops, each carrying a diamond letter. They come together to spell the word 'amitie' (friendship), c.1800
From Rings: Jewelry of Power, Love, and Loyalty by Diana Scarisbrick
A gold gimmel ring, the double hoop inscribed in Latin, translating as: 'What therefore God has joined together let not man put asunder'. Hands clasping hearts support the double bezel set with a ruby and a diamond. The cavities below the bezels hold a baby and a skeleton - reminders of the vanity of earthly possessions. German, c.1631. As a gimmel ring, the rings would likely have been worn separately as betrothal rings, and then joined together and worn as one upon marriage.
From Rings: Jewelry of Power, Love, and Loyalty by Diana Scarisbrick
Swivels, Panels & Secret Compartments
In the Victorian era, in particular, courtship rituals were so complex and restrictive that many resorted to passing secret messages of love through jewelry. This was particularly easy to do in secret where jewelry had hidden panels, alternative faces via a swivel, or compartments for keeping notes, miniature portraits, or hair. There are many, many examples of jewelry like this from the Victorian era, but here are a few with some particularly interesting methods of concealment.
'Pense A Moi' two-way swivel plaque ring made from 18 carat gold. On one side is a pansy mosaic and the words 'A MOI' (the pansy being linked with the French word 'pensée', meaning 'thought', so together it creates the meaning: 'think of me'). 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, rather like an Armillary Sphere, c.1820
A memorial urn ring crafted in 18kt gold. Framed between the gold band is a delicate urn-shaped centerpiece with white enamel accents and diamonds. The diamond "lid" at the top serves as the handle of a hidden compartment on the back of the urn. A tiny glass locket window covers a small band of finely woven hair, the keepsake of a lost loved one. Completing the design are scrolled accents at each pillar-style shoulder and a curvy gold band in the back, c.1750
The Chequer's Ring, belonging to Queen Elizabeth I, with a mother of pearl hoop set with rubies. The monogram ER is formed on the bezel in diamonds and blue enamel, symbolizing 'Elizabeth Rex', A hinge opens up the bezel revealing two miniature portraits - one is Elizabeth, the other is her mother, Anne Boleyn. Given Elizabeth's unpopularity with Catholics who didn't believe in divorce and the rumors surrounding her mother's beheading, Elizabeth's love for her late mother was a secret she fought to keep.
A love ring with four compartments, symbolically decorated with roses and daisies. Inside are the hidden messages: 'je l'aime pas de tout', 'je l'aime un peu', 'je l'aime beaucoup', and 'je l'aime passionement' (I love you not, I love you a little, I love you a lot, I love you passionately) - possibly Swiss, c.1830-40
From Rings: Alice and Louis Koch Collection by Anna Beatriz Chadour, page 460
Ring with a hidden love message (beloved?) spelled out on the underside of openable panels, made in France, c.1830-60. Via Pinterest
Victorian sweetheart rings, innocent-looking and set with gemstones like a diamond on the outside, with hidden messages on the inside. 18 carat gold, inscribed: Dearest, Mizpah, and Ever Thine, c.1890s
Victorian 'Renaissance Revival' blue enamel ring with a hidden compartment and floral design, crafted in 18kt yellow gold. On the underside of the band, not visible when worn, is a hinged opening that can hold a small photograph or object. While this looks similar to a 'poison ring', the compartment being on the inside suggests that this was unlikely used as one. c.1880
Masonic orbs were certainly not the only pieces of jewelry used for expressing religious or political beliefs, but they do have a wonderfully transformative design to them. Masonic Orbs, also known as Golden Globes, Cross Fobs, or Masonic Balls either open out into the shape of a cross or a 5 pointed star, representing 'The Order of the Eastern Star'. Freemasons wore these discreetly as pendants, charms, or fobs to show their membership. The symbols depicted on the pyramid faces usually include the tools of stonemasons to represent the moral values that are key elements of freemasonry.
Three Masonic 9 carat orbs that open out into 5-pointed stars Antique Animal Jewelry
9 carat gold Victorian Masonic orb that opens out into a cross
Mechanical jewelry is, simply put, jewelry that moves. It might have hinges or levers or inbuilt springs - whatever the mechanism, these pieces are delightful feats of miniature design.
Antique gold carat mechanical can can charm in 9 carat gold, fully hallmarked with mechanical action
A gentleman’s mechanical ring commemorating the death of Napoleon, dating to the French Restoration period (1820s). After Napoleon’s second exile and eventual death, loyalists continued to show their support through ingenious methods. One popular way was through mechanical jewelry, especially rings such as these decorated with his tomb, and a tiny figurine hidden within. One side opens, and a tiny spring-loaded Napoleon pops up. From Metier via Ruby Lane
A ring with a coffin-shaped bezel and a mechanical Napoleon figure hidden within. While these rings were a way to show continued support after Napoleon's exile and death, they were apparently also worn before 1830 by the Bonapartists. Gold and enamel, French, before 1838
From Rings: Alice and Louis Koch Collection by Anna Beatriz Chadour, page 479