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With this ring, I thee wed: Antique Wedding and Engagement Rings

Rings have been used as love gifts and to symbolize marriage for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians exchanged love rings and believed in the 'vena amoris', meaning the 'vein of love' that runs directly from the heart to the fourth finger on the left hand, where marriage rings are still worn today in the UK. The ring represented eternity - an endless circle for an endless bond, a pledge of everlasting love.

There are so many different kinds of marriage and engagement rings that have been worn throughout history that it would be impossible to include them all here, so this week's blog will focus specifically on: fede and gimmel rings, posy rings, diamond rings, and the marriage rings of some historical figures.

A gold posy wedding ring, the hoop chased with scrolls and inscribed 'TIME. DEVM. ME. AMA. QD.' - 'Fear God and love me', showing the central place of religion, even in romantic life, c.17th century ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

In the 1100s, Pope Innocent III declared that a marriage would only be considered valid by the church if rings were exchanged in a church wedding ceremony. Before this, a man's proposal of a ring and a woman's acceptance of it effectively constituted marriage, even without any witnesses. This could be where the engagement ring becoming separate from the wedding ring started - the engagement ring being a more personal, romantic pledge while the wedding ring was an official ring for the required church ceremony - though it wouldn't become common to have two separate rings until the late 17th century.

Fede Rings

Fede rings were an ancient design showing two hands clasped together, and were popular in Europe for thousands of years. In Roman times the design was known as dextrarum iunctio, meaning joined right hands, with the modern name 'fede' coming from the Italian mani in fede, or 'hands in faith'.

Fede rings were often exchanged at the conclusion of a business contract, meaning that they weren't always exclusively exchanged by lovers, but since marriage was considered an important legal and religious contract, they became strongly associated with marriage and were often used in wedding ceremonies. Clasped hands also represent the 'handclasp', which formed part of the marriage service. Around the 1600s, the fede motif was used in Claddagh rings - traditionally Irish rings - featuring a pair of hands clasped around a central heart, sometimes with a crown.

Gold 'fede' ring with a pyramidal bezel containing a diamond crystal, clasped hands at the back, and an inscribed hoop, reading: 'IO:SVI.ICI.EN/LIV:DE AMI/ODCEST:PRE/SENT:AVVS:', translating as 'I am here in the stead of a lover, yours with this gift', England, 14th century

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Fede ring made of gold and set with diamonds, c.1600-1630, in the Austrian MAK museum, Vienna

Via The Power of Love by Dr Beatriz Chadour-Sampson

Enameled gold fede ring, the silver wrists set with small table-cut diamonds and one of the clasped hands is wearing its own tiny ruby ring, 17th century.

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Enameled gold fede ring, with a lozenge-shaped bezel set with pearls (for purity) surrounding an almandine garnet (red for passion) engraved with clasped hands, with an enameled flower on the back. Italy, c.1640-60. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

French fede ring, c. 1774, featured in Rings: Alice and Louis Koch Collection by Anna-Beatriz Chadour, p 255.

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An 18-carat gold fede ring - clasped hands depicted on a mini enameled plaque, c.1830 Antique Animal Jewelry

Enamelled gold fede ring, set with rose-cut diamonds in silver collets, with a crowned heart held by two hands inscribed 'Dudley & Katherine united 26.Mar. 1706', England, dated 1706.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Gimmel Rings

Around the 1600s, fede motifs also began to be incorporated into gimmel rings. Gimmel rings (from the Latin gemellus, meaning twin) were rings made up of two, or sometimes even three, interlocking bands. A couple each wore one of the separated bands throughout their engagement period and then during the wedding ceremony the groom would place his band on the bride's finger, uniting them into one gimmel ring worn by the bride.

Over time, as goldsmithing techniques became more advanced, gimmel rings became more complicated, incorporating gemstones, ornate carved features, and colorful enameling. Some of the most common symbols in gimmel rings were fede hands, flowers, and hearts.

A gold gimmel fede ring that bears a Latin inscription from a marriage service. On one half are the words 'QUOD DEVS CONIVNXIT' ('What God has joined together') and on the other 'HOMO NON SEPARET' ( 'Let no man put asunder'). Possibly German, c.1600.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

'Fede' gimmel ring made of gold and multicolored enamel. When closed, the bezel is shaped as two joined hands emerging from enameled strapwork. The inner surface of the hoops is inscribed: '.CLEMEN. KESSELER' and '.DEN.25. AVG. AD.1607', 'Clement Kesseler, 25th of August 1607'. This suggests that the ring was made and worn to commemorate a special occasion such as a wedding. Germany, 1607

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Enameled gold gimmel ring, set with turquoises, decorated with clasped hands (one holding a heart) and strapwork on the shoulders, the hoops inscribed with the names of what are likely the couple who were married with this ring. Holland, late 16th or early 17th century.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A gold fede and triple hoop gimmel ring, 18th-19th century. Composed of three conjoined hoops, bound at the base with a pin, when assembled they form a bezel of two clasped hands, concealing the central hoop with an anchor, a heart, and a cross (meaning faith, hope, and charity)

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A gold gimmel wedding ring made up of a diamond-set heart encircled by a pair of clasped hands (fede), the shoulders delicately enameled. When separated you can read the German inscription, 'MEIN. AN.FANCK. VND. ENDE.' / 'WAS. GOTT. ZVSAMEN. FVGET. SOLL.' / 'KEIN. MENSCH. SCHEIDEN', translated as, 'my beginning and my end' / 'What God has joined together' / 'Let no man put asunder', which are thought to be quotations from the marriage ceremony, c.1600-50.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Georgian turquoise and diamond fede gimmel ring. Composed of three flat bands joined to the reverse with a pin opening to reveal a carved double heart, with two joined hands set with sixty four round cabochon turquoises and thirty seven round rose-cut diamonds, c.1750. Via Berganza

Gold gimmel ring with a pyramidal bezel divisible into two, cusped and enameled with moresques on the sides and shoulders and set with a table-cut diamond, a ruby, a sapphire, and an emerald. The two hoops are inscribed 'WER MICH VA-ER DENCK SEINIT' and 'DECHTER S SOV- OSER MEIN' -which though difficult to translate, appears to be a romantic posy. When opened, the bezel of this ring reveals a small cavity. Germany, late 16th to early 17th century

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A gold and enameled gimmel ring set with ruby and aquamarine in the form of a quatrefoil flower with pendant leaves decorated with blue, black, and white scrolls. The inscriptions, revealed when the ring is opened, read 'QUOD DEUS CONJUNXIT HOMO NON SEPARET', 'what God has joined let no man separate'. German, possibly 16th century. The Trustees of the British Museum

Gold, diamond, and ruby gimmel ring with clasped hands and inscribed marriage vow, probably German, c.1570-1600, from the Alice and Louis Koch Collection via The Power of Love by Beatriz Chadour-Sampson

Renaissance Gimmel Ring with Memento Mori, symbolizing life and death, and eternal love beyond this life. German, c.1631. Source: Met Museum of Art

A gold, silver, and pavé-set diamond gimmel wedding ring, probably French though inscribed in Spanish. One inscription reads 'AMOR LOS UNE' (love makes them one), and the other bears the date 17 August 1814. Each hoop bears a flaming heart and when the ring is shut they come together.

From Rings by Diana Scarisbrick

Posy Rings

Posy rings - also spelled posie, posey, or poesie from the French 'poésie' meaning poetry or poem - are rings inscribed with poetic messages. These 'posies' were also known as 'resons' or 'chansons'. Posy rings rose to popularity in the Elizabethan and Renaissance eras, particularly as wedding rings. In the beginning, these were bold rings with inscriptions on the outside, but as time went on and messages became more personal, goldsmiths learned to engrave messages on the inside of rings. Wearing private messages hidden and close to the skin like this made them all the more sentimentally poignant. This also possibly shows the beginning of a shift away from political marriages, made purely for public show and the benefit of the families, to marriages made for love.

For those who might have been stuck trying to compose a posy for a posy ring , messages were often taken from books such as The Academy of Complements (1639), The Mysteries of Love and Eloquence, or, the Art of Wooing and Complementing (1658), and Love's Garland: or, Posies for Rings, Hand- kerchers, & Gloves: and such pretty tokens that Lovers send their Loves (1674). Inscriptions like 'Love me and leave me not', 'Two bodies, one heart', and 'God alone made us two one', were particularly popular. For the more literate and imaginative buyer, they might have chosen a line especially from a personally significant book, or composed one themselves.

A gold posy ring, the outside of which is engraved with sprigs and inscribed in French 'Autre ne vueil', meaning 'desire no other'. This would have been a stock phrase used by goldsmiths, c.1400-1500

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Gold posy ring inscribed 'TOUT DES EN/UIER'. Though the meaning of the last word is obscure, it is clearly a declaration of unreserved love - inscribed in French as many posy rings were in the 15th century, as it was considered the language of love. From Rings by Diana Scarisbrick

A gold posy ring, inscribed on the outside of the hoop in French, 'UNG TEMPS VIANDRA' and on the inside '+MON DESIR ME VAILLE', c.1500-1530

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Gold posy ring, the hoop inscribed 'KEPE FAYTH TEIL DETHE', possibly a reference to the marriage service in which the couple pledge to be faithful until 'death do us part'. England, early 17th century

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

17th-century posy ring with the inscription ‘ I like my chois’, likely intended as a betrothal ring

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Gold renaissance posy ring inscribed, 'Providence Divine Hath Made Thee Mine', British, c.1600–1650 Source: Met Museum of Art, Photo by Richard Goodbody, Inc.

Gold posy ring with engraved circular hoop, England, c.1601-1800 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

A gold posy ring with two pivoted hoops. The outer hoop of the ring reads ‘Accept this gift of honest love which never could nor can remove’. The inner inscription ‘Hath tied me sure whilst life doth last’ suggests that the ring may have been used in a wedding or to symbolize the ties of love. England, c.1600-1700.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Diamond Rings

Diamond engagement rings didn't quite become popular in the sense they are now until De Beers launched their 'A Diamond is Forever' campaign in the mid-1940s, though diamond wedding and engagement rings were favored by certain royal and wealthy couples historically.

The first documented diamond betrothal ring was in 1475 at the wedding of two Italian socialites - Costanzo Sforza and Camilla D'Aragona. Their wedding poem read 'Two wills, two hearts, two passions are bonded in one marriage by a diamond'.

Left: an illustration of the god of marriage, Hymen, standing before an altar in a robe patterned with diamond rings. Upon the altar are two burning torches threaded through a large diamond ring. The torches represent Constanzo and Camilla, the ring represents the binding of the couple in marriage. Right: Diamond Ring, gold and diamond, 16th-century ©Met Museum of Art Via withtheseringshandmade.com

This was not the only diamond marriage ring of the 15th century to gain a reputation. In 1477, Archduke Maximillian of Austria presented a diamond engagement ring to Mary of Burgundy. The future duchess was clearly a woman who knew what she wanted, and as one of the most eligible bachelorettes of her time, she had the audacity to specify the exact design of the ring she wanted to the archduke. He delivered on every detail - a ring in the shape of an M for Mary, set with small, flat diamonds.

Maximilian I of Austria and Mary of Burgundy and their engagement ring Unverified photo source, via hemmahoshilde

In the 15th century, a gift of jewelry was often sent from the father of the bride to the father of the groom. It was not uncommon for this gift to be a diamond ring. In this tradition, Thomas, Duke of Norfolk, sent Mary Queen of Scots two diamond rings by way of a marriage proposal. Around the same time, the Duke of Alçenon gave Queen Elizabeth I of England a diamond ring as a proposal. Despite such expensive gifts, neither man was successful in his proposal.

A diamond ring is given at the wedding ceremony of Maria de Medici and Henry IV of France Painting by Jacopo da Empoli, via The Power of Love by Dr Beatriz Chadour-Sampson

By the 17th century, diamond cutting techniques had greatly improved and trade with India increased, meaning that diamonds were showing up increasingly often in wedding and engagement rings. In France in 1660, Louis XIV gave the Infanta Maria Theresa of Spain a diamond ring upon their marriage. In Britain, Mary of Modena received a diamond-set ring at her proxy marriage to James II in 1673, and the same ring was used at the wedding of their son, James Stuart in 1719.

The marriage of Louis XIV and the Infanta Maria Theresa of Spain in 1660, the dynastic importance of this peace-bringing ceremony is signified by the size and symbolism of the diamond in the ring which the young king is about to place on the finger of his bride. From Rings by Diana Scarisbrick

In the Georgian era, it became popular for women to wear 'keeper' rings set with diamonds on either side of their wedding bands. These are thought to be the precursors of today's eternity bands. In the early 1800s, a fashion was announced for multi-colored keepers: 'the rainbow hoop ring takes the place of the diamond formed by way of guard to the wedding ring' - La Belle Assemblee 1808.

This 'keeper' ring formed part of a suite of jewels given to Queen Charlotte by King George III on their wedding day. Charlotte Papendiek records that the diamond hoop was made 'of a size not to stand higher than the wedding ring, to which it was to serve as a guard’. She added, ‘On that finger the Queen never allowed herself to wear any other in addition, although fashion at times almost demanded it’.

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

More examples of Georgian eternity bands that may very well have been worn as 'keeper' rings at the time. Each one is set respectively with turquoises, foiled pastes, and rubies

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Marriage Rings of Historical Figures

Queen Mary I of England

Princess Mary, the daughter of Henry VIII, had the smallest wedding ring ever made. She was 2 years old when her marriage to King Francis I took place in 1518, so the ring was made to fit her 2-year-old finger. When she went on to become Queen Mary I of England, she kept the ring on a chain around her neck to always remember being a child bride.

Empress Josephine of France

Amongst the most trend-setting and fashionable members of royalty known to history, Empress Josephine of France's engagement ring, given to her by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, sold in an auction in 2013 for $1.17 million.

An unusual sapphire and diamond 'toi et moi' ring made-up of two pear-shaped stones, c.1796. Josephine gave the ring to her daughter, Hortense, who was briefly Queen of Holland through her marriage to Louis Bonaparte. For two centuries, the ring remained with the extended Bonaparte family. Images from The Jewellery Editor (left) and Gabriel & Co. (right).

Queen Victoria

After Victoria became Queen in 1837, tradition dictated that no one could propose to a reigning monarch. Therefore, Victoria proposed to Albert - during his second visit to Windsor Castle in October 1839. Despite the unusual proposal, Prince Albert still had an engagement ring specially made for Victoria.

A serpent-shaped ring with small rubies for eyes (passion), diamonds (endurance), and an emerald, which was Queen Victoria’s birthstone. In the Victorian era, Snakes symbolized wisdom and commitment. Images are reconstructions from the description: from The History Press and Gabriel & Co.

Mary Adelaide, Duchess of Teck

Mary Adelaide was the granddaughter of George III, and mother to Queen Mary, the wife of George V. She held the title of Duchess of Teck through her marriage to Prince Francis of Teck. Mary Adelaide had expensive tastes and lived an extravagant life of parties, expensive food and clothes, and holidays abroad.

The engagement ring of Princess Mary Adelaide, Duchess of Teck, given by Prince Francis of Teck. A gold and jeweled ring with five table-cut rectangular Burmese rubies of graded sizes alternating with twelve diamonds, in an open setting with punched decoration. Inscribed Franz, April 6, 1866

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

May of Teck

Princess Mary of Teck, also known as May, received an engagement ring from Prince Albert Victor in late 1891. The Prince was next in line to the throne after his grandmother Queen Victoria and father King Edward VII, but he died during an influenza pandemic only a few weeks after the engagement. Mary went on to marry his younger brother, who became King George V in 1910.

A gold and jeweled open engagement ring in the form of a single band terminating at each end with a turquoise (true love) and a diamond (endurance). The date engraved inside the band of this ring is the date Prince Albert Victor proposed to Princess Mary (known as May) of Teck, c.1891.

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

There are many, many more beautiful examples of marriage and love rings, but we couldn't include them all here. For more on heart jewelry, acrostic jewelry, or jewelry featuring birds of love like doves, see AAJ's previous blogs.

For more rare Georgian and Victorian jewelry, follow Antique Animal Jewelry on Instagram.