A ring is a round band, usually of metal, worn as ornamental jewellery. The term “ring” by itself always denotes jewellery worn on the finger; when worn as an ornament elsewhere, the body part is specified, e.g. earrings, neck rings, arm rings, and toe rings. Rings always fit snugly around or in the part of the body they ornament, so bands worn loosely, like a bracelet, are not rings.
Rings may be made of almost any hard material: wood, bone, stone, metal, glass, gemstone or plastic. They may be set with gemstones (diamond, ruby, sapphire or emerald) or with other types of stone or glass.
Although people wear some rings as mere ornaments, or as conspicuous displays of wealth, rings have symbolic functions in relation to marriage, exceptional achievement, high status or authority, membership in an organization, and the like. Rings can be made to sport insignia to be transferred in an impression in a wax seal, or outfitted with a small compartment in which to conceal things. In myth, fable, and fiction, rings are often endowed with spiritual or supernatural significance.
Along with the rings, other types of jewelleries including necklace, rings, bracelets, earrings, bangles, pendants, and others have been discovered from 3rd millennium BC civilization Indus Valley Civilization. Factories of small beads have been discovered in Lothal, India.
Ancient Near East
Finger rings have been found in tombs in Ur dating back to circa 2500BC. The Hittite civilization produced rings, including signet rings, only a few of which have been discovered. People in Old Kingdom Egypt wore a variety of finger rings, of which a few examples have been found, including the famous scarab design. Rings became more common during the Egyptian middle kingdom, with increasingly complex designs. Egyptians made metal rings but also made rings from faience some of which were used as new year gifts. Native styles were superseded by Greek and Roman fashions during the Ptolemaic dynasty.
Archaic and classical Greek
Archaic Greek rings were to some extent influenced by Egyptian rings, although they tended to be less substantial and were not for the most part used as working signet rings. A lack of locally available gold meant that rings made in the eastern colonies tended to be made from silver and bronze while Etruria used gold.
The classical period showed a shift away from bronze to wider adoption of silver and gold. The most typical design of the period involved a lozenge bezel mounting an intaglio device. Over time the bezel moved towards a more circular form.
During the early and middle imperial era (first two centuries AD) the closest there is to a typical Roman ring consisted of a thick hoop that tapered directly into a slightly wider bezel. An engraved oval gem would be embedded within the bezel with the top of the gem only rising slightly above the surrounding ring material. Such rings are referred to Henig II and III/Guiraud 2 in formal academic parlance or simply as Roman rings by modern jewellers. In general Roman rings became more elaborate in the third and fourth centuries AD.
High and Late Middle Ages in Europe
During this period the fashion was for multiple rings on each hand and on each finger. Rings during this period were mostly made from copper based alloys, silver or gold. Gems became common after 1150 along with the belief that certain gems had the power to help or protect the wearer in various ways. Engraved rings were produced using Lombardic script until around 1350 when it was replaced by Gothic script. Some of the inscriptions were devotional, others romantic in nature. For romantic inscriptions French was the language of choice. An increasing use of contracts and other documents that needed to have formal seals meant that signet rings became more important from the 13th century onwards.back to menu ↑
Each finger has had a symbolic association or meaning (most lost in antiquity and that may vary from culture to culture) for the placement of a ring as a sign to observers.
The fourth digit or ring finger of the left hand has become the customary place to wear betrothal, engagement and wedding rings in much of the world, though in certain countries the right hand finger is used. This custom was practically established as the norm during World War II.
The use of the fourth finger of the left hand (the ‘ring finger’) is associated with an old belief that the left hand’s ring finger is connected by a vein directly to the heart: the vena amoris or vein of love. This idea was known in 16th and 17th century England, when Henry Swinburne referred to it in his book about marriage. It can be traced back to ancient Rome, when Aulus Gellius cited Appianus as saying the ancient Egyptians had found a fine nerve linking that particular finger to the heart.
Occasionally rings have been re-purposed to hang from bracelets or necklaces.
The signet ring is traditionally worn on the left pinky or little finger.
A birthstone ring and/or “birthday” stone ring is customarily worn on the first finger of the right hand and indicates respectively the month and day of the week in and on which the bearer was born.
Amulet rings, worn for a plethora of purposes from protection (pentacle rings) to augmenting personal attributes (wisdom, confidence, social status etc.) are worn on various fingers often depending on the intent of the ring’s design or attributes of the stone inset. Although it has been thought that worn on specific fingers for specific purpose enhanced their powers, most people simply wear them on any finger of which they fit.
Thumb rings were originally worn to protect the thumb from injuries caused by the launching of arrows and are a sign of an archer.back to menu ↑
While the ISO standard defines ring size in terms of the inner circumference in millimeters various countries have traditional sizing systems that are still used. Sizing beads functionally reduce the ring size and are small metal beads added to the inner surface of a ring to hold it in place against the finger; they have the advantage of being easily added or removed.back to menu ↑
After several thousand years of ring manufacture the total number of styles produced is vast. Even cataloging the rings of a single civilization such as the Romans presents a major challenge. As a result, the following list should be considered to be very limited.
A carnelian or agate ring worn by some Muslims in imitation of Muhammad.
Usually a slender, simple ring (sometimes consisting of a band), set with the wearer’s birthstone, or the birthstone of the wearer’s spouse. Those like the Mother’s ring can be worn set with various birthstones. Some couples wear birthstones set with a wedding anniversary month birthstone as well as other commemorative stones.
Cameo (carving) ring
A plain hoop mounted by a table setting, into which is affixed a carved cameo. This ring style is exceedingly ancient and was more commonly worn by men than by women. Ancient cameos depicted pagan gods, Christian saints and even self-portraits. Multi-coloured stone and often marble or porphyry was most desirable, as it produced a striped, layered or three-dimensional effect. The modern cameo ring usually shows the profile of a goddess or a Roman soldier.
Championship ring (Sports ring)
A ring presented to members of winning teams in professional sports leagues as well as college tournaments in the Americas. The best known of these are the Super Bowl ring and World Series ring. Also, in professional American sports leagues-such as the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB)-the runners-up of the league championship game/series is awarded a ring, being the champion of their conference (sub-league).
An Irish friendship, courtship or engagement ring. It is traditionally used to indicate the state of romantic availability. In recent times it is commonly worn as a wedding ring. In centuries past, this ring was bequeathed from mother to daughter, though men also wore it.
Worn by students and alumni in commemoration of their graduation.
An oversized ladies’ ring with a large center stone often surrounded by tiny stones. Nearly any oversized ladies’ ring may be termed “cocktail”. This is the most common type of costume jewellery ring and is also known as a cluster ring and dinner ring.
A gold ring worn by a scholar who earns a doctoral degree at a Danish or Swedish university. In America it is common for priests who have earned their doctorate in theology to wear such a ring on the right hand ring finger.
A religious ring, either of authority for clerics or as some other special religious symbol. When worn by bishops or higher-ranking priests, it is called “Episcopal ring”.
A ring given to and worn by a woman signifying her engagement to be married.
A ring symbolizing eternity with a partner. These are often given in lieu of engagement rings, as when former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown purchased one for his wife (as a recompense for not having originally proposed to her with an engagement ring).
A ring style featuring two clasped hands
Finger armor ring
A ring style which spans from the base of the finger to just below the fingernail or middle of the second joint. This type of ring includes a bending joint.
Gay Pride ring (“Rainbow ring”)
Representing gay pride, usually a band, either set with seven stones or inlaid with seven enamelled lines, in the seven colours representing the Rainbow flag (LGBT movement). In decades past, a stone-set ring worn on the right hand ring finger or the pinky of either hand represented a call for gay equality.
Italian for ‘little garden’ a design which features an openwork bezel containing multiple small stones. Most prominent in the second half of the 18th century.
Ring made of 2 or 3 hoops that are hinged at the back and meant to interlock and open; popular for betrothals in 16th- and 17th-century Europe.
Guard ring (a.k.a. ring-guard) is a slender, slightly tighter-fitting ring designed to be placed on the finger after a large/loose ring, to prevent slippage and ring loss.
Iron Ring, and Engineer’s Ring
Ring worn by American and Canadian engineers, after swearing the Engineer’s Oath. This is often in the form of a crudely worked piece of iron; modern rings tend to be sleek steel, some with etched geometric designs. The ring is meant to be worn on the pinky (little) finger of the dominant hand at all times. This ring has been loosely associated with Rudyard Kipling.
A ring with a key mounted on the bezel. Used by the Romans as both a means of carrying a key to their family valuables chest and to demonstrate their status within the family.
Memento mori ring
Largely dating from the 16th to the 17th centuries, memento rings featured a skull and the inscription Memento Mori (“Remember Death”) sometimes combined with other features.
A novelty ring which changes colour in response to body temperature, using a thermochromic liquid crystal.
A ring worn by a mother displaying the birthstone of each of her children, and sometimes including those of the mother and father.
A ring worn in memory of someone who has died. Also commonly called a “memorial ring”. Use attested from at least the 14th century AD to the late 19th century.
Two or more laterally conjoined rings, designed to be worn on two, three, or four fingers; popularized by hip-hop culture.
Found in gold or gilded metal from Bronze Age Britain, these small thick incomplete circles are the wrong size and shape to be finger-rings and were probably worn as nose or ear-rings or attached to the hair or clothing.
A ring consisting of a bezel with a compartment. Despite the name they were probably more commonly used to hold things like perfume or romantic keepsakes.
A ring with a lengthy inscription on its outer surface. These were commonly used as engagement and wedding rings. Also referred to as “posy” or “poesy” rings in reference to the line of poetry most commonly used in the inscription.
Ring with a small portrait, most common during the 17th century
A small, inexpensive ring given to a partner, signifying the promise not to court anyone else.
A typically plastic ring fashioned by hand in prisons.
A ring worn to remind a person of a promise. These evolved in conjunction with wedding and religious vow rings in the sense that the ring represented the vow/promise.
A symbol of virginity and a vow to keep virginity in some religious cultures.
Interlocking rings forming a single band. A famous example is the classic Cartier “Trinity” wedding ring.
A Victorian engagement ring with an implicit acrostic: Ruby, Emerald, Garnet, Amethyst, Ruby, Diamond, Sapphire.
Also known as a Decade ring. Ring worn around the finger with 10 indentations (or protrusions) and a cross as a bezel, representing one decade of a rosary. The rings are used to keep track of place in the prayer by rotating the ring on a finger and feeling the marks.
An early form of thimble.
An emblematic ring, often bearing a family coat of arms, some of which are fit for use to imprint a wax seal. In the event a seal or at least a representation of a seal is on the ring, it is called a “seal ring”. The signet may bear anything from a custom-designed escutcheon to simple initials, in which case it is known as an initial ring.
A large solid gold ring set with a gold sovereign.
Nazi “honour ring” or “ring of honour”. A plain silver band decorated with a death’s head. Awarded to members of the Nazi SS (Schutzstaffel). A similar ring (in the form of a death’s head) was also favoured by the SS-SD (Schutzstaffel-Sicherheitsdienst), and was very secretive in design. There were in fact several different award rings during the Third Reich.
The Technology ring is worn in Canada by certified engineering and applied science technologists and technicians. Like an Iron Ring, it is worn on the little finger of the working (dominant) hand.
Originally thumb rings were used as an archery implement, mainly in eastern styles of archery. Thumb rings are an ancient custom.
Toe rings have a particular function in India. They are considered a customary ornament to be worn by married women.
A small watch fashioned to be worn as a ring.
A ring presented at the time of marriage to signify espousal and marital commitment. Originally worn only by women, it is now common for both spouses to wear such a ring.
A ring worn above the knuckle. Made popular in fashion around 2012.
Notable individual rings
- Iffland-Ring, held by a series of German-language actors since the 18th century, presently held by German actor Jens Harzer
- Hans-Reinhart-Ring, a Swiss theatre award
- Ring of the Fisherman, the signet ring of the Pope
- Chequers Ring, Ring that belonged to Elizabeth I of England
In myth and fiction
- Ring of Gyges, a legendary ring of invisibility, mentioned by Plato
- Andvaranaut, in Norse mythology, a cursed ring that can make gold
- Magic ring, a ring that has magical properties
- Draupnir, a self-multiplying gold ring depicted in Norse mythology
- The One Ring, from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit
Wearing a ring can in some cases be a safety concern where the ring is made of a material stronger than the hand, is fully encircling the digit, and catches onto an immovable object. This can result in serious injury (degloving) or even amputation, or Ring avulsion. Some recommend specifically not to use a ring while operating machinery or sports. If a ring catches on rotating machinery, or even if the ring of a falling person catches on a stationary object, the wearer may suffer such an injury. For these reasons, some workplaces require employees to remove their rings temporarily while performing certain tasks or when in certain areas of a workplace. Despite the symbolism of a solid band around the finger, modern jewelers are sometimes known to modify rings such that, at worst, they only tear the flesh of the wearer’s finger in the above-mentioned cases. Such “breakaway” modifications have not yet achieved popularity as standard designs.