small ornamental hoop usually worn on finger or thumb, but it may be attached to the ear or the nose. Finger rings made of bronze, gold, and silver from the period c.2600–1500 BC have been found in the Indus valley in India; in Egypt rings from c.1600 BC served as a symbol of status and were exchanged as a pledge or seal of faith. They were often also used as money. The signet ring grew from the custom of wearing a cylindrical seal suspended from the arm or neck, developed in Egypt, and was widely adopted as a seal of authority. Numerous rings were worn by Egyptian women, sometimes as many as three on a finger. In Greece gold bands were worn; later they were engraved with cameos or intaglios. Talismanic rings, endowed with many charms and powers, were also worn. In the middle and latter part of the Roman civilization the type of ring worn was governed by law. Iron rings were worn by the mass of the people; gold rings were reserved for those of civil or military rank. Later the gold ring was permitted to freeborn citizens, silver to freedmen, and iron to slaves. The Romans also used poison rings for assassination or suicide in the case of capture by an enemy. In addition there were key rings, which, worn by a matron, symbolized her authority to carry the keys of the house. The betrothal ring, used by Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, was adopted by early Christians in the 2d cent. and later evolved into the wedding ring. The engagement ring set with a precious gem came into use in the Middle Ages; the diamond attained popularity in the 15th cent. and became customary c.1800. From the Middle Ages rings have figured in the coronation of kings and the consecration of bishops as emblems of authority or mystical significance. Since that time a gold seal ring (Fisherman's ring) with an intaglio of St. Peter in a fishing boat has been given each pope and is destroyed when he dies. By the 16th cent. the extravagant use of rings had reached its height. Highly decorated with enamel and jewels, they were sometimes worn on every finger and on several joints. At that time, too, the gold wedding band became popular, and signet rings were engraved with the family crest. Later, memorial rings and mourning rings became fashionable.
See W. Jones, Finger-Ring Lore (1898, repr. 1968); S. Bury, Rings (1985).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Clothing, Jewelry, and Personal Adornment