Knowledge Centre > Jewellery History > Design Periods > Medieval

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The Magnificent Rings of the Middle Ages

Medieval sapphire cabochon gold ring, circa 14 15th century. Hatton Garden
Medieval sapphire cabochon gold ring, circa 14-15th century.
Ref: 26442

Medieval rings, dating from circa 5th- 15th century AD, form a fascinating jewellery group which encompasses several distinct types of ring. Gold and gem-set jewellery during the Medieval era was so rare that it was predominately reserved for royalty, nobility and high-ranking clergymen.

Medieval gem-set finger rings often feature an unusual setting, known as the ‘pie-dish’ bezel. The shape of the setting is dictated by the natural shape of the gemstone set within, usually a polished cabochon as gemstone cutting technology at this point in time was rudimentary.

During this period, gemstones were thought to be imbued with magical powers, for example, sapphires were meant to uncover deception and protect chastity. Sapphires were a favourite choice in the Middle Ages, though so rare that they were reserved solely for people of high rank and would have ostentatiously signified the status, fortune and power of the owner.

Another remarkable group of Medieval jewellery, those called the Bishop’s stirrup rings, were a distinct style during this time in France and England. The shape of the ring rises to an apex or dome, and so furnishes its name from the shape of a horse’s stirrup. It is also thought that the shape echoes the Gothic vaulting ceiling arches within cathedrals, so it is fitting that these rings were often worn by bishops, supposedly worn on the middle finger of the right hand.

Medieval seal rings were not only a symbol of status but also a functional item of jewellery. These were an essential device in business transactions which permitted the wearer to authorise important documents. These rings dated to a time when few had the education to read and write, so were similar to the modern-day equivalent of a signature.

A distinctive group of rings- the iconographic rings, were so named by the Victorians. These rings again have a specific shape, usually with two parallel flat sides reaching to a point, often engraved with images of saints and enhanced with floral or geometric patterns. They were used as devotional objects or protective amulets and were unique to England. They were a popular gift at weddings or more unusually, given to celebrate the New Year.

Each extraordinary Medieval ring offers a fascinating glimpse of a bygone era. These rarities survive from the time of the Black Death wiping out vast swathes of the European population, wars and battles, peasants and serfs, castles and jousting tournaments and Geoffrey Chancer, the first great writer in the English language writing the ‘Canterbury Tales’. We are privileged to be able to offer an impressive collection of these very special and rare jewels which can be prized, enjoyed and worn today.

Medieval cabochon sapphire ring berganza hatton garden
Medieval cabochon sapphire ring, circa 13th-14th century.
Ref: 27574
Medieval lion intaglio ring, circa 11th 12th century AD. Hatton Garden
Medieval lion intaglio ring, circa 11th-12th century AD.
Ref: 27572
Medieval iconographic ring with Saint Christopher, circa 15th century. Hatton Garden
Medieval iconographic ring with Saint Christopher, circa 15th century.
Ref: 26371
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Updated 20/05/2024 at 3:50PM

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