claddagh ring

The History of all Rings from ancient origin to the Claddagh ring


In this series of articles I will detail a history of rings from the very first known records and draw a line right to the claddagh ring of today and beyond into contemporary jewelry. 

The origin of the ring is somewhat obscure, although there is good reason to believe that it is a modification of the cylindrical seal which was first worn attached to the neck or to the arm and was eventually reduced in size so that it could be worn on the finger. Signet rings were used in Egypt from a very remote period, and we read in Gen. 42, that the Pharaoh of Joseph's time bestowed a ring upon the patriarch as a mark of authority. From Egypt the custom of wearing rings was transmitted to the Greek world, and also to the Etruscans, from whom the usage was derived by the Romans. The Greek rings were made of various materials, such as gold, silver, iron, ivory, and amber.

In his Natural History, Pliny recounts the Greek myth about the origin of the ring. The Titan Prometheus was punished for stealing fire from heaven for humanity by being chained to a rock in the Caucasus for 30,000 years, with a vulture feeding on his liver. Jupiter eventually freed Prometheus, but to maintain the original judgment, he ordered the Titan to wear a link of his chain as a ring on one finger, with a piece of the rock he was chained to set in the ring, to symbolize his continued bond to the rock.

Another origin for the ring is the knot. A knotted cord or wire twisted into a knot was a popular charm in primitive times. The charm was often used to cast a spell over a person, preventing them from using a limb or faculty. In other cases, the charm was used to ward off evil spirits causing disease or injury, and had curative powers. It's believed that the magic associated with rings may have originated from this, with the ring being seen as a simplified form of a knot. Rings were sometimes made in the shape of knots and symbolized the binding of the spell to its object. The same idea is present in the true-lovers' knot.

Many Bronze Age rings were discovered during excavations conducted in 1901 by Henri de Morgan in the valley of Agha Evlar, located in the region known as "Persian Talyche." The excavations uncovered several sepulchral dolmens that contained numerous ornamental objects made of metal and stone, as well as vitreous paste beads. There were no inscriptions to help date these "Scythian" finds, but they are believed to date back to the second millennium BCE. The bronze rings come in several different types, some with three to five spirals, others with overlapping ends, and still others with ends brought together as closely as possible.

 Although it would scarcely be safe to assume that finger-rings were never worn by the ancient Assyrians, still the almost total absence of representations of them, even on female figures, renders it safe to say that this must have been only very rarely the case. Possibly the persistence in Assyria and Babylonia of the cylindrical form of seal may account for this, in part at least, for the signet ring in many places was evolved from the cylinder-seal. Moreover, the absence of small intaglios in the period earlier than 500 B.C. would have deprived a ring of its almost essential setting. The plates in Layard's great work on Assyrian remains, as well as those published by Flandrin and Coste, also offer strong negative evidence, although Dr. William Hayes Ward states that he would have expected finger-rings might have come from Egypt by the way of Syria. At a later period, under Greek influence, rings were not uncommon. In the immense cemeteries at Warka and elsewhere numerous iron rings have been found, many of them toe-rings, as well as some made of shell, but the date of these burials is not easily determined, and they are probably, in most instances, not of much earlier date than the eighth or even the sixth century before Christ. 

 Several gold rings of Egyptian workmanship, excavated in tombs at Enkomi, Cyprus, date back to the time of the Middle Empire in Egypt. One in pale gold, now in the British Museum, has a flat oval bezel, inscribed " Maat, the golden one of the two lands." This belongs to the period from the XIX to the XXI Dynasty (or approximately from 1350 to 1000 B.C.).

 Ring samples in the British Museum of the rings from Enkomi. A massive silver ring from the same place has a large oval bezel with the following names and titles inscribed in Egyptian hieroglyphics: Ra-Heru-Khuti, RaKheperu Nefer, Meri-Ra, Ptah-neb-nut-maat. The Cypriot gold ornaments which these rings help to date are considered to be essentially contemporary with those from the tombs in the lower town of Mycense, the period being approximately 1300-1100 B.C., possibly some years earlier or later.

A beautifully worked, perforated gold ring, set with a scarab of carnelian, was found in Cyprus and is now in the Konstantinidis Collection at Nicosia. The workmanship as well as the style of the setting indicates that it was produced in the sixth century b.c. Engraved on the carnelian is a fabulous monster, somewhat resembling a chimasra, half lion, half boar.

Another ring of the same period from Marion- Arsinoe, Cyprus, has a silver hoop, and is set with a flat scaraboid, engraved with a female figure kneeling. One of the largest Mycenaan rings shows a goddess seated near a tree, and worshipers approaching to do her homage. Others offer various devices : an altar with worshipers; a griffin and a seated divinity; a pair of sphinxes; griffins, bulls' heads, etc., in heraldic order.


The iron ring originally was at first regarded as a mark of individual honor, awarded by the sovereign or in his name. From the earliest times of the Roman Republic, a senator sent on an embassy received a gold ring, all other senators being restricted to iron ones. Soon, however, senators of noble birth, and, later on, all senators without distinction, enjoyed the right of wearing gold rings. In the third century B.C. this privilege was then extended to the knights, and in the last years of the Republic, as well as under the emperors, many other classes of citizens were made partakers of the privilege, so that before long even some freedmen and certain of those pursuing the least reputable vocations were permitted the enjoyment of a distinction once so jealously guarded.

 Toward the latter part of the third century a.d. all Roman soldiers could lawfully wear gold rings, although in the late Republican and earlier Imperial periods this right was accorded only to the military tribunes. Thus, finally, all class distinctions in this respect were done away with. Every freeborn man could wear a gold ring, freedmen, with a few exceptions, were confined to silver rings, and the iron ring became the badge of slavery.

After the battle of Cannse (August 2, 216 B.C.), in which the Romans were totally defeated by Hannibal, the Carthaginian leader ordered that the gold rings should be taken from the hands of the dead Romans and heaped up in the vestibule of his quarters. Enough were collected to fill a bushel basket (some authorities say three bushel baskets) , and they were sent to Carthage, not as valuable spoils of war, but as proof of the great slaughter among the Roman patricians and knights, for at this time none beneath the rank of knights, and only those of highest standing among them, those provided with steeds by the State {equo publico), had been given the right to wear gold rings.

On days of national mourning the gold rings were laid aside as a mark of sorrow and respect, and iron rings were substituted. This was the case after the defeat at Cannge in 216 B.C. and on the funeral day of Augustus Csesar in 15 a.d.

This usage is noted in one of the poet Juvenal's satires. Occasionally, as a mark of disapprobation, senators would remove their gold rings at a public sitting, as, for instance, when, the appointment as edile of Cneius Flavins, son of the freed man Annius, was announced in the Senate.

In Rome supplicants took off their rings as a mark of humility, or a sign of sadness. When the censors C. Claudius Pulcher and Titus Sempronius Gracchus were cited by the tribune Rutilius as guilty of a crime against the State, Claudius was condemned by eight of the twelve centuries of Knights. At this, many of the principal personages of the Senate, taking off their gold rings in the presence of the assembled citizens, put on mourning garments, and raised supplications in favor of the accused persons.

Another instance of this usage with suppliants is shown in a recital of Valerius Maximus, wherein he relates that when, about 55 B.C., Aulus Gabinius was violently accused by the tribune Memmius, and there seemed to be little hope that he would escape punishment, his son Sisenna cast himself as a suppliant at the feet of Memmius, tearing off his ring at the same time. This mark of humiliation finally induced Memmius and his feUow-tribune Lselius to withdraw the accusation, and set Gabinius at liberty.

The wearing of a gold ring, because it was a sign of patrician and later of free birth, had such a high value in the eyes of the Romans that some freedmen used the subterfuge of wearing a gold ring with a dark coating, so that it would appear to be of iron. Thus, although they neither had the gratification nor incurred the perils of wearing a symbol confined to the freeborn, they had the intimate personal satisfaction of knowing that it was really on the hand.

From the rather scant evidence that has come down to us, it appears that Roman women were not subjected to as strict regulations in the wearing of rings of precious metal as were the men.

The wives of simple plebeians who were in good circumstances seem as generally and freely to have worn them as the wives and daughters of senators or knights, or other patrician women.

Pliny writes of the women wearing gold on every finger.

In Rome, as early as the first century, at a time when the right of wearing gold rings was, as has been shown, very strictly limited, it occasionally happened that a famous actor was accorded this privilege by the special favor of some influential admirer of his art. Sulla granted this right to Roscius, and some years later, in 43 B.C., the Roman qusestor in Spain bestowed a gold ring upon Herennius Gallus in the ancient city of Gades, the modern Cadiz. This gave him the right to occupy a seat in one of the first fourteen rows at the theatre, the part reserved for the knights. 

 The custom of bestowing birthday rings (anuli natalitii) was frequently observed in imperial Rome, and a rich and influential personage, with many friends and clients, would receive a large number of these rings on the anniversary day of his birth.


 Tacitus states in his Germania that the most valiant of the Cattse, wore " Hke a fetter " an iron ring, which was a mark of infamy among the Germans. Only when a warrior had killed an enemy had he the right to divest himself of this ring. Whether this was a tribal usage, or only the sign of an obligation voluntarily assumed, must be left to conjecture. It is supposed to evidence that the slaves of the Germans wore iron rings, and that thus such rings were looked upon as badges of slavery.


Finger-rings are exceedingly rare among the remains of the prehistoric American peoples, although a few have been found in the Pueblo ruins of Arizona and New Mexico.

These are usually cut out of shell. Some of them are skillfully cut from Pectunculus shells, and others from "cone-shells" (Conus). Of the former kind a number were unearthed at Chaves Pass, Arizona. Many of the rings were incised with an ornamental design; one of the most beautiful of these was decorated with red figures representing clouds and lightning. This ring, large enough to fit an adult's finger, was found, together with bones of a human hand, in one of the pre Columbian graves, at Casa Grande, Arizona.

Remains here also yielded a ring made out of a cone-shell, with incised decoration. The exceptionally fine specimen noted above almost certainly had a religious or talismanic character, and it may have been thought to protect the wearer from storms and thunderbolts. The skill with which the shells were utilized for rings as well as for other objects of adornment must have been the result of many generations of experiment and training, springing from that inherent artistic sense so often manifest in the Indians of the pueblos in contrast to the Indians of the plains.

Often the circular form was already present in the shell, and this was utilized by dividing a part of the cone into sections, thus giving rings of varying diameter. The material was then smoothed and polished, and either left plain or decorated with an incised pattern, into the outlines of which appropriate coloring matter was introduced. In other cases, when the shell material did not offer a natural circlet, a disk was cut out, and a large perforation produced the rough circlet, to be worked up later into a finished ring.

 The Aztecs of ancient Mexico executed many ornamental objects of gold, silver, copper and tin, and worked in iron and lead as well. Specimens of this silversmiths' work were sent by Fernan Cortes to Emperor Charles V, and their artistic quality elicited the admiration of the Spanish jewellers. These seem to have been only a small portion of the rich booty gathered by the Spanish Con- quistador, the metal worth of which he estimated at 100,000 ducats ($250,000), or even more, according to the statement in a letter addressed to his sovereign. The greater part of this treasure is believed to have been lost during the "" Noche Triste" the " Night of Sorrows," when the Spanish conquerors were surprised and attacked in Mexico City by the native warriors, and were forced to seek safety, after suffering considerable losses in a retreat from the narrow, city streets into the open country, where they could better utilize the enormous superiority conferred on them by their fire-arms. Even the few specimens which were actually brought to Charles V seem to have disappeared, and were probably melted down for use as bullion.

Of the silversmiths' methods a little can be learned from a study of Aztec paintings. Thus we are able to know that they used the crucible, the muffle and the blow- pipe. The statement is made by Torquemada and by Clavigo that they possessed the now lost art of casting objects half of gold and half of silver.

Some fine examples of Aztec work in gold and silver are to be seen in the marvelous collections of the Museo Xacional in Mexico City, and among them are several finger-rings. One of these comes from Teotihuacan; its broad hoop is decorated with the head of one of the Aztec gods, wearing an elaborate and curiously complicated head-dress. Other gold rings are of a peculiar type, the inner half of the hoop being only about two-fifths as high as the outer and very broad half, so that the finger could be closed without inconvenience.  So few finger-rings of the Indian aborigines, who once inhabited the present territory of the United States, have been brought to light. Among the rare discoveries may be noted a copper ring found in one of the Indian mounds near Chillicothe, Ross County, Ohio. This ring has been made by bending a short copper rod until the ends overlapped and then pounding them as closely together as possible. It is only large enough for a child's finger, and among the remains of fifteen Indians found in this particular mound were those of a child. A few stone rings, presumably for wear on the finger, have been met with in Indian graves in the Scioto Valley, Ohio, in Kentucky, in Tennessee and also in Arizona, New Mexico and California.

An ornamental stone ring from Kentucky was evidently a finger-ring, as are also some others of the stone rings.  A shell ring from the adobe ruins near Phoenix, Arizona, in the Salado Valley, shows the skill of the primitive Indians of this region in ring-making.

Art in shell is pronounced by Dr. Warren K. Moorehead to be characteristic of the early Indian peoples of this valley, the shell material, which is found in great profusion in the ruins and in the desert, having come here either because of trade relations with the Indians of the seacoast, or as a result of frequent journeys by some of the Salado peoples to the distant salt water.

The discovery of shell frogs in the so-called " City of the Dead " in this valley, by Prof. Frank H. Cushing,  was at first received with considerable in-credulity, but since then several have been unearthed by successive explorers. Shell and bone implements with turquoise inlays occur both in Arizona and New Mexico.



The wearing of rings as ornaments for the hand requires no explanation in view of the innate love of adornment shown from the very earliest periods of human history. However, apart from this merely ornamental use, rings were applied to many special uses and were worn for many definite purposes. Let us now investigate just some of the very interesting historical uses of rings starting with the Poison Ring.

Precious stones set in rings sometimes served to hide a " talisman " of a peculiar kind, namely, a dose of death-dealing poison, kept as a last resort to free the wearer of the ring from disgrace or from a worse death. So we are told that when Marcus Crassus stripped the Capitoline Temple of its treasures of gold, the faithful guardian broke between his teeth the stone set in his ring, swallowed the poison hidden beneath it, and immediately expired. The great Hannibal, also, had re-course to the poison contained in his ring, when he was on the point of being given up to his bitter enemies, the Romans. 

An early Venetian example of a poison ring functioned in such a way that on touching a spring at the side of the bezel holding the diamond, the upper half, in which the stone is set, springs open, revealing a space beneath in which a small quantity of poison could be concealed, enough in the case of the more active poisons to furnish a lethal dose, either for an enemy or for the wearer of the ring himself in case of need.

The son of the great Egmont was involved more or less directly in an unsuccessful plot to poison the Prince of Orange in 1582. It was asserted that the crime was committed at the would-be assassin's own table, by means of a drug concealed in a ring. 

 Sun Dial Ring.

A golden ring-dial in the British Museum collection is a flat band around the middle of which runs a channel in which another, movable ring, fits closely. The month names are engraved on the band, six above the channel and six below it. The movable ring has a small hole with a star on one side, and a hand with index and second fingers extended on the other. Inside, the numbers of the hours from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. are engraved in two lines, the hour of noon being beyond them at the point opposite to the ring which suspends the dial. In using a dial-ring the aperture in the movable ring was brought in a line with the month in which the observation was taken; this being done the figure on the inside upon which the sun's ray would fall would give the approximate time of the day. 

Napoleonic Political Rings

When Napoleon was exiled to Elba after the overthrow of his empire. Many of his faithful followers clung to the hope that he would return and re-establish his rule in France. In order to aid in keeping this hope alive, a number of rings were made which could be worn with impunity, but which could also serve when desired as proofs of the wearers' attachment to the Napoleonic cause. One of these is described as a gold ring on which a minute gold and enamel coffin was set; on pressing a spring at the side of the ring a section of the circlet sprang up and revealed a tiny figure of Napoleon in enamel.


As an example of ancient gold rings, one of Egyptian workmanship is especially noteworthy for its size and weight as well as for its design. It is 1/2 inch in its largest diameter, and bears an oblong plinth, which turns on a pivot; it measures 6/10 inch at its greatest, and 4/10 inch at its least breadth. On one of the four faces is the name of the successor of Amenhotep III, Amenhotep IV ( Akhenaten ), who lived about 1400 B.C.; on another is figured a lion, with the inscription " lord of strength " ; the two remaining sides show a scorpion and a crocodile respectively. The weight of this massive ring is stated to be about five ounces and its intrinsic gold. 

Some remarkably fine finger-rings were among the ornaments found by Ferlini, an Italian physician, when he unearthed the treasure of one of the queens of Meroe. These rings are now in the Berlin Royal Museum. Some of them are plain hoops to which movable plates are attached; others are signet rings. In a few specimens of the first-named class the plate is so large as to extend over three figures, the inconvenience to which this could give rise being partly obviated by joints in the plate, so that the fingers might be moved with greater facility. We hardly think that a design of this type is ever likely to become popular in our times.

Scarabs strung on wire so as to be worn on the finger were found at Dahshur by De Morgan. These belonged to the Twelfth Dynasty, to the time from Usertasen III to Amenemhat III (ab. 2660-2578 B.C.) . Stronger wire was used at a later time, the ends being thrust into perforations on the sides of the scarabs. In all these cases the scarab and the circlet, more or less well formed, were separate parts loosely put together. It was not until the Golden Age of the ancient Egyptian civilization that complete metal rings were made, in which both circlet and chaton formed one piece. Rings of the Egyptian type, although strongly modified by Ionic or Phoenician art, were introduced into Etruria at a very early period, and probably thence into Latium.

At an even earlier date, at least 1200 B.C., scarab rings were worn in Cyprus, several examples having been found in Sepulchres there, the scarab being made of porcelain strung on a gold- wire hoop.

The ancient rings in the British Museum offer examples of nearly all the different types favored in early times. Some, from the Mycensean period, exhibit a long shield-shaped bezel, convex above and concave beneath, across the direction of the hoop; others have a flat band decorated with plaited or twisted wire on which is set a bezel holding a paste.

The Greek and Hellenistic periods, from the sixth to the second century B.C., furnish a large variety of forms, some copied or adapted from earlier ones and then independently developed. A rounded hoop tapering upward, with ornamental extremities, occasionally appears in fine examples, the ends of the hoop representing the lions' masks ; the bezels are frequently of oval shape, and the shoulders of the hoop are often nearly straight ; in another type while the outside of the hoop is rounded, the inside is faceted ; sometimes there is a high convex bezel, beveled underneath. There are still a few swivel rings with scaraboids.

In the Hellenistic period appear massive gold rings with square-cut shoulders and raised oval settings, in which a convex stone is placed. Still another type is an expanding hoop formed of two overlapping ribbons and with a convex bezel.


The Claddagh Ring got its name since it was always worn in the claddagh community throughout history and was created in Claddagh, Galway. Ireland.

It is special in that it is the only ring with a particular design that has been worn exclusively by a small community for more than 400 years. A community located close to the coast is known as Claddagh . It was beyond the city walls and separated from the city by the River Corrib in Galway. Although it was erratically constructed, it was fairly large and intersected with multiple streets. It was the first home the Celtic settlers in this area according to legend.

Being steadfastly Catholic, they were an exclusive community, and outsiders were never permitted to live among them. It was ruled by a member of their own body who was periodically elected and referred to as the King. He oversaw their legal system and arbitrated all conflicts in accordance with their long-standing traditions. 

This colony's only industry was fishing. In actuality, they were forbidden from using a hoe or a spade. In exchange for their fish, the municipality compensated them by providing them with food to meet all of their requirements.

These people utilized the claddagh ring as a wedding band, and even today, among them, the ring is associated with unique, centuries-old customs. For example, purchasing jewelry is improper for a Claddagh individual. For example, it is improper for a Claddagh person to purchase a ring; instead, they must receive one as a gift. If you're married, you must place the crown closest to the nail. If single, the heart is on display and open to capture, hence the crown is worn closest to the knuckle. These local people still wear this ring.

This ring's historical beginnings are unknown. Some claim the pattern is Celtic, although the original Celtic rings, while circular, were not linked, allowing them to fit any finger. Others believe that because Galway once had a significant and successful wine trade with Spain and made pilgrimages to the Shrine of Compostella, gold, silver, and amber may have come to Galway from Spain, as well as the design. In Brittany, a slightly similar design was acquired. There is also a chance that it was produced by sailors because so many of the rings used at the time were handmade, and it could have easily been shipped from Galway to Galway from Spain and the design may have also come from there. A somewhat similar design was procured in Brittany. It is also possible that it could be fashioned by sailors as many handmade rings were in use and it could easily have been brought from Galway as there was great trade between Galway and St. Malo. For instance Irish state papers 1548 tells us of an "arrival of a big ship at Kinsale from St. Malo, going to Galway with wine and to take fifteen lasts of hides from there.

However, we believe that the particular pattern, which has always been utilized on the Claddagh, may have two possible origins, both connected to the Joyce family, one of the illustrious "Tribes of Galway."

Due to the numerous bridges she constructed, Margaret Joyce, often known as "Margaret of the Bridges," initially wed Domingo de Rona, a rich Spanish trader who settled in Galway and fell in love with her there. He died there shortly after arriving from Spain, leaving her his vast estate. She subsequently wed Galway Mayor Oliver Og Ffrench in 1596. She spent her own money to construct the majority of the Connacht bridges.

While he was away on a voyage. One day, an eagle soaring overhead dropped a gold ring to her. This ring has been reputed to have had the original claddagh ring design. 

Another story is that William III's first acts as king of England was to dispatch an embassy to Algiers to demand the immediate release of all British nationals held there in slavery. This is a more popular and reasonable explanation for the origin of the claddagh ring. Algiers reluctantly gave in to this request. One of those freed was a young man named Joyce, a native of Galway, who had been kidnapped by an Algerian corsair fourteen years earlier as he was traveling to the West Indies.

When he arrived in Algiers as a slave he was bought by a wealthy Turkish man who worked as a goldsmith. This man taught him the art, and he quickly became an expert goldsmith. 

Upon his release he returned home to Ireland and has been credited with creating the claddagh ring design. 

Sadly the majority of the antique Claddagh rings were destroyed in the famine of 1846–1847, according to the Galway Archaeological Journal of 1905. These were pawned with a Mr. Kirwan for whom he provided a $500 cash advance. He made his money by selling the rings as old gold to be broken up and sent to the melting pot when the majority of these folks fled the country to escape the Irish famine and understood there was little chance the rings would ever be reclaimed. As a result, irreplaceable antique rings and treasures were lost and gone forever. 


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