Men’s rings are more than mere pieces of jewelry or finger-bling. Since ancient times, they have been used to signify status. Signet rings, engraved with an official mark or family crest, developed from the cylindrical seals of early Middle Eastern cultures to authenticate documents. These utilitarian rings used the intaglio method to sculpt a recessed image, in which symbols or text were engraved backwards. This reversal allowed the correct impression to be left when the ring was pressed into wax or ink to mark official correspondence.
Egyptians were the first to mount their signets on rings; they were generally engraved with hieroglyphics indicating the wearer’s name and profession. Romans adopted the signet ring and added gemstones to the design. In medieval Europe, signet rings often indicated military rank, and became highly popular because of widespread illiteracy, even among the men who wore them.
From the 17th century on, powerful European men adopted signet rings carved with their family or regional seal as a symbol of their status. Religious orders like the Jesuits and fraternal organizations such as the Masons created coded signet rings to identify members of their societies. But by the 18th century, the signet ring was widely used simply to seal letters of a personal nature.
Equally practical was the archery ring, designed to protect the finger pad of the bow thumb, resulting in a more precise string release. The style of archer’s ring developed extensively in China, in materials from horn and ivory to jade and gold. Some designs featured an asymmetrical opening to allow for a tight fit.
Though archery was a part of the standardized test for civil service in China through the 1600s, archer’s rings continued to be worn long after because they represented an ideal of masculine skill among the wealthy and ruling class. The most valuable archer’s rings are those with dynastic heritage, which garner millions at auction because of their connection to former Chinese emperors.
Cameo rings, which are essentially the physical opposite of itaglio signet rings, feature a central relief carved from a gemstone, coral, or other natural material, which are then set into a metal band. Most cameos are made from seashells, a tradition established in Italy during the 15th century and popularized during the Victorian Era. Increased tourism to historic sites like Pompeii created a souvenir market for affordable shell cameos, which often featured imagery inspired by Greek, Roman, or Egyptian iconography. Pope John Paul II collected cameo rings, and supposedly caught the chill that killed him in 1471 because his rings kept his hands so cold.
Commemorative or mourning rings, which typically feature the portrait or name of a deceased person, were first worn during the 14th century in Europe. Jacobites made these rings particularly fashionable in Great Britain during the 1600s when they wore cameo rings engraved with images of various Stuart kings, whose line they were trying to restore...
Personal mourning rings exploded during the sentimental Victorian Era, and are often identifiable by their onyx or jet stones and detailed inscriptions. Some of these rings even enclosed a small locket, which could be filled with a braid of hair or a miniature photograph of a loved one.
The most common type of ring worn by men in the 20th century is the wedding band, which is generally an unadorned ring of white, yellow, or rose gold. A more complex example of the style is Cartier’s “Trinity” wedding band, which is actually three interlocking rings, each a different color of gold, to symbolize friendship, faithfulness, and love.
The American jewelry industry began advertising wedding rings as a set during the 1940s and 1950s; prior to this period, only a bride’s ring was used during most wedding ceremonies. Because many couples were separated for undetermined lengths of time during World War II, the wedding ring’s symbol of commitment to a spouse overseas gained importance, and men wore them proudly.
More exclusive are Super Bowl rings, which debuted along with the first Super Bowl game held in 1967 between the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs. These bulky rings generally feature the winning football team’s name, logo, and the Super Bowl number in Roman numerals. Each year, jewelry designers for companies like Jostens, Balfour, and Tiffany’s bid for the right to create these limited-edition rings. The small production runs and specific history for each ring design makes them very desirable for collectors.
But the flashiest examples of men’s rings are those created for performers in the hip-hop and rap music scenes of the late 1990s. For these artists, the gratuitous display of wealth exemplified by bling was an obvious way to prove a musician’s success and power in the industry, and nothing made their case more forcefully than huge gold rings crowned with outsize diamonds.