Medieval Jewellery – the raw materials

After Dress, Jewels, Arms and Coat of Arms: Material Culture and Self-Representation in the Late Middle Ages, Central European University

“Goldsmiths worked mainly with the two most precious metals, gold and silver, and used enamel, pearls, and stones for the decoration of their products.
Gold was seen as the most prestigious metal, for which silver-gilt or silver were seen as poorer substitutes, most suitable for lower classes.

 A large proportion of gold used in late medieval production was recycled gold: goldsmiths used ancient coins, jewelry, or other gold objects as their raw material. In the High Middle Ages, the previously produced gold stock of Europe was primarily accumulated in the court of the Byzantine emperors; consequently, little gold was circulated in the Western world. For coinage, for example, silver was generally used until the 13th century, when gold coinage was introduced in Italy, France, and England. This gold, however, was not newly produced but acquired through trade with the Arab countries, rich in gold since the early Middle Ages. From the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, gold production in Europe increased alongside the continuing importation of gold from the Arab world. A significant quantity of gold was mined, especially in Bohemia and Hungary, which two countries provided up to eleven twelfth of the total gold production of late medieval Europe. Most gold was produced by mining, but some gold was also gained by panning (swirling the deposits of rivers around in a pan to separate quartz from gold), especially in the Rhine area.

Sgold-nuggetilver, in contrast to gold, was produced continuously through the Middle Ages in Europe, and even exported from there. In addition to silver mines that played an important part in silver production in the early and the High Middle Ages—Poitou (Merovingian period), Sardinia (11th-12th c.), the environs of Goslar, Germany (10th-12th c.), Freiberg, Saxony (12th-14th c.),—rich silver mines were discovered in the second half of the thirteenth century in Kuttenberg (Kutná Hora), Bohemia, which supplied silver in great quantities until its decline, due to the Hussite wars, in the fifteenth century.

Precious stones were acquired almost exclusively from long-distance trade. Among the most frequently used stones, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, turquoises, and diamonds came mainly from the East: rubies were brought from India and Ceylon, sapphires from Ceylon, Arabia, and Persia, emeralds from Egypt, turquoises from Persia and Tibet, and diamonds from India and Central Africa. Europe also produced a variety of gems and semi-precious stones in the later Middle Ages. The source for amethysts was Germany and Russia. Rock crystal came from Germany, Switzerland and France, opals and garnets, from Eastern Europe. Besides precious stones, also a great variety of less valuable stones were frequently used, as it turns out from a list of precious stones written by a Jewish merchant in 1453.

 For precious stone decoration, goldsmiths very frequently used also antique cameos and intaglios — precious or semiprecious stones decorated with engravings or reliefs—that survived (often encased in older, medieval metalwork) in large numbers and were highly sought after in the later Middle Ages. Cameos were set into many types of jewelry as decoration, and often reused again. Their usage is a evidence of the conscious attempt to keep awake or revive the spirit of Antiquity. The popularity of antique cameos and intaglios was, in fact, so high, that medieval gem-cutting itself developed in emulation of the classical models.  However, Western European Middle Ages knew only clumsy imitations of antique cameos, while in Byzantium stone-carving remained a living tradition throughout the Middle Ages. Byzantine carved stones were eagerly imported to the West.

Other raw materials for the decoration of jewelry included freshwater pearls from Scotland, mother-of-pearl, amber—the fossilised resin of pine trees—found in great quantities along the Baltic coast, jet—the black fossilised remains of trees—mainly from England and Spain, and coral from the Mediterranean coast in North Africa”.


Rings and love …

Texts from Les Enluminures (Sandra Hindman), The MET, The Telegraph 2008.

Finger Ring with a Cross. The MET. Date: 450–525. Culture: Frankish. Medium: Gold

 “Rings were generally worn by men and women of high rank, although some—with monograms or names—served as seals for impressing documents. Most were purely decorative in nature, sometimes, as in this case, using Christian symbols. This ring, with its elegant pattern of filigree and granulation on the band and its striking use of garnet and mother-of-pearl on the bezel, is exceptional in both decoration and material and demonstrates the sophistication of Frankish metalwork from an early date”.


“Decorative finger-rings are known already in the Ancient world as early as 2,500 B.C., discovered in tombs in Ur in the Near East. … Precious and everyday materials have long been used to craft finger-rings of gold, silver, bronze, glass, and carved stones like carnelian or lapis lazuli. But the most valuable finger-rings are made of gold. In the Ancient world the functional signet ring, inscribing the name or sign of the owner, developed alongside purely ornamental examples. The ritual ring, of religious and magical power or civic and state significance, survives as another type of finger-ring from Antiquity”.

Octahedral diamond ring. Roman, second half 3rd–early 4th century


“… People at all levels of society wore rings and for many different reasons. It was common to wear more than one ring at a time on any finger of the hand, and to wear them sometimes over gloves. Whereas some rings now appear unusually small or exceptionally large to us, medieval paintings and sculpture of the period reveal they were worn on the upper joint of the finger as well as on the thumb, on chains around the neck, and even on cords suspended from hats.(…). From Antiquity through the Renaissance rings were exchanged by friends and lovers and sealed engagements and marriages; these rings are often inscribed with posies or black letter sayings. They were used as expressions of religious beliefs or, sometimes, to engage in acts of popular devotion. Rings made statements about social status, secured family ties, or served as legal authentication during an era of anonymity; these are nominative and signet rings. Rings provided a fertile field for craftsmen to exercise their virtuosity in forging, soldering, chasing, engraving, carving, and polishing. Quite simply they were also worn as fashion accessories”. (…)

Ancient rings

“The term “ancient” can include everything from Egypt to Etruscan and Phoenician to Greece, literally thousands of years of history. … The Hellenistic age extends from c. 325 B.C. until the inauguration of the Roman Empire in 27 B.C.; and Imperial Rome thereafter until the reign of Constantine from c. 306-327 and the Sack of Rome in 410 by the Visigoths led by Alaric.

Both gold (from extensive new mining operations) and precious stones (from new trade routes) were plentiful during the Hellenist Age, and jewelry was highly prized as conveying social status. Multicolored gemstones were in frequent use, chalcedonies, cornelians, and above all garnets (from India). Seed pearls, emeralds, and amethysts also are found by the first and second centuries B.C. While Hellenistic jewelry much imitated Greek prototypes, some forms originate during this era, and they include the Heracles knot that remained popular through Roman times and the hinged ring.

At first, Roman rings of the Imperial period were relatively simple, but by the first century the taste for luxury and displays of wealth was much noted by Roman writers. Martial and other critics of Roman society parodied the newly rich (see Spier 2012, p. 12). One of his epigrams ridicules the dandy Charinus, who wears six rings on each finger and never takes them off because he does not have a gem case (implying that he does not own them they are rented). In Petronius’s Satyricon, Fortunata the wife of a former slave is mocked for wearing at least “six and half pounds on her” during a banquet. … Among the new forms, the new pierced openwork in gold (opus interrasile) is worth noting. By the later Roman Empire, especially the third through fifth centuries, Roman jewelry becomes more sophisticated: among the forms that date from this time are double- and triple- bezel rings, as well as the pyramid setting.

… Jewelry is almost always described by weight and if there are stones the weight without the stones is given. These weights are closely related to those of coinage, so customers may have supplied coins to itinerant or shop-based craftsmen. There were certainly guilds in Roman times. We also suspect that children worked as jewelers and engravers; there is a tombstone of a 19 year old gem engraver known. Archeological finds reveal that shops surrounding the marketplace belonged to retail traders dealing with the local market; there are transfer and rental agreements for jewelry shows (see Ogden 1982, p. 177). The shop of one jeweler was only 5 feet by 4 feet in size, much like artisan’s workshops throughout the medieval era. Certainly itinerant goldsmiths must also have existed”.

Byzantine and Early Christian Rings

“Information about rings in late Antiquity comes from Roman authors, such as Pliny, Martial, and Clement of Alexandria. In his Natural History Pliny states: “… many people do not allow any gems in a signet-ring, and seal with the gold itself; this was a fashion invented when Claudius Caesar was Emperor.” The Roman poet Martial remarked in the first century A.D. he had seen a middle-class citizen wearing no less than six rings on each finger; although under Septimus Severus (died 211 A.D.) a decree was issued allowing each soldier to wear a single gold ring. The Church Fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria, discouraged wearing any jewelry at all. However, they did permit Christians to wear one ring, either the seal of their family or the wedding ring; and rings bearing Christian symbols such as fish, birds, and inscriptions of religious character were deemed acceptable.

The types of rings from this period include examples with nominative inscriptions or plain gold monograms for sealing, marriage and betrothal rings, devotional and religious rings, and decorative rings. Some marriage and fidelity rings are expressly related to the formal institution of marriage and its vows. The symbolic linking of the couple that is expressed in the dextrarum junctio, or the joining of hands, persisted from ceremonies from Roman times. One type of marriage ring thus displays two joined hands. Portraits of the bride and groom, sometimes with crowns over their heads (actually used in ceremonies) or a cross between them, also exist in rings. The man is typically portrayed on the left, in the position of greater importance. Such rings suggest that men and women shared an emotional bond and a practical partnership. Other strictly Byzantine examples depict the bride and groom flanking Christ to indicate that he officiates over the union of bride and groom, sealed by his cross. Typical inscriptions include OMONOIA (Concord) and XAPIC (Grace). In the seventh century, Isidore of Seville wrote: “The ring is given by the espouser to the espoused either as a sign of mutual fidelity … therefore the ring is placed on the fourth finger because a certain vein, it is said, flows thence to the heart.”

Other types of rings of the period include decorative rings with attractive gemstones, cameos, and intaglios, sometimes set in beautifully wrought bands made with pierced, twisted, and beaded gold. The excesses associated with the later Roman Empire find expression in two-, three-, and four-finger rings, many made in Alexandria, and in the proliferation of baby rings perhaps not only intended for infants and small children but also meant to adorn statuary as votive offerings. In the Byzantine East, devotional rings like small icons depict frontal standing figures of saints, God the Father, or the Virgin Mary. The love of bright, gleaming colors, so evident in Byzantine mosaics, metalwork, and manuscript illumination, has its counterpart in richly enameled rings”.

A medieval gold ring with a rare black diamond

11th Century (?)



Early Medieval Rings

“Early Medieval finger-rings, or rings from the so-called Migration era, occupy a class by themselves. … Tribal cultures–the Goths, the Visigoths, the Lombards, the Franks, the Ostrogoths, the Huns, etc.–wore their wealth as they moved from place to place. The persistence of Roman techniques can be seen in the intricate filigree and granulation of their gold work; however as the importance of the stone grew, the prominence of the bezel increased so that the beautiful uncut stone projected high above the finger. Rings of the projecting bezel type are found among the Lombards, the Ostrogoths, and the Franks. Another type, the spiral ring (already a form favored by the Celts), adopted by the Anglo-Saxons recalls the interlace of contemporary illuminated manuscripts. There are braided, twisted, and coiled examples. A small group of Anglo-Saxon rings also preserve niello decoration on flat or articulated bezels depicting mythic beasts, spirals, and other motifs.

In Gaul, the Merovingians preferred a flat bezel on which designs could be engraved, whether they be portraits of the owner such as appears on the famous ring of the king Childerich or complex, difficult-to-decipher monograms, or animals. From the same historical milieu comes the intricate and imposing architectural ring, sometimes adorned with a cabochon garnet at the top of the bezel. The latter recalls on a minute scale Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel at Aachen with its rotunda form, arched galleries circling the central space, and dome. New types of byzantinizing forms, such as cloisonné work, came with the political stability of the Carolingian and Ottonian empires, and it is worth remembering that Otto II married a Byzantine princess.

Much of the evidence for the origins and the dating of Early Medieval Merovingian rings is archaeological. Rings decorated with shaved garnets, for example, come from sites that follow the route of the invasions of Attila the Hun (died 453) from Hungary to Gaul. Sometimes archaeological evidence suggests the gender of a wearer, as in the case of an architectural ring from the Guillou Collection buried in the tomb of a woman. Often, it provides important, independent means of dating, for hoards included dated coins, as well as other items made from precious metals”.

Gothic RINGS

“With the rise of towns and the establishment of a money economy in western Europe, the fabrication of rings grew into an urban trade. In 1180, the Goldsmith’s Company was founded in London, and in 1200, Jean de Garlande describes the craftsmen setting jewels into rings on the Grand Pont in Paris. Certain new types of rings evolved and were commercially made in large numbers for all levels of society. In France in 1283, then in London in 1337, 1363, and 1463, and elsewhere, sumptuary laws were passed forbidding townspeople from wearing precious stones, but it is unlikely these regulations were strictly observed.

Medieval rings are typically set with uncut but polished stones (called cabochons) because the stone itself was considered God’s creation, not to be altered artificially by man. For the same reason, there was a taboo about the mixing of colors in the workshops of painters and their assistants. Two types of rings abound in the Gothic era. The first is the stirrup ring, made in the shape of a horse’s stirrup and nearly always set with a cabochon sapphire. Many of these have been discovered in the tombs of the bishops for whom they were made. The second is the tart mold ring, adorned with different precious stones in a box or circular setting the underside of which resembles a pie plate. Other types of rings also proliferate: for example, nominative rings with circular inscriptions used for sealing, black letter rings with amatory sayings on the bands, iconographic rings with standing figures of saints that served to protect the wearer, etc. Claw and box settings both occur in Gothic rings, but eventually the claw setting naturally evolves into the most popular late Gothic type of gemstone ring, the cusped ring, in which the collet consists of decorated lobes between the remnants of claws. It is this type of ring that continues into the early Renaissance and occurs in Gerard David’s painting.

An art history of medieval rings has yet to be written (cfr Hindman et al., 2007), but a few preliminary observations can nevertheless be made. The streamlined form of the stirrup ring, arching upward to the bezel that forms an integral part of it, recalls the aesthetic of the unification of the wall in Gothic cathedrals with the ribs springing seamlessly to the arched vaults. Tart mould rings take inspiration from the architectonic forms of capitals and their bases. The ridged bezel of the iconographic ring adorned with standing saints in niello reiterates in miniature format the closed wings of a painted altarpiece, its figures painted in grisaille. Iconographic rings, as well as other devotional types of rings, find their parallels in the suffrages, or prayers of protection to special saints that accompany Books of Hours”.

Renaissance & Baroque Rings

“Considerable evidence exists concerning the making and wearing of rings in the Renaissance. Their appearance in painted portraits confirms that they continued to be worn on multiple fingers, suspended from chains and ribbons, sewn onto sleeves or hats, and so forth. When not worn they were sometimes stored on parchment rolls or in neatly compartmentalized boxes, known from documents and paintings. In the Renaissance, the medieval practice of using uncut stones was abandoned in favor of faceting; table-cut facets were among the earliest and most popular, but other cuts rapidly followed. Making rings that would show off best the qualities of the stone became a skill that exercised the virtuosity of cutters, chasers, engravers, enamellers, and goldsmiths sometimes in collaboration. The highly sculpturesque quality of most Renaissance and Baroque rings can be compared with the striving for greater veracity that characterizes the monumental arts of this period.

By far the most common type of ring from the Renaissance was the boxed bezel set with faceted stones in highly ornate geometric bezels with intricate articulated shoulders, sometimes with protruding volutes, the whole richly enameled. Surviving drawings for rings by sixteenth-century goldsmith-designers Etienne Delaune, Pierre Woeiriot, and René Boyvin record variations on this type. Often reviving classical subjects and motifs, numerous cameos and intaglios also date from this era, produced under illustrious, often princely, patronage. By the sixteenth century the careers of famous gem-cutters can be reconstructed; they include Valerio Belli, Alessandro Cesati, Alessandro Masnago, and Francesco Torino. However, few Renaissance cameos and intaglios appear in their original mounts, because they were often made not as rings but rather as virtuoso carvings, kept in drawers in cabinets and taken out and admired by Renaissance princes.

During Elizabethan and Tudor times in England, commonplace books (the earliest dated 1596) were used by goldsmiths and their customers to provide appropriate inscriptions for rings. References to posy rings (from “poésie” or poetry) abound in literature of the period; for example, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (III, ii, 162): “Is this a prologue, or the posy of a ring.” The discovery of the New World also wrought changes in the evolution of rings, as it did for painting, because new stones became available. The newly prized diamond, expensive then as now, was often imitated by the similarly favored rock crystal. Extensive surviving pictorial evidence is useful because it contributes to a more precise dating and localization of rings from this era”.



Memento Mori Ring

“From the seventeenth century onwards mementoes for friends or family to remember their loved ones were customary at all levels of society. Codicils in wills specified that money be left for rings to be made, distributed, and worn at the funeral, and sometimes even defined the wording of the inscriptions or motifs. They were also tokens of sentiment. The closeness to the deceased determined the choice of materials, size, or embellishment of the rings. Despite their purpose, these rings were often anything but austere in style. Some examples combined skulls with daisy flowers celebrating the vulnerability of life with the promise of a new beginning. Others plaited the hair of the corpse into the gold band of the ring. The colors are striking and stark, black (for married) and white (for unmarried and children). Today such rings are fashion statements”.  (…)

“It is virtually impossible to do justice to the evolution of jewelry from the Baroque period (c. 1700) to Modern times in a short synopsis, but these are a few highlights. Many of the functional aspects of finger-rings continued: they served for betrothal and marriage, for signing and family identification, for memorial purposes, as well as for pure ornament. However, some new types of rings emerge during this period: such as puzzle rings, gimmick rings, perfume rings, and rings that celebrated scientific achievements (e.g., watch rings) are but a few of the examples.

This time span witnesses the emergence of the “archaeological style,” of which the work of Fortunato Pio Castellani in the 1830s to 1860s is a particularly well-known example, one that fits in the Neo-Classical period. We see the flourishing of other styles related to artistic movements in painting, sculpture, and architecture. These include Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts Movement, both beginning around the 1880s, and Art Deco in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. It also covers the emergence of some of the most famous twentieth-century houses of jewelry, such as Cartier, Charmet, Boucheron, Bulgari, Tiffany’s, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Mellerio, to mention only a few. Jewelry historians responsible for exhibitions in major museums have begun to trace the historical contributions and characterize the styles of jewelry, including rings, not only of these different artistic movements, but also of these great houses”. (…).

Reference: Medieval rings. Sandra Hindman, The MET, The Telegraph 2008.