A Fist Full of Rings

Like necklaces, rings are one of those items of jewelry that must date from very early in our career as a species, given that the fingers are pretty obvious places to stick things on. It seems likely that, at some point, a bored hunter/gatherer decided to braid together some dry grass or mammoth hair and see if he could make it fit on his finger. No telling how long it took before someone figured this out, but eventually they did and the trend took off.

Some sages tell us that rings (particularly wedding rings) evolved from the prehistoric bonds that cavemen used to tie the hands of their chosen women before they dragged them off to their caves. You can choose to believe this if you like (and boy, do we have a nice bridge in Brooklyn to sell ya!), but whether rings started out as Stone Age handcuffs or pure decoration matters little. Ultimately, they evolved into the one class of jewelry with the widest variety of meanings, if not actual shapes or styles. This hints more at their great age than any measure of stylistic variability.

Round and round

Unlike most types of jewelry, rings can be only one shape: round. If any other shapes were ever tried they're as dead as the Edsel, because they wouldn't have made any sense: human fingers and toes (and, in fact, most human body parts, come to think of it) are round in cross section. The only variability from there could be in the surface appearance or the ring and the material it was made from, and you can be sure that every material has been tried, from the human umbilical cord to stone to the finest of pure gold.

The real variability, when it comes to rings, is the incredible array of symbolic meaning they can take on. A ring can represent nothing more than a way to carry along a piece of one's wealth, or it can be a simple bit of flashy ornamentation. It may remind one of those precious (or hideous) times in high school, or symbolize the somber commitment of marriage. Engagement rings indicate that marriage is on its way, and promise rings may suggest that a couple is considering marriage, but is unable (or unwilling) to commit to an engagement.

Power rings

A ring may even be a symbol of power, either ecclesiastic or secular. Some rings are thick and ornate enough to be used as seals (and were indeed used as such in past centuries), and may act as signet rings -- symbols of affiliation in a significant group, or a symbol that the wearer holds a position of power. Some religions, too, invest power in rings. In the Catholic religion and some Protestant denominations, high Church figures, such as bishops (and Catholic popes) wear rings that are symbols of their station and power. In some cases, those who meet with these figures are even expected to kiss their rings, which may be less than sanitary but is certainly the respectful thing to do.

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