By Beth Bernstein
From medieval through Georgian times, heart-felt emotion could not be expressed the way it is today. Whether religious or romantic, messages were engraved into rings that held special meaning for the giver and the recipient. A popular piece of jewelry through this time period were poesy rings which derived their name from the French “poésie,” or poem due to the short verse, mottos and sayings with which these ring were engraved.
Other spellings included posie and posey which held meanings of romantic love and also featured secret messages of hidden passion, devotion, friendship, faith and loyalty. A simple gold band could speak volumes about how one person felt about another and began to be given as betrothal rings.
The earlier versions in the 16th and 17th centuries displayed verse and symbols, often engraved and enameled on the outside of the ring. The style was reinterpreted in the 18th century and then in hidden messages of love inscribed more simply on the inside of the ring.
On Left: Gold, engraved poesy ring with the inscription on front in black letters + pense de moy, meaning ‘think of me’. Circa 1400-1450, Formerly part of the collection of Dame Joan Evans. On Right:Gold engraved poesy ring inscribed on the interior and exterior of the hoop in black letters. Circa 1500-1530'my.wordely.ioye' 'alle.my.trust' hert.thought.lyfe.and.lust inscribed on the interior and exterior of the hoop in black letters ex-Waterton. given to Waterton by the Bishop of Newcastle and Hexham. This ring forms part of a collection of 760 rings and engraved gems from the collection of Edmund Waterton (1830-87). Both photos courtesy of © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Poesy Rings Literary Legacy
The different phrases were written in Latin, Old French or Old English. Early on, the lettering was done in what was called Lombardic script rounded capital letters. As time went on Gothic Script became more widely used. A wide range of inscriptions appear on multiple rings, which is reported to indicate that there was a book or catalog of stock phrases. But the giver of this gift of love could also ask for a saying or verse to be personalized and significant to their relationship and the jeweler would engrave these endearments and professions of an amatory nature.
During the 16th century and onward, literature became a big part of the short sayings of these rings. Playwrights and poets of the day either took part in the verse or in popularizing them when speaking about them in their plays or stories.
In the dedication to John Lyly 16th century work Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, it reads “the posies on your rings are always next to the finger, not to be seen of him that holdeth you by the hand.” It was around this time that the first of the poesy rings to be engraved on the inside were created.
On Left: 17th century Poesy ring with plants and animal motifs engraved on the outer hoop, and there are traces of white enamel on the hare; The inscription on the inside reads “LOYALTE NE PEUR,” which translates to “loyalty not fear.” Photo courtesy of © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. On Right: Berganza 18th century poesy ring with inscription on inside, photo courtesy of Berganza.
Poesy rings were described in at least two of Shakespeare’s plays in the 16th century, plays and sometimes heightened the comedy or tragedy. In Hamlet, he asks, “Is this a prologue or the posy of a ring?” And Ophelia answers, “Tis brief my lord, as a women’s love.” In The Merchant of Venice, the drama is played up with a posy ring, which is inscribed with “Love me, and leave me not” given to Gratiano by Nerissa, which Gratiano swears never to give away, yet does. And so they quarrel. “About a hoop of gold, a paltry ring. That she did give me, whose posy was for all the world like cutler’s poetry upon a knife, ‘Love me and leave me not’”. To which Nerissa replies, “What talk you of the posy or the value? You swore to me when I did give it you that you would wear it till your hour of death.”
Poesy Rings for the Modern Women
Poesy Rings seemed to lose popularity during the 19th century onward. However, engraving and inscribing initials and/or dates and words of affection reflected a more modern expression for marriage bands.
“When we launched our Poesy collection, I knew I had to do something different and relevant for the modern women while playing off my love of antique pieces, particularly these rings that were filled with sentimentality and emotion,” says Monica about the collection. "I decided our current versions would be small rings that could be worn on chain around the neck with sayings and messages that speak of strength, courage and female empowerment as well as romantic gestures and that featured different motifs. The imagery had to match the meaning—‘never fear’ is inscribed in a min snake ring and ‘forever’, in a buckle necklace ring, since buckles mean holding on and protecting the one you love. I also include sayings such as Carpe Diem and Adventure which are two of my own personal favorites because they speak about me and my beliefs and travels.” Monica says. There are many other saying which she then inscribed into dainty ID-style bracelets with gemstones and motifs and the saying inside, like the early poesy rings—close to the skin. We are continuing to evolve this collection. It’s so inspiring when you can look to the past to create something new and truly relevant in today’s jewelry market.”
Beth Bernstein is a jewelry historian, collector of period and modern jewelry and a purveyor of all things sparkly. She has penned three books—'My Charmed Life,' a memoir; 'Jewelry's Shining Stars,' a modern jewelry design coffee table book; and 'If These Jewels Could Talk,' an in-depth look at celebrities and the stories behind their legendary jewels on the silver screen and in real life—with a fourth one in the works. She has written and continues to write for major print and online magazines on all subjects pertaining to jewelry and style.