Finger rings, made from precious or base metals, plain and decorated, or inset with gems or enamels, were commonly worn by rich and poor alike in the past. Medieval and Renaissance paintings show that several could be worn on the same hand, sometimes above the middle knuckle, and by both sexes. From time to time examples once worn by long dead Welsh men and women are discovered by metal detectorists and reported via the Portable Antiquities Scheme Cymru. If made of precious metal these are declared treasure and are usually acquired by museums across Wales, allowing local communities and visitors to benefit from having these precious remnants of our past on public display. Even now we can appreciate their beauty and craftsmanship, and make connections with the people who lost them long ago.

But beauty is not their only quality, nor does their value lie merely in the gold and silver they are made from. Today we talk about items of jewellery as having ‘sentimental value’, carrying an emotional significance personal to the owner which goes beyond their material or aesthetic qualities. This is also true of the past. For centuries finger rings have been imbued with a range of specific meanings which would have been highly significant for both the wearer and the giver of the ring. Some of these meanings - and the rings themselves - are explored here:

All of these rings, as well as many others which have been unearthed by metal detectorists or found by chance, can be thought of as fragments of intense human emotion. In the posy, mourning and iconographic rings this is clearly communicated in their designs, which still give us a sense of the love, grief and spirituality which moved their wearers. The signet rings can also be thought of as embodying something of the personal identity of their original owners. Even the purely decorative rings may well have held what we would now describe as ‘sentimental value’ as well as the financial value of the material. In the case of the sapphire, we are reminded that Wales, although on the very edge of Europe, was connected to the Far East through trade.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that each ring found represents an individual loss. People do not generally throw away gold and silver objects or precious stones, even if they no longer hold any emotional significance for them. So it is assumed that these rings were accidentally lost, perhaps slipping off a finger or falling out of a purse, and not missed until it was too late. Despite the distance of the centuries it is easy for us to imagine the anguish felt at the loss of a wedding ring, or of a reminder of a dead loved one, or a ring which brought spiritual comfort. These shared emotions bring us into direct contact with the long-dead owners of these lost treasures.

+ ieme la belle, or love the beautiful, which gives name to this article is inscribed on the outside of the 15th century Ewenni Ring, discovered near Ewenni Priory by Mr. G. Gregory in 1988 and now held in the collections of Amgueddfa Cymru).

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