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Ancient Near East
Finger rings have been found in tombs in Ur dating back to circa 2500BC. The Hittite civilization produced rings, including signet rings, only a few of which have been discovered. People in Old Kingdom Egypt wore a variety of finger rings, of which a few examples have been found, including the famous scarab design. Rings became more common during the Egyptian middle kingdom, with increasingly complex designs. Egyptians made metal rings but also made rings from faience some of which were used as new year gifts. Native styles were superseded by Greek and Roman fashions during the Ptolemaic dynasty.
Archaic and classical Greek
Archaic Greek rings were to some extent influenced by Egyptian rings, although they tended to be less substantial and apparently weren't for the most part used as working signet rings. A lack of locally available gold meant that rings made in the eastern colonies tended to be made from silver and bronze while Etruria used gold.
The classical period showed a shift away from bronze to wider adoption of silver and gold. The most typical design of the period involved a lozenge bezel mounting an intaglio device. Over time the bezel moved towards a more circular form.
Henig II rings from the Snettisham Jeweller's Hoard
During the early and middle imperial era (first two centuries AD) the closest there is to a typical Roman ring consisted of a thick hoop that tapered directly into a slightly wider bezel. An engraved oval gem would be embedded within the bezel with the top of the gem only rising slightly above the surrounding ring material. Such rings are referred to Henig II and III/Guiraud 2 in formal academic parlance or simply as Roman rings by modern jewellers. In general Roman rings became more elaborate in the third and fourth centuries AD.
High and late middle ages in Europe
During this period the fashion was for multiple rings on each hand and on each finger. Rings during this period were mostly made from copper based alloys, silver or gold. Gems became common after 1150 along with the belief that certain gems had the power to help or protect the wearer in various ways. Engraved rings were produced using Lombardic script until around 1350 when it was replaced by Gothic script. Some of the inscriptions were devotional, others romantic in nature. For romantic inscriptions French was the language of choice. An increasing use of contracts and other documents that needed to have formal seals meant that signet rings became more important from the 13th century onwards.
The fourth digit or ring finger of the left hand has become the customary place to wear a wedding ring in much of the world, though in certain countries the right hand finger is used. This custom was practically established as the norm during World War II.
The use of the fourth finger of the left hand (the 'ring finger') is associated with an old belief that the left hand's ring finger is connected by a vein directly to the heart: the vena amoris or vein of love. This idea was known in 16th and 17th century England, when Henry Swinburne referred to it in his book about marriage. It can be traced back to ancient Rome, when Aulus Gellius cited Appianus as saying the ancient Egyptians had found a fine nerve linking that particular finger to the heart.
Occasionally rings have been re-purposed to hang from bracelets or necklaces.