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Holding hands through history

A gold ring with two hands clasped in the design.

A gold ring from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

© Birmingham Museums Trust

    • Our museums hold some of the most beautiful jewellery collections in the world. Nowadays it is common for people to give jewellery as a gift to a loved one, and it seems that people have been doing this for hundreds of years.

      At Show Me, we noticed that lots of these pieces of jewellery had a similar design, so we decided to dig a little deeper and find out how people have expressed their love throughout history.

      Lots of the pieces of jewellery that we have found are engraved or shaped to show two clasped hands. Rings like this are called fede-rings. The name fede comes from the Italian phrase mani in fede meaning ‘hands clasped in faith’. This means faith in god as well as love and friendship.

      There are examples of rings like this from as far back as the Roman times, although they didn't become really fashionable until the middle ages.

      A Betrothal Ring from the 13th or 14th Century, it has a red stone in the centre and two clasped hands at the back.Betrothal Ring from Nantwich Museum© Courtesy of Paul Topham and Nantwich Museum
      This Betrothal Ring from the 13th or 14th Century is one of the earliest rings like this from the middle ages. It is held at Nantwich Museum in North West England. There is a big red garnet stone in the centre of the ring and at the back you can see the two holding hands.

      We think this is a betrothal or engagement ring. It is hard to see but there is an engraving on the band which reads AMO, this means I love you in Latin.

      So, as far back as the 13th or 14th Centuries people were using rings like this to show their love and as part of a marriage ceremony.

      A gold circular brooch with two clasped hands at the bottom.The Warrington Brooch© Warrington Museum and Culture Warrington
      This holding hands design was not only used on rings. This brooch from Warrington Museum has the same symbol on it. The brooch is from the 15th century, it is made of solid gold and may have been given as a gift between lovers. It would have been used to fasten a lady’s cloak and it has a secret inscription on the back of the brooch, the part closest to the heart, which says pensez de moy  meaning think of me.

      A gold ring with clasped hands and little hearts with ruby's in the centreClasped hands ring from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery© Birmingham Museums Trust
      As jewellery making technology improved from the 16th Century, jewellery became much more intricate and detailed. This ring from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is a great example, there are even little ruby’s in each of the hearts. We don’t know who would have worn this ring but all the detail suggests that it was someone quite wealthy. You can see more images of the ring on their website.


      A gold fede ring which shows two clasped hands.A Fede Ring from Royal Museums Greenwich© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Nelson-Ward Collection
      This ring is much simpler in design than some of the others but that does not mean it’s any less important. In fact, this ring, from the National Maritime Museum, was owned by Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson. He was wearing it at the time of his death during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. This ring is one of a pair, the other was worn by Nelson’s love Emma, Lady Hamilton, they probably exchanged the rings at a betrothal ceremony before Nelson left for battle. You can learn more about this ring over on their website.


      So, rings have been used as tokens of love since as far back as the Roman times, perhaps even earlier. And it seems as if people have been holding hands for just as long! 

      If you like this kind of jewellery why not have a go at designing your own, or pop into your local museum and see if they have anything that looks like these ones here. 

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