History is punctuated with objects of art that serve as a bookmark, a reminder of the times and the society from which they came. From the earliest cave paintings to the American flag placed on the moon during the 1969 Apollo space mission, man has felt compelled to leave his mark.
Jewish betrothal rings are one such mark of an age-old culture. Because of the historical destruction of so much of Jewish culture, the origins of these rings are difficult to pinpoint. With no pictorial or Talmudic references, we look to the rings themselves for clues to their origins.
Tradition and the Jewish wedding ring. According to Jewish law, it is written that the groom shall “give to the bride a plain ring, with a value not less than one perutah” (the lowest denomination of coinage in Talmudic times). In this way, the intentions of the groom could be determined without doubt. Since the general public could not accurately determine a gemstone’s worth, the groom’s intent could easily be misrepresented. Because a plain ring (gold, silver, etc.) is easier to value, the custom requiring one has held through the centuries. While today’s Jewish bride may prefer a diamond or gemstone wedding band, a plain gold one – even a borrowed one – is still used for the actual wedding ceremony.
When were the more elaborate rings used? During the ceremony? During the “Silvonot” (which celebrates the making of a match)? During betrothal period, which generally spanned the year leading up to marriage? The question remains unanswered.
The rings themselves, particularly when seen in groupings, are astonishingly beautiful. But where they came from, why they were created, who made them and what they were used for are cause for speculation. They generally are made of gold (the karatage varies) and silver, though other alloys, such as bronze and copper, are documented. One ring surveyed is ivory, of northern African provenance.
Authentication and identification. Although we cannot accurately answer many questions about these rings, we can group them into style and design categories. These include filigree, enameled boss type, those with architectural motifs, the pictorial group, the letter and floret group, and miscellaneous types such as Sabbath rings, amulet rings, gimmel and plain rings, and rings of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Though style, age, provenance and material vary, one common thread is the Hebrew inscription “Mazal Tov” or “MT,” meaning “good luck.” Whether inscribed, enameled or done in relief, all rings have this inscription in common. Without it, it’s unlikely they were true Jewish betrothal rings.
A key element used to determine origin is a hallmark, which is absent in all but a few of the more than 300 rings surveyed. This isn’t surprising, since the use of hallmarks was not established in England or throughout Europe until the 14th century, when trade guilds were formed. These guilds were predominantly Christian. This lends credence to the theory that the rings might well have been made by Jewish guilds, to which hallmarks came late because they were not recognized by local governmental authorities.
There is no certainty where the rings originated or how many countries produced them, but two rings in particular provide a point in time and place:
The Munich ring has Hebrew lettering all around the hoop, with a tabernacle resembling a house of worship on the bezel. It was owned by Duke Albrecht V. The duke, though not particularly sympathetic to the plight of the Jews, collected Jewish ritual objects. This interest didn’t prevent his ordering – and achieving – the expulsion of all Jews from his territories in the 1550s. Still, his collection helps date the time one ring was acquired.
The Cluny Ring holds particular interest because of events surrounding its discovery. The ring reached the Musée de Cluny in Paris in 1923, part of a hoard of objects discovered in 1863 in Colmar, France, where Jews had settled in the 13th century. Colmar became a refuge for Jews expelled from other towns, particularly the brutal persecutions in Armieder. This hoard, hidden in a wall, was uncovered during building operations in a corner house on the former Rue des Juifs (“Jews Street”). It included 13th- and 14th-century coins, various jewelry and a gold enameled ring with a hexagonal edicule on its bezel; the six Hebrew letters representing Mazal Tov appear on the panels of its pyramidal roof. The most recent coin in the hoard was a gold florin of Louis V of Barvaris, dated 1347, suggesting that the collection was hidden around the time of the terrorization and slaughter of the Jews of Colmar, who were blamed for causing the plague. All the Jews of Colmar were burned at the stake in 1349.
Ancient techniques. All techniques used in these rings can be traced back to ancient times, although craftsmen still employ them. Among them are casting, engraving, granulation, enameling and filigree. One simple variation is the use of bitumin, an ancient mixture used to fill recesses in the metal, similar to enamel or niello.
The quality of craftsmanship is consistent throughout the works and the techniques used are compatible with the level of proficiency of the masters who made them. The exceptions are obvious fakes and forgeries.
Many Jewish betrothal or marriage rings are indeed fakes. Questions of authenticity often plague collectors; accurate identification requires experience, knowledge, visual memory and educated guesswork. As with all jewelry, there are set methodols for metal and gem testing and identification.
Only a few of these rings have stones; no thorough, analytic metal testing – beyond the most cursory – has been done on any of them. Therefore, comparison of metal wear and design components must provide clues.
Latter-day forgeries often do not show the same balance of design as do authentic rings. You may find such tipoffs as a mix of incompatible components, mismatched dimensions on the hoops or houses and architectural faux pas in many fakes and forgeries.
The question of value. Although many of the rings are sold privately or donated to museums, value usually is determined by demand. Catalogs of Judaica sales at fine auction houses show a steady rise in prices. In 1994, a collection of 13 rings of varying design and provenance was offered through Sotheby’s with a pre-auction estimate of $30,000-$40,000. Bidding escalated furiously, ending at $70,000. A single ring depicting a house or synagogue, dated from 17th century Germany, sold in 1996 in Tel Aviv for $6,900. There is a strong market for these rings, and it will continue to grow.
This article is in part extracted from Jewish Betrothal Rings, an upcoming book by Jules M. Samson & Gail Roeshman Selig (copyrighted). All photos by Jules M. Samson. Address inquiries to G. R. Selig, fax (610) 776-0212, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ms. Selig is a graduate of Philadelphia College of Art and Temple University. She has been making, buying and selling jewelry for 25 years. She is a book reviewer for the American Society of Jewelry Historians and a freelance writer on jewelry topics.