Though seldom used today, gimmel rings had been in use since the late Middle Ages as wedding or betrothal rings. And they continued to be used for that purpose right through the Regency. Long before the Regency began, a variation on this type of ring had become even more complex, these more elaborate versions being most commonly known as puzzle rings.
A basic background of how the bands embodying the bonds of love became nearly as much a puzzle as love itself …
In their earliest form, gimmel rings were made up of two plain hoops which were interlocked. They took their name from the Latin, gemellus, meaning "twin." The hoops were separate rings which had been made so that they interlocked, like two links of a chain. When opened they consisted of two narrower bands, each of which could be placed on a separate finger, theoretically one for each partner in a couple, though they were quite awkward to wear in that configuration. There is anecdotal evidence that many couples did wear the ring together for a few moments when it was first presented and the proposal accepted. The bezels of gimmel rings were often set with jewels, the setting of which were fashioned so that they would interlock when the two hoops were joined, thus holding the ring together. Rubies, emeralds or sapphires were the stones most often set in early gimmel rings. Gimmel rings were used to represent pledges between a couple, though not always for marriage. They were also given as a sign of friendship between men. It is known that in 1204, Henry III of England gave a gimmel ring set with a ruby and a pair of emeralds to the Count of Gysnes as a sign of his royal friendship.
By the late Renaissance, gimmel rings were becoming more elaborate as metal-working, gem-cutting and enamelling became more sophisticated and intricate. Also by this time, gimmel rings were used almost solely as betrothal or wedding rings. Usually, each hoop had a gem set into the bezel, in most cases in contrasting colors. A ruby and an emerald were very popular among the wealthy, or a garnet and chrysoprase for those of lesser means. But some rings were set with stones of the same color in each bezel, forming a solid square of color rather than twin rectangles of contrasting colors when the rings were joined. It was also possible by this time to engrave very small words and phrases on metal, so the hoops of gimmel rings were very often inscribed. The names of the couple might be engraved on the hoops, or some Biblical quotation pertinent to marriage. "What God Hath Joined Together, Let No Man Put Asunder" was perhaps the most frequently used quotation. Some couples chose to have both their names and a quotation inscribed on the hoops of the gimmel ring. For more than a century, the hoops of gimmel rings, as with most other rings, were flat bands, both inside and out, and in many cases the engraving was done on the outside of the band, rather than the inside. In all cases, the gimmel wedding ring was always worn by the bride, though there were some records which indicate that a pair of identical rings were made, one also being worn by the groom.
After 1649, when Oliver Cromwell had established the Commonwealth in England, he tried to abolish the use of the wedding ring. But neither he, nor his son, were ever able to enforce this abolition, and women across Britain continued to be married with a wedding ring during the decade of Cromwellian rule. Gimmel rings remained a popular form of wedding ring, and became still more ornate and complex. Symbols of love and fidelity began to replace a simple pair of stones on the bezels of gimmel rings. Clasped hands and lover’s knots were the most frequently seen. But curiously, during this time, death’s heads were also considered appropriate for wedding rings, with the reminder of the vow, "Keep Faith Until Death" engraved on the band. There were also gimmel rings which survive from the seventeenth century with a bezel having a small cavity, in which were placed tiny figures that were revealed only when the two hoops were separated. Typically the figures placed inside the cavity were that of a baby and a skeleton, meant to be symbolic of the beginning and end of life. By the end of the seventeenth century, engraving was more often done on the inside of the hoop, which typically included the couple’s names or initials and a Biblical quotation. "What God Hath Joined Together, Let No Man Put Asunder" remained the most popular, though it was not the only quotation used. Fidelity, duty, responsibility and commitment were the usual sentiments of these Biblical quotations inscribed on wedding bands. Love was seldom, if ever, acknowledged.
During the seventeenth century, as the skills and the tools of metal-working and jewelry-making advanced, craftsmen and jewellers began to experiment with the gimmel ring. In particular, they added additional hoops, eventually up to a dozen hoops could make up a single gimmel ring. These craftsmen also developed more complex and elaborate interlocking bezels. These rings soon came to be called "puzzle rings" because it became something of a challenge to return the ring to a single band once all the interlocking hoops had been disengaged. Each hoop carried a portion of the complex bezel and though they could be fairly easily separated, it was often no easy task to reassemble the bezel once all the hoops were pulled apart. In some cases, the hoops were shaped so that they fit together rather like a wire pretzel or woven band when the hoops were joined in the proper order. In other cases, the bezel might contain an intricate jeweled design which was only visible when all the hoops were reassembled in the correct order. Most puzzle rings, particularly those with jeweled bezels, tended to be comprised of three to five separate hoops, though jeweled rings of up to seven hoops were not unknown. And puzzle rings made only of metal with a shaped bezel might have as many as a dozen hoops. Regardless of the number of hoops, these complex rings were usually quite expensive and were most often acquired by those of the aristocratic and wealthy classes. Puzzle rings remained popular, with those who could afford them, throughout the eighteenth century and right through the Regency. They were sometimes given as love tokens, but they were just as often kept by the purchaser, who enjoyed the novelty of an elaborate ring which served the dual purpose of a wearable puzzle with which to toy at odd moments or to torment someone who did not know the mystery of the ring. Cornelia Knight noted in her autobiography how Elizabeth Montagu, the "Queen of the Blue-Stockings," had called her a "stupid child" because, as a little girl, she was never able to figure out the secret of a gold puzzle ring which Mrs. Montagu often wore.
Two-hoop gimmel rings also continued to be made, well into the nineteenth century. They were most often used as wedding rings, as they had been in previous centuries. By this time, many clergymen were advocating for single, plain gold bands as the most appropriate wedding ring, but their advice was not regularly heeded until much later in the century. Though there were extremely elaborate and expensive gimmel rings made, by the end of the eighteenth century and into the Regency, less costly versions were made for those of more modest means who preferred a dual-hoop wedding ring. The bezels of these later gimmel rings also offered a wider range of design motifs. Fortunately, the death’s heads, and the cavity containing the figures of a baby and a skeleton had fallen out of favor. Clasped hands remained popular, but rather than clasping each other, they were more likely to be clasping a heart. Lover’s knots were often used, but now, when the ring was closed, the knot might be of enamel, pulled tight by a pair of enameled turtle doves. Pairs of interlocking hearts, of metal, enamel or jeweled, were a favored motif for the bezels of gimmel wedding rings. Other motifs included ivy, forget-me-knots or butterflies, the latter an allusion to the powerful love between Cupid and Psyche. And there were still a few gimmel rings which had a small cavity in the bezel. But rather than a baby and skeleton, when they were opened, they were more likely to contain a diminutive Cupid’s bow and a quiver of arrows or a tiny pair of hearts. By the end of the eighteenth century, Biblical quotations were seldom found engraved on the inside of gimmel rings. Usually, the only inscriptions were the names of the couple to be joined in marriage. When the Prince of Wales married Maria Fitzherbert in December of 1785, the wedding ring he gave her was a gimmel ring. Inside one hoop was engraved his full name, George Augustus Frederick, and inside the other was her full name, Maria Anne.
There are so many possibilities for a gimmel ring or a puzzle ring on the pages of a Regency novel. Certainly a custom-designed gimmel ring would make a charming and novel wedding ring for a couple deeply in love. A complex puzzle ring might be a favorite ornament of an elderly lady or gentleman, something with which they frequently toy while engaged in conversation. Or, perhaps the villain unconsciously toys with his or her puzzle ring when in negotiation with the hero, while their face remains obscured. But the ring is of a unique and unmistakable design, and by a stroke of good fortune, the hero is able to identify the scoundrel by that very ring. A carefully designed gimmel or puzzle ring might be made in such a way as to have a deceptively large cavity in which can be secreted small but critical messages, ensuring their safe delivery. Or, perhaps the message is found inside the ring, years later, kindling a mystery or finally extinguishing one. Dear Regency authors, how might you employ a gimmel ring or a puzzle ring in your next story?