The Jeweled Serpent

Though this serpent seldom has fangs, even when it does, there is no danger to anyone who handles it. This serpent may wrap itself around one of your digits, but will never squeeze any tighter than necessary to keep it comfortably secure on your finger. As you may have guessed from the title, this serpent, usually made of gold and studded with gem stones, is a ring. Rings made in the form of snakes or serpents are still popular with some people today, but the first such rings were actually made during ancient times. Serpent rings have gone in and out of fashion ever since. As you might have surmised since they will be discussed here, serpent rings, and other jewelry adorned with these reptiles, were all the rage in Regency England.

The style and symbolism of the jeweled serpent   …

The serpent or snake has been a powerful symbol for humankind since pre-historic times. Depending on the culture, it can symbolize death, fertility, desire, courage, vengeance, protection or eternity, among other essential concepts. These unique creatures, though familiar to most humans, also had a touch of the exotic about them. The steady unblinking gaze of snakes gave the impression of high intelligence. They were also believed to have great powers of magic and/or healing.

To the ancient Greeks and Romans, the serpent was considered primarily a symbol of fertility or re-birth and therefore, eternity, since it seemed to be reborn each time it shed its skin. There are a number of Greco-Roman and Roman serpent rings which have survived into modern times. Rings, and to a lesser extent, other pieces of jewelry ornamented with a serpent or snake, were again popular during the Renaissance. Serpent rings, and other jeweled snake images, would re-appear intermittently in Europe over the course of the following centuries, down to the early years of the nineteenth century and beyond.

Not surprisingly, snakes became a common motif on mourning rings, though in those early centuries after the Renaissance, they were intended to be symbolic of the putrification of the corpse and its return to the earth. Other common motifs on these early mourning rings were coffins or skulls. There are a very few mourning rings which survive from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on which can be seen a snake coiled around a coffin or a serpent entwined around a skull. But by the eighteenth century, the snake was no longer viewed a symbol of the decay of the corpse and had instead become symbolic of the re-birth of the deceased into the next, spiritual life. Many eighteenth and early nineteenth century mourning rings were made in the shape of a snake coiled two or three times around the finger, sometimes in gold, but just as often in silver or brass, for those of lesser means. Such rings were typically very plain, seldom showing much ornament beyond the simple shape of the snake’s body, though some did have rather detailed heads. Gemstones, however, were seldom used to ornament these rings. Even more mourning rings were made in which the serpent or snake motif was entwined with other motifs and symbols of importance to the deceased or his family on the bezel of the mourning ring. Others might have a snake engraved into the metal of the hoop of the ring, usually on the outside, with the head at one side of the bezel and the tail at the other.

Curiously, though the snake was by then a common motif on mourning rings, by the Regency it had also become a symbol of love and fidelity. In particular, a ring in the shape of a serpent with its tail in its own mouth was considered to be an infinite circle, symbolizing lasting love. Unlike mourning rings, many of these more romantic rings were quite ornate and were often studded with precious stones. These rings might have several coils which wrapped around the finger, across which the snake’s head reached over to grasp its tail in its mouth. On some rings the scales of the serpent were carefully chased or engraved into the surface of the hoops, while in others the scales were enamel, sometimes in a single color, but just as often with multiple colors. The most ornate and expensive serpent rings had small gemstones, often brilliant-cut diamonds, set along the length of the body on the outside of the ring. Regardless of the decorative treatment given their bodies, nearly all of these serpents had precious stones set into their forehead, and most also had tiny gems set to represent their eyes. Gemstones in a number of colors were used to set into the head of the snake, but the majority of these snake rings were give wickedly glittering red eyes, by the use of either rubies or garnets.

There were a number of variations on the snake ring form. One version was comprised of two snakes coiled around each other, often with each snake made of a different metal, either from two colors of gold, or from gold and silver. These double-snake rings may or may not depict the snakes with their tails in their mouths. In the majority of rings, the heads of the two snakes would lie across the multiple coils of their bodies, usually side by side, typically at an angle. Each snake head would be studded with a gemstone, and many also had tiny gemstone eyes, most often red. Some rings were only a single hoop, with the snake’s tail disappearing into its open mouth. Though of simple construction, these rings were often the most richly embellished. The scales on the body of the serpent would be chased or enameled in intricate detail while the head would usually feature a good-sized precious gem. Diamonds were often set into the head of serpents which had multi-colored enamel scales, while colored stones would be used for those enameled in a single color or with plain gold bodies. And as with most other snake rings, the eyes of the majority of these serpents would typically be of red gemstones, though there was more variety of color seen in the eyes of this version of the serpent ring. Prince Albert gave the young Queen Victoria such a ring in 1839, upon the announcement of their engagement, as a symbol of his eternal love for her. However, Victoria’s serpent ring had emerald green eyes.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, when women’s formal and evening dress often had short sleeves coupled with long gloves, the serpent slithered from the finger and up the arm to expand its territory. Probably the most popular form of snake jewelery after the ring was the bracelet or the armlet. Snake bracelets and armlets often took a form similar to the snake ring and consisted of two to as many as five or more coils around the wrist. But there was more variation in snake bracelets in the placement of the head and tail of the snake. In some bracelets, the snake had its tail in its mouth, as was most common on finger rings. But many other bracelets had the head and tail of the snake pointing in opposite directions, turned out from the coils instead of placed over them. Armlets were even more likely to employ this second design, though typically with fewer coils. Three coils of the snake’s body around the upper arm was the most common, though there were armlets made with only two coils or as many as four. In the majority of armlets, the serpent’s head and tail would extend as much as an inch or more out from the coils, pointing in opposite directions. The head, the tail, or both, on a serpent armlet might include two or three serpentine curves, rather than extend straight out from the coils. When bracelets were worn, it was most common to wear them so that the snake head pointed down, toward the hand, while armlets were usually worn with the snake’s head pointing up, towards the shoulder and the tail pointing downward toward the elbow. Some bracelets and armlets were made as a single hoop of a snake grasping it tail in its mouth, but these were less common.

Armlets were often made in pairs, one for each arm, though this pairing seems to have been less common with bracelets. An armlet and a bracelet might be made as a set, in which case, the wearer might choose to wear both on the same arm or wear the bracelet on one arm and the armlet on the other. The majority of both serpent bracelets and armlets were embellished with techniques similar to those used for serpent rings. The bodies might be left as plain smooth metal or chased or engraved to depict scales. Some were enameled, either in a single solid color, a variegation of shades of the same color, or multi-colored. Many, but not all, bracelets and armlets had small gemstones set for the eyes, but unlike serpent rings, the eyes were most often tiny diamonds. Fewer had larger gemstones set into the heads of the snakes which comprised bracelets or armlets. In fact, the majority were plain gold or silver with no gemstones set into them at all. But in most of these pieces the head was finely detailed rather than left plain.

Another type of serpent bracelet consisted of a velvet band, usually black, though dark blue and crimson bands were also seen. These velvet band bracelets had clasps in the form of a snake, sometimes with its tail in its mouth. But these bracelets are known to have had a wide variation on the serpent theme. There were clasps of two snakes biting a globe, or combined with other animals, especially panthers, tigers or lions. Another variation could have a snake held by two hands, or two to four snakes in rows, all clasped by hands, often also holding hearts. Some of these hearts might be set with red stones, though these snakes seldom had gemstones for eyes.

Serpent motif clasps similar to those used on bracelets were also to be seen on the girdles or belts which ladies might wear just below the bodice of their high-waisted gowns. These girdles were also often made of velvet, though they could also made of other materials, including gold and silver chains. Since these girdle clasps were usually larger than the clasps found on bracelets, they were often more highly ornamented and were more frequently set with precious stones. As an example, Christie’s auction house records for 1812 list the sale of " … a girdle clasp of two noble amethysts very pure and fine set in delicately chased gold openwork wreath and connected by a double serpent with brilliants."

By the beginning of the Regency, snakes and serpents were appearing on various types of jewelry. Both brooches and lockets could be found adorned with serpents, the body often made completely of gemstones. One lady is known to have owned a " … beautiful brilliant locket consisting of an extremely fine and coiled serpent formed of beautiful yellow brilliants and holding from its mouth a large pendant pink topaz with smaller brilliant drop." Enamel in a wide selection of colors often provided the base for a brooch or locket into which was set the body of the snake in matching gemstones, usually graduated in size. Blue, either a pale blue or a deep royal blue were two of the most popular colors, though both purple and red were also seen. White brilliant-cut diamonds were most often used to form the body of the serpent on pieces enameled in dark colors, though stones of color could be used for the head as well as for the eyes. Colored gemstones were more likely to be used to form the body of the serpent on brooches and lockets enameled in pale colors. In addition to snakes or serpents, other motifs symbolic of love might be added to these brooches and lockets, including hearts, lover’s knots, pansies, forget-me-nots and tiny padlocks and keys. But perhaps the favorite motif to couple with a serpent was a butterfly, the symbol of Cupid’s beloved, Psyche. A piece listed in an inventory of a Regency lady’s jewelry was an " … elegant circular brilliant locket with diamond serpent round and diamond butterfly in blue enamel."

Earrings were also made in the shape of snakes or serpents, all of which were of the drop style. The most typical designs were coiled serpents worked in chased or enamelled gold, with the snake most often hanging from its tail. In the more conservative pieces, the head of the snake was studded with a single precious or semi-precious stone. Turquoise was the most popular, though rubies, garnets, sapphires and even emeralds might be seen. The more ornate serpent earrings were comprised not only of the snake dangling by its tail, but frequently, like some lockets and brooches, the serpent held something in its mouth. Gemstones, sometimes round, occassionally heart-shaped, but more often of a tear-drop shape, were most favored. These pendant gems might be of the same color as the stone set in the serpent’s head, but just as often were of a different color to add variety to the piece.

Initially, serpent and snake jewelry was worn primarily by women. But as the Regency progressed, serpent rings, in particular, became increasingly popular with men. Rings made for men tended to be larger, usually with more coils around the finger. However, these gentlemen’s rings had much plainer decoration. Few of the rings made for men were enameled to delineate scales on the snake’s body, though many were chased, usually lightly. Some men’s serpent rings were of smooth metal, usually gold, but nearly all of these rings, regardless of the decoration of the serpent body, had gemstones for eyes. And as with women’s rings, these gemstone eyes were most often red.

The Prince Regent himself was particularly fond of snake rings and he is known to have had at least two. The simpler of the two was a gold serpent ring now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Of course, since it belonged to Prinny it is much more heavily embellished than were most men’s serpent rings. The scales of the snake’s body are much more deeply cut than were those on most men’s rings, and the eyes are set with rather large rubies for a snake of its size. This gold and ruby serpent ring is believed to have been the Prince Regent’s favorite ring and it is probably the ring he is wearing in the portrait of him by Sir Thomas Lawrence which is now in the Wallace Collection in London. After he had become King George IV, he purchased another snake ring from Rundell, Bridge and Rundell in 1823. This ring, again unlike the majority of men’s snake rings, was gold but enameled in royal blue. It was further embellished with a small butterfly, thus becoming a dual symbol of love. It is not known if the king wore this ring himself, or if it might have been a gift to one of his lady friends.

Snakes and serpents had made their way onto both watch cases and runners by the turn of the nineteenth century. "Runners" are the small metal wheels which comprise the repeating movement of the watch. These wheels were visible when the watch case was open and, from the last decades of the seventeenth century, were often engraved with various stylish motifs. Watches decorated with snakes and serpents were popular with both Regency ladies and gentlemen. A watch-maker’s bill of the era describes an " … Elegant Engine-turned gold-chased Lady’s Watch set both sides with Circles of Brilliants, and ditto Elegant gold Maltese chain to ditto to suit with diamond Serpent." Though women’s watch cases might be heavily embellished with jewels, men’s watches tended to be less ornate, usually with a serpent or snake simply engraved on the watch case, and/or, in some cases, the loop through which the watch chain passed was made in the shape of a small snake, typically with its tail in its mouth.

Watch bracelets were a new innovation which were introduced near the very end of the Regency, and became popular during the reign of George IV. Snakes and serpents were often to be found stretched out or coiled around these bracelets. Some were simply engraved with a snake, others were set with precious or semi-precious gems. These watch bracelets were worn by both men and women, and as with snake rings, those worn by men tended to be more restrained in their ornamentation. With the exception of the King himself. In 1828, George IV paid £80 to the jewelers E. & W. Smith for a watch bracelet in the shape of a snake attached to a watch which was set with a number of pearls and turquoises.

During the Regency, most serpent rings were hand-crafted, one at a time, and were worn only by those who could afford custom-made jewelry. By the reign of Queen Victoria, partially due to the ring Prince Albert had given the Queen upon their engagement, snake rings became increasingly popular, and were more affordable due to advances in mechanization related to their production. But in the twentieth-first century, the association of snakes and serpents with long-lasting love and fidelity has for the most part been lost. Though snake rings are still made today, few people who wear them consider them a symbol of eternal love. They are more likely to have much darker associations.

Though it is unlikely that anyone reading a Regency novel today would instantly recognize a jeweled serpent as a symbol of eternal love, a clever author can certainly find some subtle means by which to communicate its meaning to her readers. Once that has been established, how shall a piece of jewelry with a serpent motif figure in the story? Shall a young lady keep secret the serpent ring given to her by her lover? Or, did he give her a locket embellished with both a jeweled serpent and an enamel butterfly, dual symbols of eternal love, just before he joined his regiment, bound for the Peninsula? Was the gift more subtle, a watch with a serpent engraved on the case, or perhaps only on the runner wheel inside, thus completely out of sight of anyone but the owner? Mayhap the recipient of this token of love was a gentleman, a gift from the lady who loves him. Dear Regency authors, though snakes may give you the creeps, they did not have the same effect on our Regency ancestors, especially when they were embellished with gold chasing, richly colored enamel and precious gems. A jeweled serpent might be just the unique love token you are seeking for a special story.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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8 Responses to The Jeweled Serpent

  1. I do like snakes… and I have an eternity ring that my husband got me for our silver wedding, two silver snakes entwined because he did know its symbolism of everlasting love. In the Chinese horoscope I was born in the year of the snake, which was one reason he got it. It’s a simple but elegant thing and has no jewels in it; he knows my habits too well and is well aware I’d knock any jewel out of its setting only too quickly. Which of course also brings up the point that wearing rings with stones in can be seen as a status symbol of someone who doesn’t risk damaging them with manual labour…

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Your ring sounds lovely, especially as it can serve double-duty as a love token and your Chinese horoscope symbol.

      I know what you mean about the manual labor deal. I have a couple of nice rings, but I never wear them while doing house-work as I am always afraid I might do them a mischief. Since one of them was given to me by grandmother, I consider it irreplaceable. I guess one did not see too many Regency servants wearing gem-studded rings as they went about their duties. 😉

      Your remark about liking snakes made me remember something a friend said some years ago. She loved all animals, but did not like snakes. One day I asked her why. She thought for a minute and then she said, “They haven’t any feet!”


      • Oh those newspapers!
        When I was a Girl Guide, some of the other girls were squealing ‘SNAKE!’ and preparing to throw sticks at – a slow worm. A harmless little legless lizard. They would never have squealed so at a lizard – it must be something about the lack of legs, Kat! Also there’s something very imperturbable about a snake, and the way it tastes the air in emotionless consideration. I think it unnerves a lot of people. Western symbolism gives it a bad press from the Bible onward…I wonder how much of the dislike snakes often engender is the look of it and having no feet and how much is our semiotic background? I too, like Charles, was surprised at its popularity in the Regency as jewellery, though I know a bit about it in Roman jewellery. Would any of this be enhanced by the fascination for things Egyptian after Bonaparte’s people started unearthing stuff there?

  2. Very interesting, Kat. I had no idea how popular snake jewellery was in England over the centuries, or that so much of it was locally made. I had always imagined that it mostly came from the Mystic East. The serpent eating its own tail is known as an ouroboros and it has an ancient and fascinating history. My mother had a pet python once, and while I wouldn’t describe it as affectionate it was companionable and liked to slide up your sweater sleeve – mostly for warmth I thought. She had to go away for a week and left the snake with a friend in London. It escaped in the house and wasn’t found again for several days (in the airing cupboard). The friend was a pacifist and had vowed not to speak a word on Wednesdays until nuclear arms were abolished. Therefore it was difficult for her to report to the requisite authorities that there was a python on the loose. Somehow a newspaper got hold of the story and printed it under the immortal heading: WOMAN HUNTS SNAKE ON DAY OF SILENCE. I kid you not!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I LOVE your story!!! I am glad the snake was found. I wonder if it snacked on a mouse or two before it was discovered in the airing cupboard. It reminds me of a situation which happened here in Boston about a year ago. A young college student was riding on the T, our subway, wearing her small python. Somehow, the young woman was distracted when she got off the train and did not realize her snake, whose name was Priscilla, was not wrapped around her shoulders until after the train left the station. She reported it, and the train was found and searched, but no snake. She was on the news and was clearly heart-broken. Fortunately, the snake was finally found, alive, about three weeks later, still on the train. The pair were on the news again, after the girl had been reunited with her python, Priscilla, and it was actually very touching.

      Ouroboros! Cool!! I love learning new words. I have not done enough research to know if the snake came to Greece and Rome from the Mystic East, or if those cultures adopted the snake all on their own. I, too, was surprised to find the snake was so popular during the Regency. I was doing research on another aspect of jewelry altogether, but when I stumbled upon the information about the snake, it was so interesting I knew I had to share it.

      Thanks for sharing your python story!


  3. Kathryn Kane says:

    Sarah – I thought about the Egyptian connection myself while I was doing my research. None of the authors of the books I read specifically connected the fascination with all things Egyptian to jewelery with snake motifs. However, I cannot but think it must have been at least partially responsible for the fashion, especially the armlets, which are straight out of a number of tomb paintings.


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