For Love or Death:   Locket Rings

Locket rings had been in use for more than two hundred years before the Regency began. But the purposes of those special, often secretive rings had evolved over the course of those two centuries so that, by the Regency, they were more likely to be associated with love than with death. Locket rings hold so much potential for use in a Regency romance that Regency authors must most certainly be made aware of them and their various properties.

Locket rings to the Regency . . .

Lockets, in one form or another, have been made and used in Europe since at least the sixteenth century. But those lockets were not always pendants which were worn around the neck, suspended from a ribbon, cord or chain. Some of these lockets were actually set into the bezel of a ring. It is now generally believed that those rings which incorporated a small container on the bezel had their origins in the Orient, where they typically held some kind of poison. Such rings were also often used to hold poison in Renaissance Europe. The association of this type of ring with death continued as locket rings began to be used as both memento mori and mourning rings.

One of the earliest known English locket rings was that worn by Queen Elizabeth I. The locket set into the bezel of her ring contained two tiny portraits which faced one another. One of the portraits was the Queen as a young woman, the other is generally believed to be a portrait of her mother, Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth I wore that ring most of her life and it had to be cut off her finger after her death. It is not known if Queen Elizabeth I set the fashion for wearing locket rings in England, but it is certain they had become increasingly popular among the aristocracy through her reign and into the seventeenth century.

Many of the locket rings made in the first half of the seventeenth century were memento mori rings. These rings were often worn by people to remind themselves of the inevitability of death and that they must honor the tenets of their faith in order to merit entrance into heaven upon their passing. The locket often concealed a skull, or a full skeleton laid in a tiny coffin, which the wearer could contemplate when considering the needs of their immortal soul. The cover of the locket, and/or the rim of the bezel, might be engraved with some sentiment which also reminded the wearer of their mortality. Most of those sentiments were in Latin, though some were in French or English.

By the second half of the seventeenth century, memento mori locket rings had gradually evolved into mourning rings among the upper classes. When intended as a mourning ring, the locket typically included a miniature portrait of the deceased and/or a small lock of their hair, rather than a skull or skeleton. Because locket rings were so complex and labor-intensive to make, they were quite expensive. Only affluent people could afford to own or give such a ring, either as a memento mori or mourning ring. And all such rings were custom-made, locket rings were not mass-produced in those early centuries.

Similar to the locket ring owned by Queen Elizabeth I, it is known that three special locket rings were made for Anne of Denmark, the wife of King James I of England, by the goldsmith, George Heriot. Like that made for Queen Elizabeth, these royal locket rings were put to another purpose than death. On one ring, the locket cover was set with five diamonds and it opened to reveal a miniature portrait of Anne’s husband, King James. The other two locket rings made for Queen Anne included a ring with a frog on the bezel and one with a bezel that was made in the shape of a scallop shell. The lockets of each of these rings opened to reveal a small empty cavity. It is unknown what the Queen might have hidden within them.

Even before the turn of the eighteenth century, locket rings similar to those which had been made for Queen Anne had begun to appear. There were some affluent people who may have taken their cue from the Queen and wanted locket rings of their own which were not associated with some aspect of mortality or death. Many of these locket rings were made to enclose a miniature portrait and/or the lock of hair of a loved one who was still living. Since not all of the loved ones whose portraits and locks of hair which were wanted as keepsakes were considered respectable relationships, it became more and more common to make locket rings with secret compartments. In most cases, the locket portion of the ring was designed not to look like a locket, and could be opened only by triggering a tiny hidden catch. Thus, the wearer could keep a treasured memento of a secret love hidden from all of those who might not approve of the relationship.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, after the popularization of the silhouette, a less expensive form of portraiture, some locket rings began to be made to enclose a tiny silhouette instead of a miniature portrait. And in the last decades of the eighteenth century, when miniature portraits of just a single eye of one’s beloved became popular, these small eye portraits might also be hidden within a locket ring. Though a few of these locket rings were made with a crystal cover on the bezel so that the portrait and/or the lock of hair which it contained could be seen without opening the cover, the majority of these locket rings were made so that the cavity within the bezel was concealed and could only be revealed by way of a hidden spring catch known only to their owner.

Locket rings with a concealed cavity were most often owned by women and typically contained the portrait and/or lock of hair belonging to a secret lover. In many cases, the locket ring was presented to them by that lover. Though there were instances when the lady lost interest and replaced the first lover’s portrait with that of his successor. This certainly happened in the case of the Marquise Du Châtelet, the long-time lover of Voltaire. He had given her a locket ring which held a miniature portrait of himself. Some years later, upon her unexpected death, he sent his valet to retrieve the ring from her finger before it could be discovered by her husband. However, much to his chagrin, when he opened the bezel cover, Voltaire discovered that Madame Du Châtelet had replaced his portrait in the locket ring with that of her most recent lover.

At the other end of the spectrum, the British King George III, though a rather strait-laced family man who took no lovers, particularly liked portraits of himself. He is known to have presented a number of people with locket rings which had a miniature portrait of himself, usually set under glass. A few of these rings, given to family members and close friends, also included a tiny lock of his hair. Locket rings which held miniature portraits of other members of the royal family were made and distributed during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as favors to friends and supporters. Since, so far as is known, none of these rings were intended as love tokens, the portraits were almost always set under glass or crystal, as the recipient would want it known whose portrait graced their ring. These locket rings held no secrets.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, the fashion for memento mori rings had died out. However, locket rings were still being made, in fairly large numbers. Some were made as mourning rings, to commemorate the loss of a loved one. Most of the locket rings intended as mourning rings nearly always included a miniature portrait of the deceased and a lock of their hair. The majority of locket rings intended as mourning rings had a crystal cover so that the contents were visible without the need to open the locket. The name of the deceased and their date of death was often engraved on the hoop of the ring. Such complex and costly rings were not manufactured in large numbers. Nor were they usually distributed to all of the mourners at a funeral, as were standard mourning bands. In most cases, only a very few locket mourning rings were made upon someone’s death, and they were kept by those who had been closest to the departed. A wife who had lost a beloved husband, or a husband a beloved wife might treasure such a locket ring, as might a child who had lost a beloved parent or a parent a beloved child.

Though the majority of locket rings made during the first two decades of the Regency were destined to become love tokens or mourning rings, there were a few that were made for rather different purposes. Napoleon had six locket rings made as gifts for the six officers who assisted him in his escape from Elba. Each of these rings had a small gold medallion hidden beneath the cover. The tiny medallion was made to look like a Roman coin, bearing a profile of Napoleon as Emperor. The bezel cover was embellished with an enamelled image of a bunch of immortelle flowers. These flowers had long been associated with Bonaparte and his most avid supporters believed they suggested the inevitable permanency of his reign. The cover could only be opened by touching a small, secret catch. To those who did not know better, the ring simply looked like a ring with an enamelled image of posies set into the bezel.

During the Regency, the wearing of rings was considered very fashionable, by both men and women. Those who could afford it might wear several rings at a time, on multiple fingers, particularly when out for an evening. Either a man or a woman might wear a locket ring during this period, though they do seem to have been more popular with women. In some instances, gentlemen sometimes had their tiny lockets set into one of the studs they used to fasten their shirt cuffs or as a button on their jacket or waistcoat. In most cases, these tiny lockets concealed a portrait of the eye of their beloved.

Typically, locket rings with transparent covers were most often worn in public if the person depicted in the portrait was a relative, or perhaps a member of the royal family. Should anyone, particularly a lady, wear a locket ring with a visible portrait of someone who was not related to them, it might easily trigger unpleasant gossip. Therefore, most locket rings with transparent covers were worn as a love token or mourning ring by a spouse or close relative. The locket rings worn by anyone engaged in a clandestine relationship nearly always had opaque covers and could only be opened by a hidden catch.

In a very few instances, a locket ring which was given as a token of a clandestine relationship might have a transparent cover. But in these cases, the lock of the lover’s hair was woven or plaited into a lover’s knot and was set just inside the transparent cover. This lover’s knot of hair then usually covered the miniature portrait which was set inside the locket. However, wearing such a ring, with the lock of hair exposed, might invite comment, or even expose the relationship, if the lock of hair was of a unique or easily recognized color.

The most expensive portraits which might be set in a locket ring were either enameled or were painted on ivory. Less expensive portraits were painted on small pieces of parchment or vellum, while the least expensive portraits of all were simple silhouettes. Parchment portraits or silhouettes were the most delicate and could be easily damaged if they should become wet, since few locket covers fit tightly enough to be waterproof. Enameled images were impervious to water, while many miniatures painted on ivory were finished with a varnish which gave them some protection from moisture. Transparent locket covers might be made of glass or crystal, though the most expensive were made of what was known as a "portrait diamond." These covers were actual diamonds which were cut so thinly that they were quite transparent. Those locket rings which were intended to conceal their contents were most often made of metal, usually gold or silver, since locket rings were a very high-end item of jewelry and were seldom made of base metals. These opaque locket covers might be engraved with some type of decoration, or they could serve as the support for an enameled embellishment.

As had been the case since the seventeenth century, some locket rings had a pertinent sentiment engraved on them. These sentiments might appear on the cover of the locket, around the bezel, or inside the hoop of the ring. Those that were intended as love tokens typically carried inscriptions in French, rather than Latin, as had been done with memento mori and mourning rings. Sentiments that were intended to be completely private were usually engraved on the inside of the locket cover, or on the inside of the ring hoop, where only the owner was like to see them. However, for those who wished to take no chances, the inscriptions were engraved only on the inside of the cover, so there was no risk that they might be found accidentally by someone not intended to see them.

One locket ring which survives has a heart and the inscription Avous Seule, which translates as "Yours alone" engraved inside the cover, but with no names or even initials. No one knows who the portrait inside depicts. In addition, neither the person who gave it, or the person who wore it, is known today. That couple keeps their secret still. Another charming but anonymous locket ring holds the silhouette of a woman and is inscribed in French with the loving sentiment, Je cheris josqu’a son ombre [I even love her shadow].

The most expensive locket rings often had tiny diamonds or other gemstones set around the bezel or even around the outside of the hoop. There were some instances when one of the gemstones set in the bezel also served as the pressure point to operate the spring catch which opened the locket. In other rings, the catch might be operated by pressing some tiny gem or raised design on the shoulder of the ring, on either side of the bezel. Still other rings had the catch so cleverly hidden within the locket cover that it could not be located even if someone ran their finger over the surface. Only the owner would know the exact point on the locket cover which should be depressed to open the locket.

Some locket rings were made with a large enough cavity that not only might they include a portrait and/or a lock of hair, they would even have enough space to conceal a small note as well. In such cases, the enclosed note was usually some heartfelt sentiment personally written by the lover whose portrait was hidden within the locket. Some lovers wrote these tiny notes in French or English, but during the Regency, there were those who wrote their sentiments of love in ancient Hebrew or even Egyptian hieroglyphics. Of course, though the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs had not yet been discovered, there were some who knew the shapes and made up their own meanings for them. One wag remarked that such love messages were never written in Greek or Latin, since most affluent husbands had a Classical education and would be readily able to read the contents of those notes, should they encounter them.

It must be noted that there were a few locket rings, worn as love tokens, which were representative of a completely innocent, but very loving, relationship. There were some mothers who chose to have a locket ring made which held a tiny lock of their baby’s hair. This was particularly common with a woman’s first-born child. These locket rings may or may not have also included a portrait of the child, but the cover was usually transparent, so the lock of hair was visible. In many cases, the name and birth date of the child was engraved around the bezel or on the inside of the hoop of the ring.

Locket rings were very popular during the Regency. Some were worn as mourning rings, many more as tokens of legitimate or illicit love. Still others were used as symbols of power, given as tokens of gratitude from those holding high rank or position. Because they were so complex and labor-intensive to make, each locket ring was made to order and therefore, unique. Many contained a miniature portrait of the beloved, and most also held a small lock of that person’s hair as well. Some were obviously locket rings, while others were made so deftly and with such subtleness that only the owner knew it was a locket and the secret to opening the cover. Some locket rings had a cavity large enough that they could accommodate a small folded note in addition to the portrait and/or lock of hair it contained.

Dear Regency Authors, might a locket ring find its way into one of your upcoming romances? Could it be the hero gave his beloved a locket ring containing his miniature and a lock of his hair before he marched off to war, though her parents would have considered it inappropriate? Though he is reported to have been killed in action, might the heroine still have hope, comforted by the locket ring he gave her? Or, maybe a wily spy makes use of a locket ring to send secret messages. How will he, or she, be found out and exposed? Then again, perhaps a gentleman presents his mistress with a locket ring which contains his silhouette, rather than a painted miniature? Will she fly up into the boughs and accuse him of cheese-paring because it does not contain a portrait? How else might a locket ring figure in a Regency romance?

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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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