Selected books on rings

Do you want to learn more about rings and their history?

Rings have always attracted more attention than other forms of jewellery – from dedicated ring collectors, going back to the Roman dactyliotheca (Pliny records Scaulus, the step-son of Sulla as the first person in Rome to have a collection of finger-rings) to shelves of books on the topic. Of course, rings will be featured in many general jewellery books but they have also been the subject of specialist books. 

Part of their appeal is due to the range of functions rings can have – the familiar wedding and engagement ring, of course, but also mourning rings, signet rings, rings of office and investiture, political rings and rings made with tobacco tampers, small containers and compasses. 

I’ve put together a selected list of books both old and new that will guide you through rings and their fascinating history. If you’re interested in brooches, here is a list of books.

Rings for the Finger – George Frederick Kunz

The classic starting point for the ring enthusiast is George Frederick Kunz’s Rings for the Finger: from the earliest known times to the present with full descriptions of the origin, early making, materials, the archaeology, history, for affection, for love, for engagement, for wedding, commemoration, mourning, etc. Phew.

As the title suggests, Kunz’s book takes a wide view of the subject. Unlike many other rings books, he includes non-European rings. Kunz was a noted American gemmologist. He worked for the fabled jewellery house, Tiffany’s, and was closely involved with both mineralogy and museums. As a further sign of his dedication to the subject, the mineral Kunzite was named for him and he married a woman named Opal.

Rings for the Finger was first published in 1917 and is perhaps a little dated in style. It was reprinted by Dover Books in the 1970s and although the images are small and black and white, it’s still an excellent resource. As it is now out of copyright, various free online versions are also available. 

Rings – Rachel Church

I wrote about rings for the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2011 (updated edition for Thames and Hudson, 2017). The V&A has one of the world’s finest collections of rings due to the generosity of many collectors, like Dame Joan Evans. The museum also bought Edmund Waterton’s important collection in 1871. In my book, I look at the collection from the middle ages to the early twenty first century, bringing out the social history and changing uses of rings through time. It’s beautifully illustrated by the excellent V&A photography team and very nicely laid out by the editorial team. 

Finger Rings – Martin Henig and Diana Scarisbrick

Another short book based on a museum collection. Diana Scarisbrick and Martin Henig’s Finger Rings was published in 2003. The book features highlights from the ring collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. It starts with Greek and Roman rings and goes up to the early nineteenth century. It begins with short essays on collecting rings, rings in antiquity and in the middle ages and later. Images of the collection with informative captions follow. 

Rings: Jewelry of power, love and loyalty – Diana Scarisbrick

Renowned jewellery historian Diana Scarisbrick has written extensively on rings. Rings: Jewelry of power, love and loyalty looks at rings from early Egypt, Greece and Rome up to the mid twentieth century. The book has chapters on signets, love and marriage rings, mourning rings as well as decorative rings and rings linked to famous figures.

It’s beautifully illustrated with almost 500 colour images. It shows paintings, trade cards and jewellery designs as well as images of the rings themselves.

The private collection of Benjamin Zucker (also published in Cycles of Life: rings from the Benjamin Zucker family collection for Les Enluminures in 2014) forms the basis of the book. The Zucker rings are supported by images from other private and public collections. The book is full of fascinating information, based on Scarisbrick’s lifetime of research and is extremely readable. 

Rings: Symbols of wealth, power and affection – Diana Scarisbrick

This book is a great companion to her 1993 Rings: symbols of wealth, power and affection. However, it’s out of print and may be hard to get hold of. You should be able to find it in a larger library.

Catalogue of the Finger Rings, Early Christian, Byzantine, Teutonic, Mediaeval and Later Bequeathed by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks – O.M. Dalton

Museum databases have mostly replaced earlier printed collection catalogues. However, these older books still have very useful references and footnotes. O.M. Dalton (Ormonde Maddock to his friends…) wrote a two volume catalogue in 1912 to record the extraordinary bequest of Augustus Woolaston Franks’ ring collection to the British Museum.

The two catalogues have very full introductions, followed by lists of rings, sorted by type and fully captioned. Line drawings of inscriptions or decorative details remain valuable. These are often easier to read than a photograph would be. The back of each volume has a series of plates of black and white images of the rings.

Although some of the rings have been reassessed or further research has come to light (check the British Museum database for their latest thoughts), it’s still an essential resource for the serious ring researcher. Printed copies of the first edition are hard to come by but it was reprinted in 2016 and has been fully digitised (available on

Victoria and Albert Museum: Catalogue of Rings 1930 – Charles C. Oman

Charles Oman was first curator then Keeper of the Metalwork collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the early twentieth century. He wrote two books on rings.

Victoria and Albert Museum: catalogue of rings, 1930 is an almost complete record of the rings owned by the museum before 1930. It includes useful introductory sections on the use and design of rings.

The rings are organised thematically with captions and black and white images. The book finishes in 1930, so does not include any of the later acquisitions by the museum. However, it is still a useful guide with interesting footnotes. The book concentrates on rings in the Western tradition and does not include any of the museum’s large collection of non-European jewellery. 

British Rings 800-1914 – Charles C. Oman

British Rings 800-1914 , published by Batsford in 1974, includes many rings from the V&A alongside historic rings from other museum and private collections. It’s arranged thematically and is intended for a general reader. As it’s been out of print for many years, it is probably most accessible through a library as secondhand copies can be expensive. 

La Bague en France a travers l’histoire – Maximin Deloche

If you’re interested in French rings, the recently re-issued La Bague en France a travers l’histoire  by Maximin Deloche is a good option. It’s quite a short book with black and white illustrations. It was originally published in 1929 and has some great information on the use and history of rings in France.

A digitised version is available on Gallica, the Bibliotheque Nationale de France’s online platform.