BOOK CLUB: Rings by Diana Scarisbrick

Discover the evolution of diamond ring design the 18th centuries.

By Diana Scarisbrick

A new paperback edition of Diana Scarisbrick’s book Rings launches this month, packed with new material and fistfuls of spectacular ring designs from as far back as ancient Egypt. Here we present an extract about the evolution of diamond ring design during the 17th and 18th centuries.

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Around 1600 stones came to assume greater importance than settings in the design of rings, thus marking the end of the golden age of the goldsmith.

The role of metal was reduced to that of a framework and the diamond consolidated its position as the most prized of all stones as faceting techniques improved and the early point and table cuts were replaced by the rose cut, which releases far more light from the stones.

When the brilliant cut appeared in the 1660s the Parisian jeweller Robert de Berquen applauded the diamond as the "sun shining among precious stones". This development was followed by the substitution of silver for gold settings to avoid the yellow reflections cast by the metal over the stone’s white brilliance. Solitaires were mounted in box bezels or held in eagle’s claws, but the majority of small stones were set in clusters – oval or round – or into cruciform shapes, or the standard seven-stone ring with a large central stone between three smaller to each side.

The diamond was the first choice for wedding rings of all people of means, from James II, King of England, to the aunt of Mrs Samuel Pepys. Because of its properties, rarity, beauty and value, sovereigns liked to be associated with this stone and gave diamond rings as rewards for loyal service and as diplomatic gifts, particularly at the signing of a treaty between two nations. Since the gift of a ring signified their union, when James I came to say goodbye to the Constable of Castille after the Somerset House Conference of 1604, which made peace between England and Spain, "with many protestations of love and courtesies he took from his hand a finger-ring adorned with a rich diamond and gave it to the constable in memory of the ‘marriage’ as he used to call the peace in French".

The discovery by the Portuguese in 1727 of the mines of Minas Geraes in Brazil increased diamond supplies which, in combination with even greater progress made in faceting, led the Parisian jeweller J.H. Pouget to observe in his Traité des Pierres Précieuses of 1762 that "we are now in the age of the diamond".

In London, a customer who came to Louis Fury, jeweller at the Sign of the Ring and Pearl in Covent Garden, for mourning rings, a ruby hoop ring, and a diamond ring, also asked him to facet old, thick, table-cut diamonds into the modern rose and brilliant cuts for rings. The brilliant solitaire, which was the most sought-after stone, shone out from the fingers of both men and women and looked particularly impressive on hands emerging from wide lace-trimmed sleeves.

In France there was a distinct preference for coloured diamonds, and to meet the demand some were artificially tinted in an exquisite range of colours. As before, smaller stones were grouped into clusters shoulders, with motifs such as shells, leaves or flowers filling the empty space. In tune with the fashion for naturalism prevailing in all the decorative arts, motifs such as flowers, insects and birds were executed in diamonds.

Around 1770 styles changed under the influence of Neoclassicism. Shapes were symmetrical, geometric – ovals, octagons, lozenges – and so large that they covered the finger from joint to knuckle. The dimensions of the bezel now gave more space for various patterns of stones – particularly diamonds – grouped together into bouquets or simply scattered on a royal blue ground. These fashions were observed in Le Tableau de Paris (1788) by L. S. Mercier, who regretted that the insolent luxury of the Roman women against whom Seneca had inveighed was now to be seen all over Paris: "one must absolutely wear a large diamond, a very large diamond set in the centre of a paste bezel of oval, square or lozenge shape".

He noticed, too, the woman selling jewellery in a shop on the Quai des Orfèvres, "a superb diamond on her finger", conscious of the effect it made as she took her time weighing silver plate and stones, and pointed to the various objects on the shelves, helping the customers to decide what to buy.

By 1800 elongated Neoclassical shapes had been replaced by broader squares and circles, though the royal blue ground, often with a white border, remained in fashion. The hoop ring, which also widened, might be composed of several wires joined together, and several half-hoops were also worn in a group on the finger, like the bracelets on the wrists above.

When The Ladies’ Monthly Museum reported that "diamonds are worn in profusion by the rich, and all endeavour to have a ring or a brooch of the same costly gem", this taste was shared by men and women. Lady Dufferin remembered that it was with several brilliant rings glittering above his white gloves that the young Benjamin Disraeli stood out from the crowd at social events.

Most ring designs of this period are revivals of earlier styles, particularly of the 18th-century firmament – a sky design – with 12 stones set as stars. It was known as ‘la bague bonne année’, and was a favourite New Year gifts.


Rings by Diana Scarisbrick is published by Thames & Hudson (RRP £19.95). To order your copy at the special price of £15.95 including UK mainland delivery (overseas costs available on request) please call Littlehampton Book Services on 01903 828503, quoting TH224. Offer is subject to availability and runs until December 31 2013.


This article was taken from the September 2013 issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue in full online, click here.




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