To a 21st century mind, the idea of using jewelry as the first line of defense against evil, to do evil, and to facilitate peace at the same time is nothing short of incredible.
Thankfully, we can satisfy our curiosity by simply learning their history.
The poison rings have a long history, mostly influenced by their usage from the past civilizations up till this present day.So, a discussion of the history must begin with an explanation of the poison rings.
The Poison Rings Explained
A poison ring or pillbox ring has been described as a type of ring with a container under the bezel or inside the bezel, which could be used to hold poison or other substances. They usually have a large stone bezel set into the band of the ring. But they can come with all sorts of different ornamentation. The larger the stone, the more concealed the secret compartment below is. This is why the dispersal of poison liquid or powder often goes undetected.
What’s more, a small catch and hinge allow the stone to swing open and release the deadly agent into the victim’s food or beverage. It is recorded that if they didn’t hold poison, these rings commonly concealed pomanders—small tablets of fragrance to conceal the atrocious smells of streets and rank canals. The secret compartments could also be used to hold relics, bits of bone, fragments of flesh, or even locks of hair. This practice was an antecedent to 19th-century mourning jewelry.
But the poison ring isn’t the only ancient ring. Some rings have been used throughout history to carry perfume, locks of hair, devotional relics, messages, and other keepsakes. Some artists would paint tiny portraits of loved ones, to be kept in a “locket ring,” and was popular during the Renaissance.
By the 17th century, jewelers were creating locket rings in the mold of caskets, which served as relics for mourners. These were called “funeral rings,” and rings with compartments were also called “box” rings or “socket” rings.
Interestingly, poison rings also served benign purposes. For instance, during the Middle Ages, they were used to conceal relics of saints, like strands of their hair, teeth, and bone, which were believed to protect the wearer from various disasters and diseases. Similarly, during the Renaissance, the aristocracy used them to hold cologne, curls of hair, and paintings of loved ones.
At this point, it should be significantly clear what poison rings are. So, what’s their history?
Origin of Poison Rings
In discussing the history of the poison rings, we’ll consider some examples of its usage over the past centuries.
In October 2001, Marcy Waldie wrote about poison rings in an article titled “A Ring to Die For: Poison Rings Hold Centuries of Secrets,” and published in Antiques & Collecting Magazine. According to Marcy, the poison ring originated in the ancient days of the Far East and India. The wearing of vessel rings was so useful that it spread to other parts of Asia, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean before reaching Western Europe in the Middle Ages, by which time the rings were already part of the “holy relic trade.”
It was recorded that Romans sometimes used poison rings to commit suicide when a painful death was unavoidable. For instance, the historian Pliny, the Elder (23-79 CE), narrates how a Roman government official escaped torture by biting his poison ring. Even the teenager, Emperor Heliogabalus (203 CE – 222 CE), feared his cruelty and corruption and always wore a poison ring. It was reported that he was assassinated before he could ingest its contents.
The poison rings become popular in Europe in the 17th century. These were days when the poison ring was used either to drop poison into an enemy’s food or drink or to facilitate the suicide of the wearer to prevent capture or torture. This is why in Italy to this day, pouring someone a drink while holding the bottle with the back of the hand facing downward, to let something drop from a ring bezel, is called versare alla traditor(“traitor’s way pouring”) and still deemed offensive.
Similarly, Italian Renaissance femme fatale Lucrezia Borgia is thought to have used poison rings to slay her enemies elegantly. However, this has never been proven. Even as far back as 183 B.C., the Carthaginian soldier Hannibal, history records, committed suicide by consuming poison from a ring after sending home spoils of other rings taken from Roman soldiers’ corpses. History also records that it was much later that mathematician, politician, and philosopher Marquis de Condorcet died by his bejeweled hand to beat the guillotine. This was after his arrest in 1794.
It has also been reported that a poison ring may have also played a part in bringing an end to an aristocratic feud between two powerful families in the Middle Ages. Now, in the 21st century, archeologists in Bulgaria discovered a bronze ring with a secret compartment. It is speculated that poison in the ring may have been used by Dobrotitsa (1347-1386), the ruler of Despotate of Dobrudja, against a powerful family in the Kaliakra fortress.
Today, with their dark and mysterious secret compartments, poison rings, are in fashion with the Goth set. What’s more, Boucheron’s contemporary secret ring is proof that the poison ring is still in vogue in high-end jewelry.
Inspired by the history of the poison rings, Diana Scarisbrick in her book Rings: Jewelry of Power, Love, and Loyalty, writes that, “for centuries, rings, conveniently ready for use on the finger, have been adapted for functions other than the sealing of documents with signets. They might be attached to perfume flaçons, spy-glasses, and handkerchiefs; they might measure time, safeguard property, and conceal poison.”
It has been suggested that fact and fiction are intertwined in the history of the poison ring. Nevertheless, it affords us not only an estimation of how vital the poison ring was throughout human history but also the wonders of this ancient jewelry.