Two lovers each wear a ring for their engagement; then on marriage they fit the two together to make a wedding ring. This romantic custom, using a double-hoop gimmel ring, was at a peak of popularity during the 16th and 17th centuries. Gimmel rings have been revived by modern jewellery designers, and seem to have plenty of appeal today.
There were different kinds of gimmel ring, and various customs associated with it. Although it started out as a double ring, three-link rings were also used. Some couples would meet with a witness to their betrothal, the triple ring would be broken apart, and each of the three people would keep one hoop of the ring until the wedding day. This was a visible symbol of an engagement contract with legal implications beyond the vows of love.
Two hands, separated, then joined in marriage, were often part of the design. This was a new “gimmel” twist on an older tradition of clasped hands on rings for Roman marriages, and to medieval Italian fede rings. Rings with three hoops could take this further, with a heart on one ring being held by the hands from the other two when all were fitted together. This image was also used on non-gimmel types, like the claddagh ring.
A heart split in two while the two hoops were separate was another design well-liked in the 1500s and 1600s. Gems were cut to suit, with each lover having a fine jewel, but an incomplete heart, until the wedding. Separate, regularly cut jewels were also used without any heart motif. Skeletons or other memento mori (reminder of death) symbols were sometimes included, odd though it may seem to us. (“Till death us do part” was the promise once used in church weddings.) Sometimes the rings had poetic mottos engraved inside, as did many single rings.
21st century attitudes are different from those of the Renaissance. What does it mean for the man to wear a ring while betrothed, then hand it over to the woman on marriage? Some modern writers think this highlights the wife’s greater responsibility for sexual fidelity in that era. How does it compare with our custom of the woman alone wearing an engagement ring, while wedding bands are often worn by both partners in a marriage?
Famous historical figures who used gimmel rings for marriage include Martin Luther in Germany and Sir Thomas Gresham in Elizabethan England. Rings worn by their wives, of course.
Gimmel was not the only word for these. Joint (joined) ring was a name used in Shakespeare’s time. Emilia in Othello mentions a joint-ring, and they appear in wills from that period, including one of Shakespeare’s actors who left his joint-ring to his daughter. Although they have such a strong association with love, they weren’t always used for betrothals.
Spellings have changed over time. Gimmal with an ‘a’ is a rival to the widespread gimmel with an ‘e’, and is listed first in the complete Oxford English Dictionary. The word is related to “gemini”, the twins, showing that two-part gimmels came before three hoops and the more unusual versions with even more connecting links. You may also come across gemmel, gimmow, gemmow, jimmal, and more.
Illustration: the engravings come from books published in the 1850s and 1870s.
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