Jewish marriage-ring

WB.195     1700–1898 • Enamelled gold, filigree • wedding-ring

Jewish wedding rings survive from medieval hoards. Another was part of the Kunstkammer in Munich by 1598. This one represents a later type, possibly made for collectors in the 19th century, and may originally have been worn as a pendant. The authenticity of rings of this type was questioned as early as 1871.

Curator's Description

Marriage-ring; gold; hoop a broad band with cable borders; five bosses of filigree enriched with flowers in pale green and white enamel; between bosses, enamelled ornaments in dark blue and green, each with pale blue rosette in middle from which rises a loop; place of sixth boss occupied by gable with two small windows and enamelled imbrications in blue, white and green representing tiles; gable works on hinge and discloses plain gold plate beneath.

This object was collected and bequeathed to the British Museum by Ferdinand Anselm Rothschild.

How big is it?

4.8 cm wide, 2.1 cm high, 3.9 cm deep, and it weighs 32.2g

Detailed Curatorial Notes

Text from Tait 1986:-

Origin: Uncertain; traditionally attributed to Venice or Germany, but perhaps made in Eastern Europe. Likewise, the date of manufacture is uncertain; traditionally described as 16th century but perhaps 17th century, or probably more modern.

Provenance: None is recorded.

Commentary: A number of similar marriage-rings with hinged gable roofs have been recorded, although none with windows; for two examples in the British Museum, both less elaborately enamelled and lacking any yellow enamel, see Dalton 1912, nos 1338 [AF.1416] and 1339 [AF.1417]. The second of the two has a tiny twisted wire ring threaded through each of the projecting rings between each boss, and the base of the gable roof is engraved with the Hebrew initials of the words ‘mazal tov’ ('good luck').

For two similar, though not identical, examples, see Gerald Taylor and Diana Scarisbrick, ‘Finger-rings’, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 1978, nos 476, 477, col. pl. III and illus. on p. 63; both are engraved in Hebrew. Neither has a recorded history older than the second half of the nineteenth century, although it is interesting to note that one of the two was lent to the 1868 Leeds exhibition (section T, no. 1938) by the London firm of jewellers, Messrs Hunt and Roskill.

Two further rings of similar character have been published recently as examples of Italian Renaissance jewellery: one was acquired in the late nineteenth century by Pierpont Morgan (see G. C. Williamson, ‘Catalogue of the Collection of Jewels and Precious Works of Art, The Property of J. Pierpont Morgan’, London, 1910, no. 20, and Yvonne Hackenbroch, ‘Renaissance Jewellery’, Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications, London, New York and Munich, 1979, p. 50, fig. 105) and is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the other example is in a private collection and apparently has no known history (illustrated in Hackenbroch 1979, p. 52, fig. 112). Although there seems to be no difference between these two examples, the first is published in Hackenbroch as “Venice, 16th century” and the second as “Venice, early 17th century”. Furthermore, the unequivocable attribution to Venice is made without any documentary backing and must be regarded as extremely doubtful in the absence of any supporting evidence in the fairly exhaustive Venetian accounts of the Jewish wedding ceremony.

Rather misleadingly Hackenbroch cites as evidence the well-documented gold miniature casket (H. 3.2 cm, W. 4.1 cm), decorated in the same distinctive form of enamelling, which has been preserved in the Kunstkammer of the Dukes of Württemberg in the Altes Schloss in Stuttgart (see M. Landenberger, ‘Kleinodien aus dem Württembergischen Landesmuseum, Stuttgart’, Pfullingen, 1973, col. pl. 52). This miniature casket is a crucial document, illustrative of this peculiarly distinctive class of enamelling on gold combined with filigree and other wire-work, but in the Württemberg archives it is not recorded where it was made. Most importantly, it should have been acknowledged that Frau Landenberger clearly published it as “Ungarn (?) 17jh” - not as “Venice, c. 1600” (Hackenbroch 1979, p. 50, fig. 104). On the existing evidence a Hungarian origin in the first half of the seventeenth century does seem far more likely than the so-called 'Adriatic' provenance that has been proposed by Yvonne Hackenbroch.

The combination of the techniques of filigree and granulation, and of brightly coloured opaque enamels, suggests an Eastern European (Transylvania) or Eastern Mediterranean origin. As with all jewellery of a highly traditional kind, even peasant jewellery in the Balkan and Greek areas, the difficulties of dating are insuperable, for both the designs and the techniques are little changed over the centuries, and although the quality will vary from generation to generation, there is no pattern of development to guide the historian. There is, however, no evidence that this type of work was being made in Western Europe, although Renaissance Venice is often suggested as a possible location, partly because of its position on the eastern 'frontier' and partly because of its close trading contacts with the Levant and its own resident business colony in Constantinople. Nevertheless, the evidence of the famous pre-1470 Chalcis Hoard (see O.M. Dalton, Medieval personal ornaments from Chalcis in the British and Ashmolean Museums, ‘Archaeologia’, vol. 62, London, 1911, pp. 391-404) is that no 'Veneto-Byzantine' or 'Veneto-Greek' jewellery of the fifteenth century bore any resemblance to these marriage-rings, either in general appearance or in any precise technical aspect. Of the twenty-five finger-rings in the Chalcis Hoard only one has some slight affinity in that both granulation and filigree are used and the latter is employed to create a spherical openwork bezel (Dalton 1911, p. 396, pl. LVI, 3). However, no enamel was used and this finger-ring was so atypical of the jewellery in the Hoard that Dalton (p. 396) concluded that its appearance “may point to a Levantine or Adriatic art, while the pierced filigree of its globular bezel, similar to that of Moorish jewellery from Spain, may perhaps be traced to a similar descent”. Similarly, John Cherry has pointed out most recently in his contribution to A. Ward et al., ‘The Ring from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century’, London, 1981, (p. 73) that none of the main features of this finger-ring are paralleled among Venetian rings and this “therefore suggests a more eastern origin”.

On the other hand, a search through the jewellery of Hungarian and Balkan origin produced some very interesting parallels, especially among the enamelled goldsmiths' work of a non-Jewish character preserved in the National Museum in Budapest. There are several fine examples dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of Transylvanian enamelling on gold and other metals which have a marked similarity both in the use of the same strong palette of enamels and the same techniques of twisted wire and filigree (see Sandor Mihalik, ‘Old Hungarian Enamels’, Budapest, 1961, pp. 28-32, pls 42, 43 and 45; see also E. Steingräber, ‘Alter Schmuck’, Munich, 1956; English trans. ‘ Antique Jewellery’, London, 1957, p. 145, fig. 258, for a large brooch with openwork bosses and filigree, ascribed to a Hungarian workshop in the first half of the seventeenth century).

Similarly, the Romanian national collections contain a number of related items of a non-Jewish nature, of which perhaps the best-known piece is the large waist-clasp or buckle in the National Museum, Bucharest (Inv. no. 15034/4517). It has been published as “Transylvanian, 18th century” by Marin Matei Popescu in ‘Podoabe Medievale in Tarile Romane’, Bucharest, 1970 (no. 213, pl. 108). This waist-clasp (L. 17.3 cm; W. 9.5 cm) combines filigree, granulation and enamelwork. The entire surface is encrusted with restless ornamentation, including many hemispherical bosses of openwork filigree, clusters of tiny pellets in the tradition of the old technique of granulation, and green enamel on the foliate and floral motifs, such as the six-petalled flower. The similarities between the Bucharest waist-clasp and the Jewish marriage-ring (and its counterparts already mentioned above) are so compelling that it now seems possible that this particular group of Jewish marriage-rings might belong to the same Transylvanian tradition that had produced the Bucharest waist-clasp during the eighteenth century.

It is regrettable that Jewish authoritative sources, like the ‘Encyclopaedia Judaica’ and R. D. Barnett (ed.), ‘Catalogue of Jewish Museum, London’, London, 1974 (pp. 84-5), never refer to a single example with a well-documented history traceable beyond the mid-nineteenth century nor give any indication of the origin of this specific group of Jewish marriage-rings. However, there is a related type of Jewish ring with a high protruding bezel in the form of a miniature building representing the Holy Temple, which can be shown to have existed in Europe before the end of the Middle Ages. One solitary example, made of gold, has survived in the Schatzkammer der Residenz, Munich (no. 567; for a colour illustration see Hugh Tait (contrib.), ‘The Great Book of Jewels’, eds. E.A. and J. Heiniger, Lausanne, 1974, pl. 166) and, most importantly, it was described in the 1598 Inventory of the Kunstkammer of the Duke of Bavaria. The pronounced Gothic style of the miniature building (4.3 cm high) on the bezel of this ring indicates that it was probably made in the fifteenth century. The presence of the Hebrew inscription ‘mazal tov’ ('good luck') confirms its Jewish origin but whether it was made north or south of the Alps remains uncertain, although it does seem to have certain affinities with the Veneto-Byzantine tradition, especially as seen in the Chalcis Hoard of pre-1470.

Although these rings with a symbolic representation of the Holy Temple forming the bezel seem to have a long history stretching back into the Late Middle Ages, it is not known when the hinged gable roof with a tiny compartment beneath was first introduced nor in which country it made its first appearance. However, in its simplest and earliest manifestation it would seem not to have been hinged but to have taken the form of a low pyramidal edifice of six faces on a hexagonal bezel, each triangular roof-like face bearing one of the letters of the Hebrew inscription ‘mazal tov’. The controversial example in the Musée de Cluny, Paris (see Victor Klagsbald, ‘Catalogue raisonné de la Collection juive du Musée de Cluny’, Paris, 1981), has been preserved there only since 1923 but is said to be the earliest known ring of this type because it is associated with the famous hoard found at Colmar which was said to have contained a coin of 1347. Unfortunately, the contents and the history of the Colmar Hoard after its discovery in a walled-up building in 1863 are very poorly documented and it is clear that many important items and coins were probably dispersed. Consequently, there is no firm evidence to refute the statement that the ring may have been added to the Hoard at a later date, before it and the rest of the Hoard were sold by the son of the finder to the Musée de Cluny in 1923. In the 1981 catalogue of the Musée du Cluny's collection the ring was attributed to Italy (probably Venice) at the end of the fifteenth or beginning of the sixteenth century without any supporting stylistic or documentary evidence, but most recently Elizabeth Taburet has reached a different conclusion (Elizabeth Taburet and Michel Dhenin, Le Trésor de Colmar, ‘La Revue du Louvre et des Musées de France’, 1984, pp. 89 ff., fig. 16). In her opinion the six faces of the pyramidal bezel were enamelled not only in opaque red but also in green translucent enamel and, therefore, could not have been made before the beginning of the fourteenth century. She has concluded that the ring is the same type of Jewish edicular marriage-ring as that found in 1826 in the Weissenfels Treasure buried after 1310 and probably before 1350 (now preserved in the Staatliche Gallerie, Moritzburg, Halle, Saxony) and that both rings date from the same epoch - the first half of the mid-fourteenth century. These two finger-rings, each with its ‘mazal tov’ inscription on the ‘roof’ of the building, have therefore become the earliest extant Jewish marriage-rings so far recorded.

One early writer, Johann Jakob Schudt in ‘Judische Marckwürdigkeiten’ (Frankfurt and Leipzig, 1714), mentions that the words ‘mazal tov’ usually appear engraved on the ceremonial wedding-ring, and from Schudt's account of Jewish rites and customs in his native Frankfurt in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries there is no reason to doubt his reliability, but although this type of ring was in use at that time, he offers no evidence that these rings were made for or, indeed, kept in the synagogue. However, Schudt was not a member of the Jewish faith and his knowledge may have been restricted. It seems unwise to assume, therefore, that they were always kept at the homes of the bridegrooms who had commissioned them for the wedding ceremony, although it does seem a convenient explanation for their absence from ancient synagogue collections. Dr Gertrud Seidmann in her article Marriage Rings Jewish Style, in ‘The Connoisseur’, January 1981, pp. 48-51, has drawn attention to the fact that these Jewish marriage rings seem to have appeared in some quantity on the collectors' market in the middle of the nineteenth century, and as early as 1871 Octavius Morgan, who was both an astute collector and a respected

President of the Society of Antiquaries of London, questioned their purpose and age (in ‘Notes and Queries’, June 1871, p. 495). Dr Seidmann (in an article Marriage Rings in the Jewish Museum, London, published in the ‘Annual Report for 1982 of the Jewish Museum, London’ has noted that a Jewish marriage ring in the Victoria and Albert Museum with a nineteenth-century Prague hallmark (for 1806) is evidence of a continuing tradition for the edicular ring. Another similar example with no significant provenance but now preserved in the Jewish Museum, London, is illustrated and discussed in Gertrud Seidmann, Jewish marriage rings, ‘Jewellery Studies’, I, Society of Jewellery Historians, London, 1983-4, pp. 41-4, fig. 4. For another example in the Musée du Cluny see the ‘Catalogue raisonné’, p. 45, no. 36, where it is described as “Italian, sixteenth century” and is compared with two 'very similar' rings in the Schmuckmuseum, Pforzheim (Inv. nos 2009/ 403 and 2009/405). In the Victoria and Albert Museum's collections there are eleven gold Jewish marriage-rings, five of which are enamelled but none of which is attributed to any particular place of origin or precise date, although the author in the introductory paragraph cautiously observes that “most of them belong to the sixteenth century and later and are probably of Central European and Mediterranean origin” (Shirley Bury, ‘Jewellery Gallery Summary Catalogue’, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1982, p. 238, Case 35, Board C, nos 1-10, 12).

For a further discussion of another type of Jewish marriage ring see WB.196.

[See also for comparison a 1500 ring in Barbara Stuadinger, 'Munich in The Jewish World and the Wittelsbach Dynasty', Munich 2007, p. 34.

See Hindman, Chadour-Sampson, Beatriz, Hadjadj, Ogden, Scarisbrick, 'Cycles of life : rings from the Benjamin Zucker Family collection', Paul Holberton, London, 2014, p. 91 for a ring listed as 17th century from Cluny. Also, no.14 in the same catalogue illustrates WB.95 and says it is Venetian or German, 16th-19th C. It does not note the small loops on the hoop which indicate that this too was probably a pendant like the Zucker one: one is shown worn in a late 19th century painting of Bertha Pappenheim dressed in 17th century costume.]


  • Charles Hercules Read, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest: Catalogue of the Works of Art bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898’, London, 1902, no. 195
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘Catalogue of the Finger-Rings, Early Christian , Byzantine, Teutonic, Medieval and Later in the British Museum’, London, 1912, no. 1337
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 195
  • Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. 1., The Jewels', British Museum, London, 1986, no.51, pl. XXIXA, figs. 231-232
  • Hindman, Chadour-Sampson, Beatriz, Hadjadj, Ogden, Scarisbrick, 'Cycles of life : rings from the Benjamin Zucker Family collection', Paul Holberton, London, 2014, no.14 & illus.
  • Dora Thornton, 'A Rothschild Renaissance: Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest', British Museum, London, 2015, p.289.
  • References

    1. Read 1902: Read, Charles Hercules, The Waddesdon Bequest. Catalogue of the Works of Art Bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898, London, BMP, 1902
    2. Dalton 1912: Dalton, Ormonde Maddock, Franks Bequest Catalogue of the Finger Rings, Early Christian, Byzantine, Teutonic, Mediaeval and Later, Bequeathed by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks, KCB, in which are included the other rings of the same period in the Museum., London, BMP, 1912
    3. Dalton 1927: Dalton, Ormonde Maddock, The Waddesdon Bequest : jewels, plate, and other works of art bequeathed by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild., London, BMP, 1927
    4. Tait 1986: Tait, Hugh, Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum; I The Jewels, London, BMP, 1986

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