Friendship rings, or promise rings as they are now frequently called, are given to indicate commitment between the closest of friends. The level of commitment indicated may involve a decision to get married, or it can indicate a non-romantic wish that a pact of friendship should always be remembered and honored.
The historical origins of the friendship rings stretches back to the Ancient world. Thousands of years ago rings were worn on necks, noses and ears. Most researchers believe that the use of finger rings was first popularized in Ancient Egypt. A few thousand years later the Greeks were using rings to indicate pledges. In Roman times betrothal rings became popular, and rings with twin hands representing faith (appropriately enough known as faith rings) appeared on the scene. Apparently the Romans were the first to introduce the custom of wearing the ring on the third finger of the left hand and engraving rings was another innovation that appeared in Roman times.
During the Medieval age the giving of friendship rings with clasped hands was popular, while wealthier people began to have costly jewels set into their rings. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries poesy rings were introduced, with poesy referring to a style of poetry where short lines on the themes of romance or faith were engraved on rings. These rings were commonly given as what we would call engagement rings. Similarly designed rings are still sold today in a number of online stores and other outlets.
There is general agreement that a major leap forward in the history of friendship rings occurred in late seventeenth and early eighteenth century Ireland in the Galway Bay area of Western Ireland, and in particular around Claddagh and nearby fishing villages. A local goldsmith named Richard Joyce designed a ring that has become known as the claddagh ring. His design of two hands clasping a heart symbol with a crown engraved above it has become one of the most enduring and sought after friendship ring designs. According to the local legend he learned his craft while held prisoner by Algerian pirates. Clearly he must already have been a person of means with connections in high places since the King of England is supposed to have intervened and secured his release. Faced with the offer of marrying the daughter of his Algerian master and coming into a rich inheritance, he decided he would nevertheless prefer to return to Ireland.
Joyce's jewelry business did not continue into the mid-eighteenth century and for a while the claddagh ring went out of fashion. However, the success he had enjoyed was remembered by other jewelers in the Galway area and they successfully reintroduced the idea. Until the mid-nineteenth century the popularity of the claddagh ring did not extend far beyond the Galway Bay region. The introduction of the mechanization into jewelry manufacture in the mid-nineteenth century opened up new possibilities to market these friendship rings to a wider clientele at more competitive prices. From this time onwards, the claddagh ring began to build its international profile. Today a variety of designs using identical are similar themes rank high in the popularity lists of friendship rings sold in many jewelry shops and via online sites.
The amazing growth of the online friendship ring market represents one of the most striking contemporary developments in the history of friendship rings. In addition the idea of giving friendship rings is spreading across cultural and national barriers. Never have people has such a range of designs and ring materials to choose from nor such convenient ways of buying a ring that meets their aspirations.