Death in Beauty

16th July 2020

A centuries old gold ring that conceals a deadly secret has been sold at auction with Woolley and Wallis in Salisbury for £4,750.

The so-called “poison” ring (lot 2231) has a tiny hidden compartment behind the mount of the cabochon sapphire, in which its wearer could conceal a dose of henbane or other poison in order to secretly target their enemies. Such rings were first recorded in ancient India and the Far East but quickly gained popularity in Roman Europe, where they were also used to help the wearer commit suicide to avoid torture or imprisonment.

“The Renaissance period (when this ring was made) was a turbulent and dangerous time for the landed and political classes,” explained Woolley and Wallis’s Jewellery specialist, Marielle Whiting. “Alliances were being formed and broken apart across Europe and someone who was your friend one day could be your sworn enemy the next. Being able to slip poison from an innocent-looking ring into a traitor’s wine glass was a valuable weapon.”

In Renaissance Italy, murder among the political classes had become so prevalent that people began to doubt the natural death of any pope, cardinal or warlord and only in January the remains of Alessandro Farnese, the Duke of Parma, were exhumed by Italian historians who believed he may have been poisoned rather than contracting pneumonia, as official reports had recorded. The use of poison rings still resonates today in Italian etiquette, which considers it bad manners to pour wine with the back of the hand facing downward; known as the “traitor’s pouring method” it enabled the pourer to drop poison into the glass from a ring compartment.

“There is an element of dark glamour about these rings, which means that they are highly collectable today,” continued Whiting. “There is something quite gothic about them, and they were designed to be beautiful as well as having this hidden function.”

The ring sold as part of the Fine Jewellery auction on 15th July, where it exceeded its starting price of £1,500 to sell to the delighted buyer, bidding on the telephone.  

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