First Knuckle Rings, Popular During the Renaissance, Return to Fashion

Misty White Sidell says nail art may have brought back the rings, worn on the foremost joint of the digit.

From left: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Courtesy of Catbird

Take a gander at the hands of trendsetters these days, and you’ll notice something lingering around the top portion of their fingers. First knuckle rings, or tea rings and memory rings, as they’re also being dubbed, are encircling the foremost joints of fashion plates’ digits—quite literally by the handful.

Worn singularly or layered for a more dramatic effect, the thin metal bands evoke an ethnic sort of flair. In New York City, cool girls flock to the tiny Brooklyn jewelry store Catbird to snap up the boutique’s own brand of Memory Rings, which it has produced in silver, rose, and yellow gold since 2006. But the style’s blown up in recent months, spotted on the likes of Winona Ryder and Lena Dunham. “They have a sort of delicate, cool look that’s really easy to achieve. It’s a pretty effortless way to wear something different without too much of a risk,” Catbird owner Rony Vardi told The Daily Beast of the style.

The rings’ origins extend far back into history. Rather than pulling inspiration from a 20th-century decade like so much of today’s fashions, first knuckle rings are rooted in the Renaissance. Wearing one at that time signified a degree of wealth, an indication that “You were of a family that didn’t work in the field or ride horses—you had someone to do all of that for you,” Michael Coan, the chair of FIT’s jewelry design department, explained to The Daily Beast. Just look at Bernhard Strigel’s Portrait of a Woman (above), as proof. The painting, created between 1500 and 1525, features a wealthy woman in a bejeweled collar, also wearing a first knuckle ring.

So why has the style come back around as a trend more than 500 years later? Well, it may be tied to nail art’s immense popularity. Says Coan, “People are taking a lot more interest in hand care now, and a well-done nail is one of the best proponents of why you would wear multiple rings. It helps show it off.”