Check Your Chalice
The Wild History of Poison Rings
A favorite decoration of both assassins and generals, 'poison rings' could conceal perfume, tiny momentos—or something far more deadly.
Life is tough; there are tremendous amounts of dastardly and deadly substances out there, with all sorts of malicious properties. The only logical protection against them, of course, is magical jewelry.
While this might sound crazy to 21st-century minds, jewelry was used as the first line of defense against many forms of devilishness for centuries. For instance, a gold or silver rattle with a piece of coral on one end served two purposes: the coral was porous and a relatively soft material, perfect for teething infants, but coral has also long been used to ward off evil spirits and as a protective charm. If the coral helped a screaming child through the pain of sprouting a tooth, then perhaps the magic charm was real enough, after all.
Medicine, magic, and religion all were once intermingled in the ancient psyche, and the most superstitious answer often won out. The mystical solution for any given problem, like a pregnant woman’s baby being swapped out for a changeling, could easily be attributed to the magical powers of a stone or a protective charm.
As much as jewelry was a protective tool, it was also used as a weapon. There is a long history of poison rings, and some of the oldest examples may date back to ancient Asia and India. In Western European culture, they surface prominently in the Middle Ages, the quintessential era for tipping one’s hand over a goblet to sprinkle deadly powder into wine.
In her book Rings: Jewelry of Power, Love and Loyalty, Diana Scarisbrick writes that, “for centuries, rings, conveniently ready for use on the finger, have been adapted for functions other than the sealing of documents with signets. They might be attached to perfume flaçons, spy-glasses and handkerchiefs; they might measure time, safeguard property and conceal poison.”
Poison rings usually have a large stone bezel set into the band of the ring, but they can come with all sorts of different ornamentation. The larger the stone, the more concealed the compartment below is, and thus the dispersal of poison liquid or powder can go undetected. A small catch and hinge allow the stone to swing open and release the deadly agent into the victim’s food or beverage.
If they didn’t hold poison, these rings commonly concealed pomanders—small capsules of fragrance to disguise the atrocious odors of streets and rank gutters. The cavities could also be used to hold relics, bits of bone, fragments of flesh, or even locks of hair, a kind of precursor to 19th-century mourning jewelry.
Italian Renaissance femme fatale Lucrezia Borgia is thought to have used poison rings to elegantly off her enemies, but it’s never been proven. In 183 B.C. the Carthaginian soldier Hannibal committed suicide by ingesting poison from a ring after he had sent home spoils of other rings taken from Roman soldiers’ corpses. Much later, noted mathematician, philosopher, and politician Marquis de Condorcet also died by his own bejeweled hand following his arrest in 1794, in order to beat the guillotine.
This particular so-called “poison ring” (see below) is a 19th-century American version from the firm of Marcus & Co., so it was probably not intended as an actual poison ring. The faceted emerald flanked by chimeras flips up to reveal a cavity that could be used for a variety of purposes, including a perfumed scent.
To every poison, there is an antidote. This is where the widespread superstition and mysticism surrounding the innate powers of gemstones comes in. Rock crystal was commonly thought to be a prophylactic and guard against poisons. We see many rock crystal elements in goblets and chalices over the centuries, due both to its luxury-item status, and in the hopes that it might dispel any poisons in the cup.
The jeweled form of the clenched fist, with the thumb between the first and second finger, is known as a “figa” charm, and has a long and complicated history. In Italy, it had a reputation as a fertility charm, but in other parts of Europe, it is known to keep away the evil eye. This particular figa from Wartski in London is Iberian in origin, and was made in the 17th century. The gold cuff around the wrist and the loop on the end suggests this would have been worn as a pendant, and perhaps dipped into beverages to dispel toxins.
Other magical objects used to ward against evil draughts can be found in a newly opened exhibition on the occult in Oxford, England. Titled Spellbound: Magic, Ritual, & Witchcraft, the exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum boasts objects from all over the United Kingdom that have to do with sorcery and mysticism. One ring, loaned from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, is described in the catalogue for the exhibition: “This Northern Italian silver ring from the early 15th century reuses an onyx intaglio of a scorpion, dating from the second or first century BC, that evokes the zodiac sign of Scorpio. Rings and talismans with images of scorpions were believed to protect against poisoning.”
The V&A also has in its collection a ring known as a toadstone ring, which is actually the fossilized tooth of a fish called Lepidotes, which was common in certain areas of England. It was a hard brownish orange substance, thought to come from the head of a toad, that cured kidney disease, protected against venomous bites, and kept pregnant women’s babies safe from changelings. The toadstone ring would also supposedly heat up in the presence of poison.
From protector to poisoner, jewels can play a dangerous game, especially rings. Maybe make sure several charms are at hand in order to stand the best fighting chance?