These 400-Year-Old Rings Unfold to Reveal Astronomical Spheres

What if you could wear the entire universe on your finger?

Since ancient times, astronomers around the world have used models of the sky to make calculations. With the advent of the armillary sphere, stargazers were given a physical model to better visualize the lines of celestial longitude and latitude. Created independently in ancient Greece and ancient China, these armillary spheres consisted of spherical rings centered on either the Earth or the Sun. During the 16th and 17th centuries, these astronomy tools were sized down to become fashionable finger rings that moved just like regular armillary spheres.

The British Museum has a collection of several armillary sphere rings that are incredibly well-crafted and detailed. When closed, they look like any other ring, but as the different bands are fanned out, the rings take on a unique quality. Built with anywhere between two to eight moving bands, these intricate pieces of jewelry would need to have been executed by skilled craftsmen.

While the rings were sometimes plain, others had inscriptions or signs of the zodiac placed in enamel around the bands.  According to the jewelers at Black Adept, these folding rings were popular through the 19th century as either a way for the wearer to show off their education or as a token of faith. The use of soft high alloy gold made them particularly prone to wear and tear, which is why the British Museum's examples are so precious.

If you are fascinated by these foldable rings and want your own mini-armillary sphere, Brooklyn-based Black Adept offers both 3-band and 4-band armillary rings in a variety of materials.

These 17th-century foldable rings are small armillary spheres.

Used by astronomers to study and make calculations, these pieces of jewelry were considered tokens of knowledge.

Inscriptions or zodiac symbols were often used as decorative elements on the bands.

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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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