For countless high school seniors and university students across the northern hemisphere, the imminent prospect of summer marks the arrival of graduation season. And even while COVID-19 has thrown all types of formal education into disarray for over a year now, students around the world continue to graduate, albeit without the gatherings and ceremonies that traditionally mark the occasion. It’s perhaps little surprise then that class rings — among the few graduation hallmarks that can still be enjoyed even in a pandemic — became a jewellery trend in 2020.
Rings that demonstrate affiliation or fellowship can be traced back to Ancient Egypt, where matching rings would be worn by members of a given sect to demonstrate their connection to a cause, class, or religion. Later, in Roman times, legend has it that Cleopatra gifted a ring to Mark Antony that so fascinated him that he had similar ones made for his Praetorian Guard, which is how the idea of fellowship rings first entered the military.
The class ring proper was born in 1835 at the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY. Cadets at West Point were each given a class ring at graduation as a symbol of unity and a reminder of the values they had learned. From here, the tradition was first taken up by Ivy League schools, but by the twentieth century, class rings had spread to all kinds of educational institutions across the U.S. They have since become particularly associated with high school graduations.
Class rings typically feature an enamel or stone centrepiece, along with markings denoting the school name and crest, graduation year, and various other customisable flourishes. At some military institutions, West Point included, rings will contain some melted gold from the donated rings of deceased alumni.
There are also specific traditions around how the ring should be worn. In Amy Vanderbilt’s famous etiquette guide, she suggests that those still at school should wear their rings with the insignia facing them as a way of keeping the goal of graduation in mind. Upon graduating, however, you would flip the insignia to face outward as a badge of honour for onlookers to see. Class rings typically go on the right hand since wedding bands take up the corresponding real estate on the left, but West Point graduates have long chosen to wear theirs on their left hands. They do so in honour of the same belief that has guided wedding ring custom, which is that a vein connects the left ring finger directly to the heart.
Today class rings have become markers of a certain kind of Americana, as evocative of high school life as yearbooks and letterman jackets. Moreover, their current vogue notwithstanding, a declining interest in class rings among students in recent years has given them the gloss of a bygone era. Little surprise then that vintage class rings can fetch hefty price tags on resale sites like eBay and Etsy, which is where I was recently able to find my own. It’s a great, worn-in number that hails from a school in Brooklyn in 1965. And while I graduated post-Johnson administration at a school thousands of miles from the nearest New York borough, whenever I wear it I get a kick out of imagining its original owner and nigh on two centuries worth of people who have worn theirs just the same way.
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