You don’t have to be into luxury watches to wear a watch. To be the kind of man who knows what ‘escapement’ means, or why Rolexes with faulty dials are more covetable than the pristine ones. That’s because even though watches are jewellery, they’re not really jewellery. They’re functional. You could use one to land a stricken plane. You could navigate through a jungle. You could even summon a rescue plane, if you ever find yourself stranded with Breitling’s Emergency on your wrist.
Whereas decorative jewellery gives a fella funny feelings. A man who’ll lay down his inheritance on a Patek Philippe will still balk at a necklace, or even worse, a ring. Buying something just for the way it looks is pure vanity. It’s something women do.
It’s also something Viking warriors, Egyptian kings and Tudor nobles did. That rappers still do. It wasn’t until the Victorians, and their priggish efforts to separate the sexes, that men eschewed jewellery. Sir Walter Raleigh wore a ruby-studded ring that would put Mr T to shame.
Fortunately, men are finally starting to see sense. “I initially started designing for the guy who just wore a watch,” says Michael Saiger, who founded men’s jewellery brand Miansai a decade ago, and who’s done more than most to normalise the idea that anyone can rock a ring. “I don’t think guys are nervous about rings that aren’t wedding rings; I more feel that some guys are hesitant about wearing jewellery in general because they have a hard time accessorising. Guys should be more open to taking risks and trying new things with their everyday style.”
It helps that designer brands have followed suit and now offer craft rings – often at accessible price points – that won’t make you look like a tangential member of the A$AP Mob. “They’re completely acceptable as a way to accessorise an outfit,” says Henry Graham, creative director at Wolf & Badger, a marketplace for independent retailers. That said, it’s easy to go overboard, so there are a few things to bear in mind before you weigh down your entire hand in precious metals.
Where your ring ends up should be steered by taste, practicality and mechanics (just because a ring goes on, that’s no guarantee it’ll come back off as easily). “Tradition may state differently, but I believe you should wear any ring how you wish,” says Alice Walsh, director of accessories label Alice Made This. “Your ring, your hand, your choice.” But if you’re a stickler – or just need a steer – there are some connotations for different ring fingers.
The first stop for guys who want to think beyond the wedding ring. Your pinky has a few advantages when you want to dip a (little) toe into men’s jewellery. First, it’s on a finger that’s essentially decorative, so it won’t get in the way of actually doing things with your hands. Second, it doesn’t have an underlying meaning; you wear a ring there because you want to, not because of tradition.
The Godfather popularised the idea that gangsters wear pinky rings, but unless you spend your nights at the docks, you’re probably safe from that misapprehension. More likely they’ll think you’re inspired by Prince Charles, who wears his signet ringon his left pinky – stacked on top of his wedding ring, as is royal tradition.
The clue’s in the name. This is where the most common men’s ring goes – a wedding band. In the UK and US, you’ll most often find it on the left hand; in Eastern Europe and Orthodox traditions, it can appear on the left. As ever, go with whatever feels comfortable – if you’re a lefty, you might find it sits better on your right hand, where it’s less likely to get in the way of anything.
The ring finger’s been the home to wedding bands for centuries, supposedly based on the idea that it’s the only finger with an unbroken vein – the vena amoris – that leads directly to the heart. As romantic an idea as this is, it’s also cobblers – the veins in your hand are all basically the same.
For rings, the middle finger tends to be the last port of call when the rest of your hand is full. It’s not left bare for traditional reasons, but rather because it’s so close to your index finger, which tends to be most active. That proximity means anything with any heft can feel awkward, but because your middle finger is the hand’s biggest, too dainty a ring looks odd. Which leaves you in no man’s land.
For those guys who do wear middle finger rings, they tend to appear on the opposite side to the wedding band. Again, that’s a practical thing – stack rings up on consecutive fingers and you’ll sound like a castanet player whenever you move your fingers.
Historically, the most prominent finger was home to the most prominent rings: a signet or family crest, worn by nobility and, in some cultures, banned as a ring location to anyone outside the aristocracy.
These days, you can put a ring on it even if you don’t have a family crest, but you’d still be wise to go big, since it’s a space that makes a statement. If you’ve got the cojones then chunky, three-dimensional rings look good on an index finger.
Think of the thumb as the index finger on steroids. For one, your thumb is big and so needs a big ring. There’s also the fact that thumb rings are less common, which means you’ve got a statement ring in a novel location.
But that all also means that, if you’re the kind of guy who leans into statement-making, a thumb ring is an easy way to stand out. To avoid looking like you own an ‘import-export’ business, keep the rest of your hand fairly clear; a pinky plus a thumb ring gives a decent amount of separation.
Like any accessory, less is often more with rings. Overload your hands and the individual elements become tricky to discern. “You should balance your jewellery,” says Walsh. “If you have a wedding band and watch on one hand, then one or two rings would work nicely on the other hand, for example.”
As with your clothes, fit matters. Tiny rings on pianist fingers can feel out of place, much as skinny jeans can look indecent on bodybuuilder thighs. “The scale of jewellery is important to bear in mind,” says Graham. “Don’t wear rings that are the wrong size for your body shape. A big ring can look good on a guy with large hands but uncomfortable if you have small fingers.”
Traditionally, clashing metals signified a lack of care – all your jewellery should be either gold, or silver, but never both. But in a world where you can wear joggers with a blazer, pairing a steel watch with a gold ring isn’t the faux pas it once was. Although it’s still best when you make it look deliberate.
“When done right it can add a more stylised aesthetic to the overall look,” says Saiger. It’s particularly effective when you mix your metals in a single piece; wear something like Miansai’s Fusion ring and you’ve got carte blanche to add more rings in either metal. “We were able to take 90 per cent silver and 10 per cent gold and use this process of mechanically bonding it together through a machine to achieve this look.” As well as your style, it’s also good for your pocket.
Rappers can rock the dripping-in-bling look because they don’t have to wear suits to work. “If you do, then a giant, statement ring won’t work,” says Graham. “Look for something more subtle.” You can always leave the 3D stuff for the weekend, but if you want to make rings a signature, go for a simpler form of personality.
“Choose something that’s timeless, but nothing overly designed or intricate, unless it’s a piece you see yourself wearing everyday,” says Saiger. “Rings are something that I find people like to put on and never take off, so for this reason I would suggest going with something more understated.”
Any style statement looks best when you own it. “When a man wears jewellery he doesn’t feel comfortable in, that shows,” says Saiger. Rings can feel odd at first, a physical weight that makes you more self-conscious. So try before you buy and only go for something you feel confident you can pull off. And if that means starting out with something that’s barely there, so be it. “Personally, I like my rings at two millimetres, which is the same as my wedding band,” says Saiger.
Though common today, until the Second World War, only wives wore wedding rings. This was less about romance, more the patriarchy; it proved her kids were legitimate and that she had a man to look after her. During the war they were forged for men from non-precious metals, as a reminder of who soldiers overseas were fighting for. But they didn’t catch on as jewellery until the 1960s.
This shift was fuelled half by the rise of European style – Italian men have never been as squeamish about jewellery – but also second-wave feminism, which tried to put both partners in a marriage on an equal footing. “A wedding ring tends to be a clean, simple band,” says Walsh. “It’s an expression of commitment.” Designs tend to be inward- rather than outward-facing: an engraving against the skin is always more personal than a giant jewel.
The OG men’s ring, the signet was first worn by the Ancient Egyptians, who used them to stamp official documents. In Britain, they were engraved with a back-to-front family crest; when sealing a letter with wax, you’d deboss it with your signet to prove it actually came from you.
They were traditionally family heirlooms and signified plush roots – you had to have a coat of arms to actually engrave on your signet – but by the 19th century, new money types could buy their own heraldry. The signet lost some of its cache.
These days, they’re still handed down within families, but also come with all manner of designs; Gianni Versace wore one bearing his label’s Medusa head. “They’ve usually got a flat face, to accommodate engraving,” says Walsh, and then to be chunkier and more eye-catching than a wedding band.
There are other rings that men wear for tradition, not aesthetics, but they’re rare. Which means most everything else is lumped in as ‘fashion’ – a ring you wear just because you like the look, not because tradition says you should. These can range from designer bling to something with a story that you picked up from a car boot sale. “It’s an expression of your character,” says Walsh. “You can wear them on any finger, alone or in multiples.”
That gives more leeway for esoteric choices. “Ask yourself whether it’s for a lifetime, or for a moment,” says Walsh. The answer, as with anything you wear, will inform how much to invest. “Take advice [on the style] if you like, but also go with your gut. If you instinctively like it, you’ll wear it well.”
Jocks & Nerds deputy editor Tom Banham is an outerwear addict with bylines in GQ, Men's Healthand Mr Porter.
He's fascinated by the collision of high fashion and streetwear, but also knows his way around a soft-shouldered blazer. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter at @banham_tom