Amulets were worn by men, women and children throughout southern Europe in the 19th century. Before the development of modern medicine, fevers, cramps and toothache could be painful and dangerous. Childbirth could kill mother or child. Many people believed that the supernatural powers embodied in an amulet could promote fertility and good health and offer protection against malign forces or the ‘evil eye’. Although the Catholic Church was opposed to the pagan nature of many amulets, it was powerless to prevent their use.
The stone in this ring is the operculum of the shell of a sea-snail from the Mediterranean. These shells have been worn as amulets in many southern European countries since at least Roman times, and they were also popular in southern Germany and Austria. In Spain, they were known as ‘habas’, meaning beans, and were usually used to guard against headaches. They were often worn set in a silver ring, as in this example. The words on the shank stand for ‘Holy and immortal god’ in Greek, and would have enhanced the protective value of the shell.