Class rings are worn to symbolise graduation from high school or college. The tradition of wearing college class rings began at the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1835. Over time, each school developed its own ring designs and ceremonies. Class rings became not only a symbol of achievement and honour, but also a means of personal expression, and an individualised symbol of the university itself and of membership within the alumni community.
The tradition of class rings began at West Point in 1835 when members of the graduating class chose to design and purchase rings symbolising their achievement. West Point institutionalised the tradition a few years later; however, the design of the class rings did not become uniform until about 50 years later. Earlier rings were designed like signet or seal rings, bearing the emblem of the school. Over time, the custom of college class rings became increasingly popular and the rings themselves more customised by the wearer.
When the custom began at West Point, class rings were made of gold. With time and the fluctuating price of gold, companies selling class rings created stainless steel, nickel and chrome rings to maintain sales numbers. Although students at other schools took advantage of the less expensive alternatives to gold class rings, the cadets at West Point did not buy into this change. In fact, West Point recently began a new class ring tradition, the Class Ring Memorial Program. Alumni of the school may give their rings to be melted down and pressed into a gold bar. Shavings from that bar are then used in the new graduating class’ rings.
Some class rings are made like signet rings, a circlet bearing the school’s emblem or seal. Others have stones that students have chosen to match a birth stone or the school’s colours. All class rings typically bear the name or logo of the school on the bezel surrounding the stone. The shank, or band, typically bears the image of the school’s mascot and the graduating class year, and can be personalised with a student’s honour societies and academic, sports, or social organisations. The inner surface of the band bears the student’s name or initials, and at MIT, a campus map.
First and foremost, class rings are souvenirs symbolising the graduation from a college or university and the beginning of a graduate’s new life as an adult. At many schools’ ceremonies, when graduating students receive their rings, a family member or friend may turn the ring on the graduate’s finger to bring him or her luck in the new phase of their life. Class rings also serve as a visible means for alumni to easily identify each other as fellow graduates from a particular college.
Many schools, including West Point, take pride in the size of their class rings. Wearing MIT’s ring, also known as the Brass Rat, makes its alumni easy to spot. The Class of 1975 president William Wang once said there are "three recognisable rings in the world – the Brass Rat, the West Point ring and the Super Bowl ring.” Size also matters because it directly and positively correlates to the expense of the ring.