Feel free to stand in awe of the cryptocurrency market, because we've never seen anything like it before. In a span of 12 1/2 months, the aggregate value of all digital currencies combined has jumped from $17.7 billion to about $702 billion, as of midday Jan. 15, 2018. This works out to a nearly 3,900% increase in value for cryptocurrencies in just over a year, and it probably represents the single-greatest 12 1/2-month stretch for an asset class in history.

As you've probably guessed, bitcoin gets a lot of the credit for this rally in virtual coins. It was, after all, the very first tradeable digital currency, and it's currently the virtual coin that merchants around the world are most likely to accept. Bitcoin also helped bring blockchain technology into the mainstream -- blockchain being the digital, distributed, and decentralized ledger responsible for logging all transactions without the need for a financial intermediary, like a bank.

A physical silver and gold Ripple coin.

Image source: Getty Images.

Ripple emerges from bitcoin's shadow

But for as good as bitcoin has been, the cryptocurrencies in its rearview mirror have been even better. Ripple, which briefly made a run to almost $150 billion in market cap earlier this month, is one such virtual currency that's dazzled crypto-enthusiasts.

As with many cryptocurrencies, the buzz surrounding Ripple relates to its blockchain. More specifically, Ripple is angling its blockchain at large financial institutions in an effort to correct many perceived flaws with today's banking system. These flaws include extended wait times for the settling of transactions (especially cross-border transactions), high transaction fees since a third party is involved, and even security.

Ripple's blockchain corrects each and every one of these issues. In particular, its network is capable of completing transactions in around three to four seconds, and these transactions cost just fractions of a cent. Perhaps the most attractive aspect of Ripple's blockchain is that cross-border payments, which may have up to a three- to five-day hold with today's banking system, can settle almost instantly.

A man staring at an encrypted blockchain on a digital screen.

Image source: Getty Images.

The top Ripple stocks you should know

Nevertheless, buying into Ripple and its XRP coin means having to trade on decentralized exchanges, which isn't exactly everyone's cup of tea. Thankfully, a handful of stocks are deploying Ripple's technology within their networks in smaller-scale real-world tests. If you want a piece of the Ripple pie through more traditional markets, these are top Ripple stocks you need to know about.

1 and 2. American Express and Banco Santander

The reason financial-services giant American Express (NYSE:AXP) and Spain's Banco Santander (NYSE:SAN) are listed together is that they're part of a partnership that's currently testing Ripple's blockchain in instantly settling cross-border transactions.

The deal, announced in November, will allow U.S. based American Express users to send non-card payments over the AmEx FX International Payment network to U.K. Santander accounts and will process these transactions within Ripple's blockchain. Ripple touts the ability to settle these payments instantly, which would be light-years ahead of the three- to five-day wait time usually seen when banks verify a cross-border payment. If all goes well, Ripple would hope that AmEx and Banco Santander expand their usage of Ripple's blockchain to other parts of the world. 

Of course, investors should keep in mind that for both American Express and Banco Santander, this blockchain test represents a minuscule amount of its everyday business. American Express is entrenched as a credit service provider for affluent consumers and businesses, while Banco Santander makes its home in Spain and other European countries. It'll be great for Ripple if this partnership bears fruit, but if it doesn't, it'll have little bearing for AmEx or Banco Santander.

A person using a smartphone to send money transfers all over the world.

Image source: Getty Images.

3. MoneyGram International

On the other hand, money-transfer service MoneyGram International (NASDAQ:MGI) appears to be more intricately tied at the hip to Ripple than any other stock.

On Jan. 11, Ripple and MoneyGram International announced that they'd entered into a partnership to expedite payment flows by utilizing Ripple's XRP coin. Aside from this on-demand liquidity solution, which Ripple refers to as xRapid, the two will explore MoneyGram's integration into Ripple's ecosystem through xVia, according to MoneyGram's press release. 

The expectation of this partnership is that it'll result in significantly quicker transfer settlement times, and in the process also dramatically lower cross-border transaction costs. Perhaps the only thing unclear here is if this'll mean lower transaction costs for the consumer, or if MoneyGram International is simply going to boost its margins. My guess is it'll be a bit of both, which would allow MoneyGram's lower transaction costs to undercut its primary competitor, Western Union.

The beauty of this deal is that it really allows Ripple to showcase its coin. Imagine someone in the U.S. sending currency in dollars to someone else in Mexico. With this deal, the U.S. dollars will convert almost instantly into XRP coins, and then those coins will be converted into Mexican pesos, once again almost instantly.

If there's a Ripple stock worth eyeing the closest, I'd suggest it's MoneyGram International.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.