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The History of Engagement Rings

When we get a piece of jewelry, we naturally focus on our own reason for the acquisition. Is it a birthday or anniversary? A gift to self after a tough slog at work? We rarely think about the fact that we are part of a long line of humans who have been wearing and cherishing jewelry for millennia. This is particularly true of our wedding jewelry which is so dominated by diamonds: big, sparkly diamonds surrounded by more diamonds. We assume that betrothal jewelry was always a symbol of love, which it most definitely was NOT.

Rings as tokens of love originated in Ancient Egypt with gold in a starring role. According to GIA, “It was the Egyptian pharaohs who first used rings to represent eternity. That’s because a circle has no beginning and no end and reflects the shape of the sun and the moon, which the Egyptians worshipped. The Egyptians also thought that the open space in the middle of a ring represented a gateway to the unknown. The Egyptian ouroboros (oor-uh-boor-ros) rings portrayed a serpent swallowing its tail, representing the eternal cycle of things. The ouroboros is one of the oldest symbols in the world, and its name means “tail devourer” in Greek."

Snake Ring

Rings, as tokens of household commitment began in ancient Rome. around 100 BCE. A marriage contract was akin to a business contract: “Aurelius hands over control of his household to Octavia…” Essentially, the "ownership" of the woman passed from her father to her husband. This ring shown in this photo was a rather ornate version of a typical iron band. It looks like a key, meant to give the wearer the key to her husband’s home. The use of iron symbolizes strength and permanence.

Roman Key Ring

Her friends Claudia and Augusta wore iron bracelets (which feel a bit hand-cuffish to me but…)

It took about 100 years for women to get sick of wearing only iron, which rusts, is rough, and otherwise is no fun at all. Moving along to the 2nd century, betrothal was not legally binding although marriages had to be granted the right of “connubium” meaning a couple could live together if either one was not already married, a eunuch, or not related by blood. It was simply a vow of “present consent.” But now, Octavia got an iron ring to wear at home and a gold ring or bracelet for public outings to symbolize wealth.

At some point in Roman culture, it was law that a woman should receive both an engagement ring AND a wedding ring, so we can thank them for our present day delight in two rings.

The 4th century gives us simple gold betrothal bands with engraving inside. Still, the engravings were not private declarations of love but an affirmation of his trust in the woman to make a home. Note that we still use interior engraving but now, it is a symbol of love.

Roman Engraved Ring

In the 5th century Rome, the betrothal ring was actually handled by a priest, who touched it to three fingers of the bride reciting “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” and put it on the fourth finger of the left hand. At that time, Romans mistakenly believed the “Venus Amoris” or “vein of love” leading straight to the heart existed in what we call the “ring finger” now.

Pope Nicholas decreed that the ring stated a “man’s intent to marry.” It seems that the concept of intention and commitment originated more formally within the Roman Catholic Church. Apparently, many women who received betrothal “token hoops” were later left by the side of the road. This resulted in ruining a woman’s life, as she was thought to be rejected and then permanently shamed. The Church saw this happening and decided to do something about it. Gold was the material of choice although it was not uncommon for the man to wear the gold version and women to wear the silver.

In the 7th century engagement rings were so large that they were worn on the thumb.

Stay tuned for another installment of Engagement Rings and Tokens Through History

 

Chain Chain Chain

Chain on a rock

In a jewelry wardrobe, good chains are a must. They add texture, style, and security to treasured pendants. As necklaces or bracelets, a richly woven or hand-crafted chain is a stand-alone statement. Layers of thinner chains delight the eye with multiple textures or colors. I’m a chain addict from way back.

Chains can be twisted, woven, worn across the chest, or backwards. They can hold brooches and rings, multiple pendants, pearls, charms, lockets, amulets, urns, vases, and loosely wrapped bits of coral or shell that you found on the most beautiful beach you ever saw. And let’s not forget our wrists. Vintage bracelets, tin-cup pearls or beads, or gorgeous wire links make beautiful, easy to wear statements that we can enjoy because we wear them where we can see them.

Happily for us, my office colleague of over 15 years is an expert chain maker. He has made chains for so many of you and they are things of enduring beauty. When you and I make new pendants together, I always know which chain you already have so we can make it slide onto that chain. It’s a practical investment because you buy it once and it’s beautiful forever. He also does chain repairs on your existing treasures.

Here are some photos of chains my clients love that we can make in the shop. There are also places to buy chains we don’t make, so that’s always an option. My other favorite chain dealers make theirs in Germany and Italy and I’ve bought many from them over time.

Chain Bumbles

ChainBlog SamArrray web

ChainBlogSamKnotI web

ChainBlogSamSilk web

Clasps: Secure or Fragile?

bracelet clasp

If you are a bracelet girl like me, you want to wear all of them all the time. Over many years, I’ve made and repaired so many bracelets I can’t even count them. The single biggest weak spot on any bracelet is the clasp, as you might figure, so I thought I’d write about the different kinds, their benefits and pitfalls, so you could check (and secure) your stash or bring them to me for checking and repair. Some wear out over time and may cause loss.

BoxClasp1

Box clasps create seamless continuity around a bracelet because we can apply stones, filigree, and texturing that is meant to disguise the closure. A box clasp at its simplest is just that: a box built with a slot that receives the “tongue” which slides in and snaps in place. Box clasps are great because they don’t disrupt our design.

Spring1 Clasp2

You can see the underside mechanism, as well as two side locks. These locks are really important extra security measures.  One disadvantage with box clasps is that since they respond to pressure, we sometimes inadvertently press down on the clasp during wear and it will pop open. The little side locks can save us from losing the bracelet. But even these little locks need to be examined and re-shaped after a long time of wear and tear. A second thing to watch out for in a box clasp is the wearing down of the tongue. Years of wear can remove the spring tension and decrease the thickness of the metal, thus loosening the bonding power of the two pieces. Many times, we can repair these.

Lobster and Spring Ring Clasps

Although not as beautiful as box clasps, my personal favorite clasp for security are lobsters and spring rings because they don’t open under inadvertent pressure or yanking. We can make them beautiful by adding stones, and changing their shape without changing their functionality. I think they last the longest of any clasp and are most secure. But even these clasps need attention: sometimes the closure needs tightening or the spring ring needs a new spring. But I’ve had less slippage and many fewer repairs for clients who have these clasps.

  Spring2

Toggle Clasps

Toggle1 Toggle2

Toggles are probably the oldest form of clasp. They certainly are the simplest. Toggles can be highly decorative, so they bridge the gap between box clasps and lobsters. Toggles can be heavily decorated, and the bar can be used as a charm or they can be very simple. The key to making toggles are the measurements of the opening and the bar. The bar must be generously long to stay put without being so long that it won’t pass completely into the opening. Needless to say, toggles can unclasp and the piece can fall off during wear because they are a relatively loose structure. But there are ways to create a toggle that is more secure than average. We’ve done is a few times in the studio, although, regrettably, I don’t have any photos.

 

The Treasure from Sutton Hoo

Sutton Hoo Helmet

We recently watched a Netflix film called “The Dig” because I love archaeology and we both love Ralph Fiennes, who stars as a local “amateur” excavator who unearths one of the most exciting finds ever in Britain: the boat and gold “hoard” under a burial mound on an estate in Suffolk. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch.

The owner of the land, Edith Pretty, hired Basil Brown, the “amateur” to dig into the mounds on her land. She and her deceased husband originally bought the land because of the presence of the mounds and her intuition that something important was buried there. Edith was a lifelong archaeology fan, too and daughter of an archaeologist. She had travelled to Egypt and visitied the tombs, so she had good reason for her intuition.

What the film doesn’t say is that the British Museum ended up excavating all three mounds on her property and found many gorgeous articles that were made by expert metalsmiths. Edith donated her findings to the British Museum in 1939, which hid the stash in the London Underground during WWll. She died shortly thereafter, in 1942, leaving a young son. The archaelogists believe that this boat was a grave, likely for an Anglo-Saxon king although no one knows his identity.

But this site was indeed a burial mound with the indentation of a body in the soil, although the body has long since gone. According to the British Museum,” The mourners at Sutton Hoo chose and arranged the grave goods around the burial chamber in a meaningful way to transmit messages about the dead person's identity and status in society – as a mighty leader, wealthy, generous, connected with the wider world and the glorious Roman past.”

Here are some fabulous examples of the finding at Sutton Hoo.

Sutton Hoo Purse

This is the lid of a purse. The purse fabric had deteriorated but the gold coins found inside where still there, as was this magnificent lid, made of whalebone (very rare at this time), cloisonne enamel, garnet, and millefiori glass inlay. No one knows exactly where this was made, although there is continuity from Nordic themes of fierce beasts and men which may signify courage and bravery.

Another stunning find is this belt buckle, made using casting, hand fabrication, gold, and niello. The knot-like pattern suggests Celtic roots.

Sutton Hoo Belt Buckle

Finally, some of the most moving pieces tin this find are the helmets, which look so much like a portrait. You can almost see the person behind the mask. The British Museum rebuilt this mask from fragments, but it haunts me. This helmet, and many of the others, has a mustache.

Sutton Hoo Helmet

Cookie Monster’s Gem Debut

Agate Gemstones that looks like the Cookie Monster

Jewelry is a serious business because we deal with high value, very personal merchandise. But sometimes, nature makes us laugh.  Herewith, a natural agate geode, which when split, revealed Cookie Monster, who is apparently thousands of years old although his fur is only 47 years old. Someone offered $10,000 for this geode, which under normal circumstances, might cost around $150. Gotta love it.

Tutti Frutti

Tutti Frutti Cuff

In the years following World War I, the use of airplanes for commercial travel opened up the frontiers of the jewelry world. Famous makers like Louis-Francois Cartier and Frederic Boucheron realized they could reach far-flung destinations like India. Through his purchases of thousands of semi-precious and precious colored stones from India, Cartier allowed designers free rein with color. 

This was also a time when people hungered for bright, happy lives. The tragedy of WWI and the Spanish Flu that followed were the impetus for the Roaring 20s and the embrace of sparkle and color in clothing and jewelry.

Cartier's Tutti Frutti collection burst onto the jewelry scene as an expression of joy after the dark war years. This reminds me that during and after every dark time in history, we still treasure jewelry as a token of affection, comfort, and generational history. I hope you are wearing your pieces even with your athletic gear and pj's to get delight and remind you that better times will come.

TuttiFrutti Necklace

Taking Stock

Spinel and Sapphire Pendant

It's been a challenging year for all of us on so many levels that sometimes I find myself without words. However, I'm hearing from many of you and I know from my own life that we have all found creative ways to manage, new interests, and, for many, a clarification of what is most important.

You've told me that your sustaining concerns are family, friends, supporting our favorite causes, becoming informed citizens, nourishing ourselves with good food, good movies, and lots of Zooming. You are supporting medical groups, the arts, the hungry, and healthy politics. You are community leaders and good, solid people. Luckily for me, you still want beautiful jewelry.

I am lucky to know all of you and to share life stories with so many . I am grateful beyond measure for 22 years in this crazy business. It is a global business allowing me to buy and sell from the farthest reaches. Over time, I've learned that people everywhere are the same. Good, solid, loving, hard-working, scared and confused sometimes and everyone loves a good laugh.

So thank you all. I'm blessed to have you as clients and friends and wish you safety, health, and brighter days ahead.

The pendant below is part of a classic, halo series I've been producing this year. I combine great colors with a classic design and my clients love them. Each one is one of a kind. They look great with a black tee or with your workout clothes and serve as a kind of anchoring piece, or so I'm told. Don't forget those layers, too!

Shown here, a Burmese gray spinel surrounded by blue sapphires and white diamonds. If you have a stone for me to set up, let me know. Otherwise, I have lots of choices in house or can get anything you like from one of those global dealers I just mentioned.

Spinel and Sapphire Pendant

spinel pendant

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