Men's Rings and Their Place In Style History
Historically a sign of power or affiliation to an important group, men’s rings have also at times been perceived as either effeminate or associated with hoodlums. But for Yves Gastou, a respected Parisian antiquarian specializing in 20th-century modern design, they are sensual objects, which can also be almost erotic, and very symbolic.
“Up until the 1930s, men were often seen wearing jewellery like pocket watches with big gold chains, embellished pins, finger rings; it’s really after WWII that rings became associated with thugs, bikers with their skull rings, hippies with stones brought back from India, and of course homosexuals. But since the ‘90s it has become chic again to wear jewels, even if I think it still takes courage, to wear those and be as you want to be,” Gastou says.
Ever since he was young, growing up near Carcassonne, a fortified medieval citadel in the French Languedoc region, Gastou has been passionate about men’s jewellery, and in particular rings. Influenced by the medieval atmosphere of the town and its surroundings, he says he spent much of his childhood thinking about knights and crusaders, fascinated by the tales behind their coats of arms. He was also transfixed by the pomp of the traditional Catholic mass he attended every Sunday.
“I grew up completely fascinated by the paintings of Francois I and other noblemen wearing jewels and also the bishops and cardinals wearing those enormous rings with magnificent citrines and giant amethysts,” Gastou says, recalling how he once went back several times to kiss the bishop’s ring just because it was so beautiful.
He received his first ring, a small silver signet when he was 8 or 9 years old, and this lifelong passion with rings has led im to collect around a thousand rings, now the subject of a book, Men's Rings published by Albin Michel, and an exhibition at Van Cleef and Arpels’ L’École, School of Jewellery Arts in Paris, which ran until November 30, 2018.
Gastou’s collection of rings covers a broad range from high jewellery pieces to what might be considered rather cheap or kitsch pieces – think mickey mouse rings and other cartoon characters - making it a true testament to the history of the male adornment and its stylistic evolution including associations with belonging to a fraternity, be it the Franc masons’ guild or a hell-raising biker gang.
Men's jewellery has long been a sign of aristocratic discernment. However, passing a ring to the next generation, like a family heirloom, only started in the 19th century – previously rings were considered such a personal object that they were often buried with their owner or destroyed.
Signet rings Gastou would have seen as a child depicted in paintings and tapestries were considered a practical instrument to validate important documents and letters. Traditionally worn on the little finger, it could be conveniently dipped into wax to seal important documents and letters. The ring would sport initials or other distinguishing symbols and later often included a family crest that was usually engraved in reverse on the flat bezel. Though decoration goes back much further than the middle ages, some of the oldest rings found in Mesopotamia and Egypt have scarabs and hieroglyphs on them.
Over the century, the design of men’s rings became more elaborate, incorporating precious stones, to signal the power and social standing of its owner. Roman Catholic leaders embraced the ring’s symbolic power with the episcopal ring, worn on the fourth finger of the right hand, appearing in the 4th century. Bishops’ gold brands are finally chiselled, while Cardinals’ rings can sport huge cabochon diamonds, rubies, amethysts, other semi-precious stones.
Gastou says episcopal rings are nearly impossible to find today, and he has only managed to collect so many — he has around 50 — because he bought a large cache dating from the 1930s to the 1960s from Parisian jeweller Mellerio dits Meller in the 1980s, at a time when collectors were not interested in such objects. These elaborate rings were the last produced before the Vatican decided to return to much simpler designs. One of his prized religious rings sports a miniature enamel painting of St Peter dated from 1866 and painted by Alfred Meyer, who is known for rediscovering old enamelling techniques from Limoges. Another used to belong to the collection of Andre Breton and represents a miniature church with Christ on a cross and other figures on its exterior.
A large part of the collection is devoted to Gothic-aesthetic rings that started appearing in the 19th century with the “memento mori” (remember you are going to die) skull rings, a style that would be embraced a century later by American bikers. Gastou admits one of his all-time favourites is a vanity ring sporting a black diamond in his mouth, created by André Lassen, circa 1970, that he describes as being “very spectacular and important.”
A version of this story first appeared on KEYYES.COM