Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Jeweled History: A Creative Writing Series - Spanish Portrait Mourning Ring

Rosa longingly stared down at her withered hand as she waited on the train platform in the seaside town of Mataró.  She gently massaged her swollen knuckles.  At the age of 64, she had witnessed many of Spain’s greatest historical events.  As she stood waiting for the train on that chilly February morning in 1890, she grew more and more nervous.  The memories came flooding back.  She continued to stare at her hands and soon the train platform faded away.  Her vision began to clear behind the tears and she could almost feel his breath in her ear.


"Ramon"

Ramon was her first love.  Truly, her only love.  They had met at the opera house as teens.  His father was a client of Rosa’s father’s tailor shop in the heart of Barcelona.  He had been so pleased with the latest suit created by her father, Pietro Ruiz, that he had invited the entire family to join him at the opera to hear the famous Spanish soprano, Giuseppina Huguet.   Rosa was 18, an only child and her parents’ pride.


Catalan operatic soprano, Guiseppina Huguet, was born in 1871.

Her father had many powerful patrons like Ramon’s father and insisted that Rosa be well-equipped to fit in to the polite society which congregated at the preeminent tailor’s store.  Shop patrons enjoyed a cigar with a glass of scotch while Pietro deftly chalked their measurements onto bolts of finely woven wool.  His hands flitted about like the wings of a hummingbird.  So light and quick – barely touching the fabric.

Rosa loved the smell of the cigars and imported scotch.  She listened astutely to the politically-charged conversations between the men as she quietly refilled their glasses.  They paid her no mind other than the occasional compliment to Pietro on the green-eyed beauty.  Often joking how fortunate he was that Rosa favored her mother!  She would gently smile and give them a long pour of the imported scotch.


Circa 1870, Bell Epoque era Spanish portrait mourning ring.

But that night, as Rosa and her family walked to their box with Ramon and his family.  She felt herself blush for the first time as Ramon gently kissed her hand when introduced.  The opera house was filled with beautiful ballads and haunting melodies for the next hour.  But Rosa couldn’t hear any of it.  All she heard was the dull thump-thump-therump in her ears of the blood rushing to her cheeks. 

When the night ended, she graciously thanked Ramon’s father for the opportunity to hear such an amazing talent as Madam Huguet.  Ramon smiled and the families parted ways.  Over the next several weeks, Ramon would frequent the shop with his father – always smiling his cheeky grin whenever he would catch Rosa’s eye.  Eventually, he asked if he might call upon her at home and their courtship began.

As the months wore on, Ramon began to spend more time with Rosa and her family than his own.  Before long, he made his intentions known and Rosa became his wife.  As was customary at the time, Ramon became an officer in the Spanish military, quickly making his way up the ranks.  Before long, his reputation had preceded him and the Catalan General Francisco Serrano had requested the services of the captain.


Platinum-topped, 22k yellow gold ring with antique, rose-cut diamond halo.

Spain had become such a political hotbed that Ramon began to fear for Rosa and their infant son’s safety.  Like many in her father-in-law’s political party, Ramon, had begun to have concerns about Queen Isabella’s ability to rule.  Isabella had appointed a reactionary figure, a caudillo leader and the Duke of Valencia, named General Ramón María Narváez, as the governmental president.  Narváez was the leader of the Moderado faction of the government and repressed any opposition to his power.

Shortly after the mutiny by the Spanish naval forces under the command of Admiral Juan Bautista Topete in September 1868, Ramon told Rosa to take their son, Amedeo, and travel by train to Mataró from Barcelona.  He made arrangements with a family friend to take the young mother and son in.  Little did Rosa know that Ramon already had an inkling of the nightmare that was to come….

As preparations were made for the trip over the next couple of days, Rosa saw Ramon grow more and more nervous.   He wrapped her favorite painting so that it could also travel with her, 'Ametllers in Bloom' by Hermen Anglada Camarasa.  Rosa couldn’t understand why he was so instant that the painting travel with them to Mataró.  


'Ametllers in Bloom" by Hermen Anglada Camarasa

“I’ll be back shortly,” she said a bit tentatively, “This isn’t permanent.”

Ramon said nothing.  He only continued to fastidiously wrap the stunning oil painting.

On the day of their departure, Ramon escorted Rosa with Amedeo in her arms, to the Barcelona train station.  They traveled past Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí’s newest endeavor, Casa Batlló, along the cobblestone streets.  Barely a word was spoken - even as they made their way to the assigned platform.


Casa Batlló as it looks in the present day.

As the boarding call began to sound, Ramon reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, blue ring box and presented it to Rosa.  Inside was a gold, platinum-topped ring with an enamel portrait of Ramon surrounded by rose-cut diamonds.  Rosa began to cry.

“Why?!”  She sobbed.  “What are you trying to tell me?”

Done in the classic, Belle Époque mourning style, the ring would have been traditionally crafted upon Ramon’s death – not as he lived.  Let alone be presented to Rosa by Ramon himself.

“I want you to always remember me.  I know not what the future has in store for us.  These are dangerous times.  General Serrano foresees a that this coup will not last long but with something as precious as Amedeo in my life; I could not take the chance that he would grow up not knowing what his father looked like,” Ramon countered.  “Go, enjoy your time in Mataró and God-willing, I will see you both again soon, My Love.”

With that, Ramon kissed Rosa goodbye.


Mourning jewelry became more commonplace in the Victoria era.  Portrait rings, like this one
were painted on ivory or enamel.  Unlike this ring, they often had the person's name, date of birth &
death inside.  This one has a compartment behind the portrait with a bit of hair inside.

Rosa had settled into life in Mataró with her father-in-law’s family friends.  Their son, Juan, took great care show her around the family vineyard.  One of the few in the region which had not been devastated during the recent blight of aphids.  But she still missed Ramon.  It had been months since they had parted and weeks since she had heard from him.  She knew that General Serrano’s company had defeated the Queen’s Moderado forces under the command of General Manuel Pavía.  But she had not heard from Ramon in the weeks since. 

As she and Amedeo sat outside enjoying a rare, warm day, she saw Juan approach with a somber look.  As he grew closer, their eyes met and she knew.  Her heart broke.  Juan caught her just as she collapsed, the telegram fell from his hand to the grass.

Rosa wore black for the next 12 months.  But, eventually, the pain lessened.  Amedeo had grown very attached to Juan and could often be found following him around the vineyard.  Once the appropriate mourning period had passed, Juan and Rosa were married but she never took off the ring that Ramon had given her that morning on the platform.

Suddenly a train whistle pierced the air and Rosa was jolted back to 1890.  She looked once more at her hands.  Ramon’s cheeky portrait still smiled back at her.  Juan put his hand on the small of her back and guided her towards the appropriate train car as he said, “It’s hard to believe that Amedeo is finally getting married.  Are you excited?”

She smiled in response and slowly climbed the train steps.

"Ramon" - Other than the age, origin & design details of this ring, the above written narrative is entirely
a work of fiction.  As a jewelry collector, I often times wonder about the provenance of a piece.
And, when none can be found, I find myself fantasying about what story the piece
might be.  This is my attempt to create a history for this stunning & unusual piece.

Additionally, some of the historical details such as the Spanish soprano, aphids & historical figures are also
completely 
accurate to the time period in which this ring was created.  The surrounding narrative is my attempt
to create a context & an explanation for the ring itself & its lack of engraved date of death.


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