Thursday, April 26, 2018

Jeweled History: A Creative Writing Series - Victorian Era Amethyst & Persian Turquoise Ring

As was typical for a Monday morning, Em found herself rushing to get to the bookstore on time.  The Fisherman's Wharf stop on the E trolley line, Readers Bookstore was only a few blocks from the stop but it always seemed much longer than that - at least when she was running late.  Em loved her adopted home town.  San Francisco was so different from the small, conservative ranching town where she grew up.  It was a place where her talent for finding valuable, antique texts was something to be appreciated.  

She smiled as the trolley jolted to a stop.  One of a only a few passengers left on the late morning commute to Embarcadero Center, she quickly jumped off the trolley and took a quick step towards the sidewalk when she heard, and felt, the crunch of paper-covered metal under her foot.  Em looked down to see what looked like a bit of antique paper wadded under her shoe.  Strange.  She bent down and picked up the scrap of paper.


She carefully un-crumpled the bit of paper as a gold ring fell into her palm.  The small ring looked old.  As a lover of all things vintage, Em felt a bolt of excitement run through her body.  She looked around.  Seeing no one but oncoming traffic, she hurried to sidewalk where she could examine the bit of paper and ring more closely without the life-threatening taxi drivers that hurled down Lombard Street.


The gold of the ring had a bit of a rosy coloring, even in the bright California sunlight.

The ring itself appeared to be quite old with a bit of damage to the under carriage.  The ring had a good-size round amethyst surrounded by a halo of prong-set turquoise cabochons.  Em was book expert and therefore, promptly turned her attention to the yellowed paper in her hand.  Although obviously not as old as the ring, it appeared to be a thicker paper than is commonly used by most for note taking and the like.  It had a parchment-like feel to it, Em thought as she gently rolled it between her fingertips.  She then turned her attention to the writing on the paper.  It appeared to be a handwritten, bulleted list written a beautiful cursive script.  


“Well, this had to have been written by someone older.  No one nowadays even seems to know how to write in cursive – at least not legibly,” Em mused.


The list seemed to describe the characteristics of the ring which it had been carefully wrapped around:



  • Amethyst
  • Persian? turquoise halo
  • 15kt rosy-yellow gold
  • Victorian?
  • No obvious hallmarks
  • Slight damage to undercarriage
  • Potential provenance?


Again, Em looked around.  Still, there was no indication of who could have dropped the interesting and colorful ring.  No one had gotten off the trolley with her that she could remember and thus far, no one had come running back to her location in search of anything which they may have lost.  Em stood staring about her when the typical San Franciscan morning sprinkles began.  The thought hit her, “This hasn’t been here more than a day or the paper would have shown signs of having been wet at some point.”



An unusual ring - the rosy gold paired with the large, center amethyst & surrounding  turquoise halo
in conjunction with the prong style & pierced undercarriage lend the ring to the Victorian era.

About that time, Em’s phone chirped.  It was text message from the store asking if she was on her way.  She quickly put the bit of paper and ring in her pocket and sprinted the last block to the bookstore.


As the hours passed and she caught up from the pile of work that seemed to build up regardless of the weekend, her mind wandered back to the unusual ring still in her coat pocket.  Finally, curiosity got the better of her.  She pulled the ring and paper out and retrieved the small magnifier she kept in her bag so that she could examine the ring more closely.  Whomever the author of the note, they were correct.  There were no discernible markings or engravings on the ring.  The turquoise cabochons all appeared to have differing tones of blue.  A few even had a greenish hue to them.  This puzzled Em.  But then again, so did the whole “story” of this ring.  And, Em had always loved a good puzzle!


Em reached for her laptop to see what else she might be able to discover.  In her cursory internet search, she learned that natural turquoise was a porous stone – absorbing any moisture it may encounter thereby explaining its differing rates of color change.  The pairing of the amethyst with the turquoise was an unusual combination from what she could tell.  Em also discovered that the Victorians had a love for the exotic - much like during the Art Deco period there was an underlying current of fascination with all thing Egyptian which led to the creation of the of jewelry movement known as ‘Egyptian Revival.’  



Trace elements of copper within the turquoise themselves age when moisture is absorbed by the stone
itself.  In older turquoise pieces which have seen a great deal of wear or exposure to moisture, the aging
process of 
the copper molecules give turquoise varying hues of blue to blue-green.

After searching the web for another hour, Em decided that she need expert assistance in her quest to learn more about the unusual ring.  She went to the de Young Museum website and searched for any sign of jewelry expertise.  She soon found the name “Dresden.”  Jonathan Dresden was the curator of the Art of Bulgari, La Doce Vita and Beyond and the museum was currently having a special display of jewels from Bulgari.  Em picked up the phone.


Five hours later, Em found herself in the posh restaurant, Sens, near Embarcadero Center.  As she fidgeted in her seating she couldn’t help but feel underdressed, “I should have run home and changed first,” she thought.  Before her mind could wander to alternative outfit options, a man dressed in tattered blue jeans with a neatly pressed and starched button-down paired with a brightly colored tie sat down across from her with the announcement, “Hi!  I’m Jon Dresden.  You must be Em?”  


The next thing Em heard was the thud of his leather messenger bag as it hit the floor next to her chair.  



"Jon Dresden"

“Yes, it’s nice to meet you,” she said as she stretched her hand across the table.


Dresden shook her hand, “So the message you left my assistant said that you have a bit of a mystery ring on your hands?”


Em shook her head and reached into her coat pocket to retrieve the bit of paper and ring that she had stashed there in her rush to leave the bookstore.  Dresden shook his head, “Do you mind if I order first?  I’m famished!”


The waiter approached and without asking if she was ready, Dresden spouted off his order before looking at Em again.  Em ordered a feta and grape salad topped with shaved steak.  


“Oh, thank God,” Dresden said.  “I was worried you weren’t going to order anything and I hate to eat alone.  Now, let’s see this ring of yours!”



Each rounded cabochon turquoise is individually prong-set in the halo.  The minutely varied distances between
each turquoise piece give credence to the fact that this ring was handmade.  Additionally, if you look
closely at the undercarriage, you can see small differences in the shape & angles of the pierced triangles.

As the evening progressed, Em felt herself becoming more relaxed and intrigued by the man across from her.  He had an obvious passion for the subject matter and confirmed everything which she had already known from the bit of paper.  What he couldn’t tell her was where it came from and what its history was.  As a rare book expert, Em knew an exquisite find when she found one and she just felt that this was one of those times!


“Do you mind if I take this back to the museum with me and see if I can do a little more research on it,” Dresden asked?  “I have a feeling there is more to this little ring than meets the eye.”


Em felt the familiar race of electricity course through her body when she felt like she was just about to get her hands on that rare book she had been searching for.  Dresden wanted to examine the ring further.  That must mean there is more to it than meets the eye!


“Of course, let me give you my cell number so that update on what you find out,” she said.



The de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park.

They exchanged numbers, Em picked up the check and hurried home.  Her excitement was palatable.  Even though it was late, she knew she would never be able to fall asleep.  She was just too excited…and too curious!


A week went by before Em heard from Dresden.  Honestly, it had been all she could do not to call him herself!  The curiosity was starting to get the better of her when her phone rang.  Dresden wanted to set another time for them to meet so he could catch her up on what he had learned over the past 6 days.


This time, their “date” was someplace Em felt much more comfortable it was a little café not far from the bookstore called Café Franco.  Dresden had said he felt compelled to see where she had found the ring.  They met at the trolley stop and she once again recounted the story of how the ring came into her possession.  As they walked toward the café, she pointed out exactly where she had stepped on it and what her subsequent moves had been.



Em sat in the far corner of Cafe Franco's outdoor patio.

As they sat down at a small bistro table in the café window, Em looked at Dresden and said, “So tell what you found out!” as she held her hand out for the ring.  He fished the ring out of his messenger back and deposited in her palm as his story started.


“Have you ever heard of Barbara Hutton?” he began.  Em shook her head in the negative as he recounted the story of the Woolworth heiress.



Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth's Heir, died at the age of 66.

Barbara Hutton was the granddaughter of entrepreneur Frank Winfield Woolworth.  Woolworth was the American businessman who was the founder of the F.W. Woolworth Company in 1878.  Woolworth as a series of dimestores which pioneered the art of merchandising, direct purchasing, sales and customer services practices which are still considered commonplace.  Woolworth had three daughters.  Edna Woolworth was the youngest and Barbara Hutton’s mother.  Edna committed suicide when Barbara was four or five years old.  Her father, Franklyn Hutton was the co-founder of E.F. Hutton & Company and was absent much of her life.  She was passed around from family member to family member and was raised by a governess.  In 1924, Barbara’s grandmother passed away leaving her more than $26 million in a trust fund.  Even though her father was not a consistent figure in her life, he administered her trust fund and by the time of her 21st birthday in 1933, had increased its value to about $42 million.  



Frank Winfield Woolworth

Dresden continued, “As a result of the instability in her family life, it is suspected that Barbara was always seeking out confirmation from those around her – which explains why she was divorced seven times.  She married several Princes, a Count, a Baron and even Cary Grant at one point!”


Although the story of the “poor little rich girl” was fascinating, Em was wondering how any of this related to the ring.


“This is really fascinating but what does this Barbara woman have to do with this little ring,” Barbara asked as she took a bite out of her sandwich.


“Well,” Dresden said with a smile, “Barbara was quite the collector of jewelry and even though she was on the verge of bankruptcy when she died in 1979, she still had a large collection of jewels in her estate.  That having been said, no one is exactly certain how many or what jewels she had in her collection.  There are no records and the estate was never liquidated or auctioned after her passing.  However, we do know that she never wanted for anything and lived in various parts of the world and had a well-known passion for oriental-style jewelry.  Common lore is that Barbara received a ring from her mother as a child – an amethyst and turquoise ring.”



Barbara Hutton as child with her mother, Edna.

It suddenly hit Em.  Dresden was trying to hint that this ring might be the same one which Barbara Hutton had received from her mother before she committed suicide.  That would explain her fascination and love for jewelry, Em thought.  It was her only familial connection in a lot of ways.


Em looked at Dresden a bit dumbfounded.  “Are you trying to say that this ring, is THAT ring?”


Dresden pointed to a black and white photo of a small girl and handed Em a magnifier.  “Here, see in this photo the ring on her hand?  It looks just like the ring you found!  This is one of the few photos of Barbara as a child after her mother died.”  Dresden was excited.  “I think you have the ring that Barbara’s mother gave to her as a child.  It was said to be an unusual amethyst and turquoise halo ring that Barbara’s mother had custom made.  Even though it was relatively small and nondescript compared to her other jewels, it was one of Barbara’s most prized possessions.”



"Barbara Hutton" as a child.

“But why would it be on the ground in San Francisco?” Em asked, surprised.


“The last anyone knows,” Dresden started, “the ring was last known to be with Barbara when she was living Morocco.  Tangier – I think it was.  It was rumored that a few of her pieces were auctioned off after her passing to private collectors.  Although the auctions were anonymous, it is common knowledge in my world who the key players are when it comes to famous private jewels.  In the late 1980s, one those players was a Saudi Prince.  It is thought that he purchased some of Barbara’s jewels but no one truly knows which ones.”



Although, more than likely American-made, the ring has a very distinctive "Persian" feel because of
its color palette & design details - typical of the Victorian fascination with all things exotic (& Persian!).

Em drank the last bit of her soda and sat back in her chair – completely stunned by the story unfolding in front of her.  She looked down at the small ring, turning it over in between her fingers.


“In 1989, a Thai housekeeper of the Saudi Prince Faisal stole 200 pounds of jewelry from the Prince’s room and got on the first plane back to Thailand where he proceeded to sell off his loot.  The clincher here is that the individuals whom he sold them too didn’t even bother to re-cut the large gems or even remount them!  They wore them as-is.  Obviously, this got back to the Prince who was less than thrilled and Thai law enforcement refused to help in the recovery of the stolen jewels,” Dresden was getting more and more animated as he recounted the story of the jewel theft.  “Eventually, the Prince sent an ‘enforcer’ to Bangkok to retrieve his property.  Once the wife and son of a wealthy Thai jeweler were murdered, those in possession of the stolen jewels began turning them in to Thai law enforcement.  But even law enforcement wasn’t above pulling a few tricks.  They returned what jewelry they had been able to collect to the Prince but replaced the gemstones with fakes!”


Dresden chuckled out loud, “Obviously relations between Saudi Arabia and Thailand haven’t been the since.  Moreover, not every one of the stolen pieces was recovered.  I believe that your ring is one of those missing pieces!”


Em couldn’t believe it.  “But how?”


“There is a very active black market for stolen jewels throughout the world.  It’s not unfathomable that your piece was passed around that market,” Dresden explained.


"Barbara Hutton's Ring" - Other than the era & 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 fantasizing about what the story of the piece
might be.  This is my attempt to create a fictional history for this stunning & unusual piece.

Additionally, some of the historical & present-day details such as historical figures, roadways, city names & the narrative 

about the Saudi jewelry heist & subsequent Thai involvement are completely accurate.  The surrounding fictional narrative is my attempt to create a context & an explanation for the ring itself - including its lack of hallmarks, provenance, etc.



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