Review: Cycles of Life: Rings from the Benjamin Zucker Family Collection

cycle-of-life_coverCycles of Life: Rings from the Benjamin Zucker Family Collection; Sandra Hindman, with Beatriz Chadour-Sampson, Reine Hadjadj, Jack Ogden and Diana Scarisbrick; With an essay by Benjamin Zucker; Paul Holberton Publishing, London; 258 pages, color illustrations; ISBN 9780991517237; $50.00

Cycles of Life: Rings from the Benjamin Zucker Family Collection by jewelry historian Sandra Hindman, celebrates 40 years of collecting by gem dealer Benjamin Zucker. The book is the third in a series of jewelry art history by Hindman published for Les Enluminures, a gallery specializing in manuscripts, miniatures, and jewelry from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Hindman has organized a selection of rings from the Zucker collection, much of which had been on loan to the Walters Art Museum since 1985, according to the talismanic, symbolic and commemorative roles rings have played at birth, marriage, death, in everyday life, and even as a symbol of eternity. These are the sections into which the book is divided.

Although organized by the Cycles of Life, the rings also document the changes in styles through the ages. Hindman describes the causes that were often behind the changes: the discovery of Brazilian diamonds leading to the proliferation of diamonds in rings; the numbers of wars, disease, plagues in the 1600s that led to the commemorative “memento mori” rings. However, it is also intriguing to see the continuity of jewelry design. Many of the pieces would not be out of place in a modern jewelry store: diamond solitaires, with the stones set high and open sides so that light can enter; clusters of small diamonds that give the impression of greater size; trios of diamonds set on the shoulders of rings.

Hindman opens each section with an appropriate illustration from a medieval or Renaissance manuscript. Other illustrations of paintings and illuminations show the way the rings were actually worn in the past. My favorite illustration was that at the beginning of “Everyday Life,” which shows a busy jewelry shop in the Middle Ages, with cloths spread with gems on the counters, and jewelry and vessels displayed on the shelves in the back. Change the clothes, and it could be almost any family-run jewelry store today.

As you would expect, and as Hindman says at the beginning of Cycles of Life, rings in most sections often fit into multiple categories. However, the book is not meant to force rings into immovable categories. Instead it looks at the roles rings have played in human life, the way they have, since the dawn of history, encapsulated our hopes, our desires, our fears.

“Birth” includes rings that offer prayers to Mary and Christ—both virgin births. A spectacular “gimmel”—or twin—ring, with its engraved and enameled interlocking shanks, opens to show a figure of a baby on one half and a skeleton on the other half. As a reminder of the importance of humility, it denotes that the end of life is death, and that all things pass.

“Marriage” includes a broad selection of elaborate Jewish marriage rings—probably only worn during the wedding ceremony. Fascinating “key” rings, indicating that, upon marriage, wives took on the keys to the stores and the responsibility of feeding the household. Most of the rings have been decorated with loving sentiments; Hindman traces the shift from the medieval practice of engraving sentiments on the outside of the ring shanks, in a public display, to the Renaissance practice of engraving them privately inside the rings.

“Everyday Life” illustrates seal rings used for signing documents, rings engraved with crests and coats of arms identifying families, and gemstone rings worn not necessarily for vanity, but to invoke the special power and properties often associated with those stones.

Rings from the Middle Ages in the “Death” section show the well-warranted fears of death in that era. They are inscribed with charms and prayers, and set with stones believed to have magical properties. “Death jewelry,” writes Hindman, “appeared to have enjoyed a vogue” in the late Renaissance. These rings, worn in remembrance of a lost loved one, might today be considered gruesome: decorated with skulls, bones, or containing the hair of a deceased person. Such rings were often set with diamonds, a symbol of eternal life.

Finally, “Eternity” tracks the evolution of the diamond ring, from ancient Rome, almost to the present time. As such, Hindman writes, this section presents “a kind of mini-history of the diamond ring,” following the history of setting and cutting. Known since antiquity for their indestructibility, diamonds quite naturally became a symbol of eternity—hence their eventual use in betrothal and wedding rings. Diamonds represented the enduring nature of a sovereign’s reign as well as, perhaps not inconsequentially, diamond’s purported ability to protect against poisoning. As already mentioned, diamonds in memento mori rings represented the eternal nature of the soul. The final inclusion of perpetual calendar rings seems a bit out of place among so many diamonds, but is appropriate to ring dealing with eternity.

The focus on diamonds in this section acknowledges Benjamin Zucker’s long love affair with diamonds and diamond jewelry, and the important place they hold in his collection.

Cycles of Life is primarily a catalog of an exhibition of the same name at Les Enluminures in New York that ran from October 30 to Dec 6, 2014. Excellent notes on provenance and sources, as well as notes on comparable pieces make this a valuable resource for the specialist. However, it also makes absorbing reading for non-specialists with an interest in jewelry history; the notes and bibliography provide gateways to further study. Comparison pieces show how styles influenced and were influenced by others. Descriptions of shank shape, enameling and setting techniques, manufacturing methods, and metal types are fascinating windows into the superb skills of the jewelers who made these pieces throughout the ages. Notes on gemstones are a reminder of the extent of trade in the ancient world: Garnets from India and emeralds from Egypt appear in ancient Roman rings.

In addition to the breadth of the collection, the quality of the pieces is astonishing. Many are in excellent shape, with gemstones and even enameling in place. Excellent photographs of the pieces, taken from multiple angles, give the reader the ability to examine minute details of each ring, from enameling to engraving, to areas of damage and repair.

In addition to the five sections—Birth, Marriage, Everyday Life, Death, and Eternity–the book includes a preface by Benjamin Zucker outlining his initiation into the world of ancient jewelry as a young man just out of Harvard, through his lifelong habit of collecting. There is also a bibliography of Zucker’s writing, and a separate bibliography of references.

Cycles of Life: Rings from the Benjamin Zucker Family Collection would make a worthwhile addition to the library of anyone interested in jewelry history.

This review first published in Gems & Gemology.


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