There is nothing I love more than an antique store hidden away from the world with wooden floors, dust covered shelves and rooms and rooms in which to get lost. I’ve spent years of my short life wandering around them and make it a point to visit at least one whenever I travel so as to see the true history of the place.
As with any routine one has fallen into, I have a specific attack in mind when entering the antique store. First, the jewelry displays, then the clothes if there are any, then books, then the paintings and finally the trinkets, baubles and do-dads.
In the Renaissance, people displayed their valuables – everything from unique curiosities like pressed plants or taxidermy to historical paintings and famous prints to jewelry and heirlooms. Some were open to the public and almost every household had their own – rich or poor. These were the Cabinet of Wonders or Wunderkammer.
Cabinet is really a misnomer, because sometimes, it wasn’t a cabinet at all, but an entire room.
These little precursors to the modern museum remind me of the shops I love. Every shelf, every cupboard, every rack and sometimes every inch of the wall is covered with beautiful and mysterious things. Only, with these museums, you get to take home the pieces you like best.
For some reason, maybe the magpie reflex, I am inextricably drawn to the jewelry displays. Some of the best shops have one in every room. It’s so easy to get lost and drawn in.
It looks like a pirate’s bounty all heaped up together, golden chains dangling from stands, rings with sparkling gemstones piled into bowls, rhinestone and costume jewelry glittering violently. The messier the pile, the better; it means the best pieces may have been overlooked by previous shoppers.
And of all the jewelry in the pile, I am always drawn to the rings. Not because it’s what I wear the most, but because I’m looking for love, for thanks, for happiness, for a story. I’m looking for an engraving.
Engraved rings, once referred to as posey rings or poesy rings, carried hidden messages.
It’s like sitting in a field of clovers and finally finding one with the extra leaf, that one extra thing that pushes the piece into the realm of the extraordinary.
I’ve read messages from ghosts. I’ve been present at marriage proposals. I’ve smiled at the birth of someone I will never know. And I’ve read stories in one entire sentence.
The fewer the words, the deeper the tale.
And the type of jewelry tells the story too. Wedding rings are obvious, and generally not piled in amongst the others – value you know. But sometimes you’ll find one that’s been over looked. There are birthstone rings and plain rings and signet rings. So far, there isn’t any one kind I haven’t found with an engraving.
The last time I was in New Orleans, about six months ago, I found a plain gold band, all scuffed up and loved at Anette’s of Rue Royal inside a massive jewelry cabinet. It read, “Parted Though Together.”
I wondered what the story behind the engraving could be. I began making up my own. Were the two torn apart by war? Perhaps they were young lovers forced apart by circumstance like forced marriage, the color of their skin or status. Maybe he was a sailor or off for long periods of time and gave the ring as a reminder of his devotion. The latter is, of course, my preferred selection. A thousand stories whirled through my head.
Did they stay in touch? Were they reunited?
As I walked through the picturesque streets, I couldn’t stop thinking about that ring. I didn’t buy it. I should have bought it. But it doesn’t matter as I am sure the ring and its message served more purpose than most jewelry ever does. It carried meaning – it carries meaning.
Another I found once in a rural shop (the best kind) in Pennsylvania, was engraved with, “Feed the Animals.” The engraving was on the outside of the ring as opposed to the inside where most are found. Maybe it was a loving reminder to an absentminded child. Regardless, I imagined it a lot easier to do the arduous task with such a pretty thing on the finger.
Locally, I found a gorgeous opal and topaz cocktail ring engraved with, “Squishy, Squishy.” It was probably from the 1920s or so and immediately it made me laugh. Interesting, I thought, but most like affectionate too. It also made me think about conceptions of time periods. People always seemed so stiff, so proper back then, but this engraving had more character than most I had seen. I may not have known the inside joke shared by the giver, receiver and the ring, but it was hard not to smile.
These messages, these engravings, convey all that is good about human emotion: Love, laughter, and longing. That is why, when I see dirty windows screening dimly lit treasures and a wrought iron sign that reads, “Antiques,” I can’t help but push open the squeaky door, leave my time – my world – my life, and breath in the past.
Engraved jewelry, books with inscriptions, vintage clothes and dark shops are my Wunderkammer. They are my Cabinet of Wonders and Curiosities.
Today, I love to engrave jewelry – whether it’s just for me or if I am giving it as a gift. I engrave the traditional sweet and tender things, but also inside jokes and odd phrases. Each time I do, I think…who will find this someday? Will they laugh? Will they smile?
Will they make up a story?