Rings topped with hunks of gold-flecked quartz mined during the Gold Rush. Eighteenth century British mourning rings bearings the names and dates of the deceased. The Lone Ranger 6-Shooter ring topped with a jet-black toy revolver. These are but a few of the rarities in Keith Austin’s collection of nearly 10,000 historical rings.
The owner of Austin’s Custom Jewelry & Appraisals in Las Cruces, N.M., has been collecting rings formally “for a few years now,” though he’s dealt in estate pieces for decades, and recently built out a small Ring Museum in his store to showcase his extraordinary cache.
Austin, 66, also operates an antiques business in Albuquerque, N.M., and initially began collecting rings “to tie the antiques and jewelry store together,” he explains. “Rings have so much history, so many different things they represent. If you think of all the things people could wear a ring for—baby rings, school and club rings, marriage, sports associations…. Every thing you can possibly think of has been celebrated or shown with pride with rings.”
A huge turquoise ring in the Native American collection
Rings are showcased by theme, and the museum opened May 1 (on the 25th anniversary of the store) with some fascinating mini collections.
Military rings spanning dates from the Civil War to the Korean War inhabit an entire case. Among the examples is a black-and-white cameo ring depicting Jefferson Davis, and “trench rings” that soldiers in the Civil War made out of bone and wood to pass the time. There’s also an extensive collection of Native American-made rings, many utilizing turquoise, with models dating back to the 1860s.
25 cent kids Cannon rings from the 1930s
Perhaps most charming is Austin’s collection of plastic cereal box and Lone Ranger-themed rings, which were produced in the early 1930s. The Atomic Bomb ring, for example, boasts a tiny bomb on top with a red plastic tail fin. “The idea was that you pull the plastic tail fin in a dark room and see a radioactive molecule,” says Austin, chuckling. “Now that’s an idea you wouldn’t see today.”
The museum, which is attached to the store but boasts its own lock-able vault door, also features fine jewelry that dates as far back as Ancient Rome, including examples of what Austin calls “real filigree—rings made from hundreds of tiny pieces of metal connected together, not the molded filigree that everyone sees today.”
Trench rings made by U.S. soldiers in the Civil War
The retailer will be cycling new sections of his huge collection through the museum each month to keep displays fresh. Though he’s had plenty of requests to buy rings from his stable, the Ring Museum is just that: a place to see, not buy, examples of ring styles—fine, costume, and novelty—throughout history.
“The only way I’d sell something is if I get a better representation of something I already have,” he says. “Then the old one will go into my estate case.”
Rare snake rings (Photos courtesy of Austin’s Custom Jewelry & Appraisals)