I took a vacation recently around my favorite part of the world, the British Isles and Ireland. I expected to see castles and abbeys, visit museums and monuments and muse about all the peoples who have trod on English, Irish and Welsh soil through the ages. What I didn’t expect was to see so much jewelry or to become aware of how great a role it played in these countries’ histories.
English, Irish and Welsh historians obviously regard jewelry as potent symbols of their heritage. This made me think of the great story jewelry retailers can tell about the product they sell. The symbolic nature of jewelry, its enduring value and its associations with powerful and famous figures of history seem almost like clichés. But they are valid and real reasons why customers continue to buy jewelry rather than other luxury products. When you see how much these very personal talismans have survived the ravages of war and the passage of thousands of years, it comes home to you in a special way.
Take the Roman gems of Caerleon, located in southern Wales. Caerleon was the site of Isca, one of the main fortresses of the Roman legions who swept over Britain during the first century A.D. The Romans settled in as they did elsewhere in their empire, leaving behind the haunting remains of a vast amphitheater and a sophisticated structure of baths.
The Romans took their baths seriously, making a leisure ritual out of the process of going from cold to warm to hot baths, then back again. It was such a social occasion that apparently they needed to wear their jewelry. In 1979, during the excavation and cleaning of a drain beneath the baths, archeologists discovered 88 engraved gemstones. Experts believe the stones came loose from rings due to the high humidity in the baths. It was amazing to think about as I stared down into the remains of the ancient site: those long-ago jewelry lovers comparing pieces, most of which featured intaglios of gods and goddesses, coats of arms and other symbols that served as talismans. Men and women wore rings to the baths, and probably mourned losing their stones down the drain. Then, to think of the gems lying in the drain, untouched for almost 2,000 years, only to be discovered by our contemporaries – talk about a view into the past!
Next was Caerphilly Castle, a 13th century Welsh ruin surrounded by a huge moat. Inside the castle I found a display of gold ceremonial bracelets and neckpieces befitting the grand lords and ladies who built that majestic structure. At the British Museum in London, I saw the Lockington armlets, a pair of repoussé bracelets dating from the early Bronze Age (c. 2100-1700 B.C.) that were discovered in Leicestershire in 1994. In Ireland, I viewed displays of Celtic jewelry with its fantastic swirls and knots.
I made my way to the Tower of London near the end of our trip to see the Crown jewels, those over-the-top symbols of royalty I avoided seeing on all previous visits to London. Curiously, many are quite delicate and the stories of how they came into being are touching and sometimes hilarious. Queen Victoria, for example, had a devil of a time getting off the sovereign’s ring made for her coronation. Her jeweler mistakenly sized it for her pinky, but the Archbishop of Canterbury insisted on cramming it onto her third finger, as was customary. Quoth the Queen afterward: “I had the greatest difficulty to take it off again – which at last I did with great pain.” You have to wonder if it was to that jeweler she spoke her famous line “We are not amused.”
Another amazing piece, mostly because of the provenance of the gemstones in it, is the Imperial State Crown Queen Elizabeth II wore at her coronation. There’s a sapphire allegedly swiped from the corpse of Edward the Confessor when he was reinterred in Westminster Abbey in 1163. There’s the spinel everyone thought
was a ruby, which may have been worn by Henry V at the battle of Agincourt in 1415. Finally, there are two pearls owned by three of the most colorful women in European royal history: Catherine de Medici; Mary, Queen of Scots; and Queen Elizabeth I. What a collection!
So the next time you’re selling a piece of beautiful jewelry, think of the Bronze Age princess wearing regal armlets, the Celtic chieftain in gold regalia, the Roman legionnaire cursing the drain that took his treasured amulet or the lovely Victoria cursing her jeweler upon the steps of Westminster Abbey. Oops, forget that last image.