As I sit at the computer with my fingers dancing across the keys, the monotony of their black squares and white letters is broken by a flash of rose gold and the beady eyes of rubies winking memories at me. These metals and stones are the eight rings I wear double stacked across four fingers.
My left hand holds my own history. My wedding ring from my second marriage hugs the cluster of rubies of my engagement ring. A ring of opals and pearls marks the birth of my third child, beside a gold ring shaped like a medieval crown — the first present my husband ever gave me, which told me this was more than a passing fling.
The rings on my right hand trace the lives of other people I love that I want to carry with me. A gold plaited band my great-aunt gave me before she died, sitting beside my mother’s thick wedding ring, as strong and bold as she was. There’s a silver band a friend gave me which had belonged to his sister, a close friend who died. And I always wear the big garnet ring my mother was wearing the day she had the riding accident that destroyed her life, 22 years ago.
None of these rings are exceptionally valuable, although their emotional significance to me is without bounds. But it’s only as I’ve got older, with two marriages and three children, and a great lump of tragedy behind me, that I’ve understood the emotional power of jewellery.
As a teenager my relationship with it was capricious, as I clutched at the instant, cheap sparkle of bright diamante and cut glass, with the odd semi-precious brooch given to me by a godparent kept in a special box on my dressing table. I changed and lost my necklaces as fast and thoughtlessly as I changed my boyfriends. They didn’t matter.
But then I got married, and my first wedding ring showed me how potent the emotional investment in jewellery really can be, even when they are not valuable diamonds, sapphires or emeralds. But this marriage didn’t last long, and when my decree nisi arrived I took my ring off, and immediately knew it had to be replaced with a different piece of jewellery to mark this next stage in my life. I was a single mother, with two small children to support, so spending £400 on a heavy silver chain for myself when I could barely afford groceries felt extravagant, almost reckless, but it was my talisman. I wore it every day, even at night, sometimes clutching it alone in the darkness because it felt strong and constant, something I needed to be for my children.
It was only after I met my second husband I stopped wearing it so much. I didn’t panic if I put my hand to my throat and it wasn’t there. And as my husband slipped rings on my fingers it was as though the necklace lost some of its potency, because now my husband and I were sharing an emotional journey. He became the strength and constancy that I felt my necklace had given me.
Both compact and beautifully formed, the emotional significance of jewellery lends itself well to the form of a poem. Some of the most lovely poems about this are collected in a new anthology called Strings of Pearls (Lautus Press). There’s the rich, allegorical mystery of the medieval elegy, ‘Pearl’, in which the unknown author describes a ‘Pearl maiden’ gloriously bedecked in pearls ‘so perfect, so faultless, so pale’ that she’s associated with the Lamb of Christ.
In ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ Shakespeare invests precious stones themselves — a ‘beautiful and hard’ diamond, the ‘sickly radiance’ of an emerald and the ‘heaven-hued sapphire’ — with human longing and regret, where ‘each several stone/With wit well blazoned, smiled, or made moan’.
Normally associated with high romance, jewellery can also be used to express something more threatening and sinister. In ‘A Game of Chess’, T.S. Eliot describes the ‘troubled, confused’ synthetic beauty of his intoxicating Cleopatra on her burnished throne with ‘the glitter of her jewels’. And Ted Hughes mixes memory of sex with a woman’s dreams of death as symbolised by her locket:
Smiling, you’d hold it up.
You’d swing it on its chain, to ease life.
It lent you uncanny power. A secret, blueish,
When you smiled and gently bit the locket.
The stories my own rings carry are perhaps more prosaic, since they’re the stuff of normal life — marriage, children, the passing of the people we love — but this sense of the ordinary, the everyday, symbolised in a sliver of gold and the glint of a stone, is why I love them so much. They might look like little objects, but to me they represent the most precious fragments of time which make up my life.