A few months ago – what feels like a lifetime ago – I wrote two parts of a three-part account of how the diamond popped from my engagement ring on a family trip in Liguria, and my efforts to get it replaced, in The Errant Solitaire and L’Intermezzo dell’Annello. It’s a good story that starts with tragedy, is fueled by hope, and ends successfully after twists and turns.
But my perspective shifted in the interim, what with close Covid contact and spending a week in quarantine at home, watching my children from afar through our own windows, binge eating holiday cookies and and binge watching The Great. Our holidays came and went – we were just grateful to be in family and at home. Things in Italy continue to be stressful with Omicron, public policies that lag behind reality, and a virus that seems to shape-shift each time public health gets a handle on it. A friend died unexpectedly last month. My silly ring story seemed to shrink in comparison to breaking news.
A writer friend continues to ask me where the final installment is, and I told her I’d been feeling dejected by recent events, deflated by stress, and humbled by reality. Write it anyway, she urged. Life is made of many dramas big and small, the monumental and the infinitesimal, she pointed out. I conceded her point.
Jason and I set an appointment with Zia Grazia to meet in her pied-à-terre smack in the center of Florence, off Piazza Santa Firenze. Her small apartment was a jewel box of treasures and mirrors, vintage dark furniture and marble statues and plaster figurines of all kinds. Come in, come in, she greeted us, having just made us espresso. We perched on the divan and chatted briefly about our children, her life in Florence and now Mugello, and the sad demise of her business, a casualty of the first lockdown. Zia Grazia was a well-built woman, energetic, with the bright lipstick that well-to-do women in Florence favor into their nineties, dressed for the occasion: a private sale. I wondered if she wore a ring on each finger because it was a special day, or if that was her normal number of jewels adorning her hands.
She ushered us into a tiny side room, hung with thin cabinets. She had thoughtfully selected a dozen rings she thought we might like, though Jason hastened to clarify that the choice was wholly mine. The rings were laid on a velvet board by century: settings from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, into the 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s. Every ring was stunning. The oldest settings were simply diamonds plugged into a base of gold, a a child might press a shell into a sand castle. They didn’t glitter back then, she said. Gem cutters didn’t have the technology to cut, and jewelers hadn’t yet figured out prong settings. The rings were lovely, but in comparison to later centuries looked amateur. I thought of Jan Van Eyck paintings and how the daughters of burgesses must have worn jewels like these. How simple and rare they were!
Zia Grazia walked us through each century as I tried on every ring in the well-lit room. As gemology and settings got smarter, the stones began to weigh a bit less and sparkle a lot more. Jewelers worked out prongs and light, and better and better saws let them take advanatge of every last slice of a rough diamond. Apparently I love a nice Liberty setting, because those were my favorites. She left Jason and me in the treasure closet to ooh and ahh. I couldn’t believe she was letting me handle these pieces. When she returned, I set aside my favorite. It was not small – in fact, it was almost twice the size of the one I lost. She nodded. Ah yes, a champagne diamond, and indeed the color was a faint warm yellow tone. If I squinted I could imagine bubbles rising. A rare one, she said, and a bargain for you. She sized it for me and said she’d have it back from her man the jeweler in a few weeks. Her gaze fell on my empty setting, its jagged prongs like broken teeth. What will you do with that, she asked me.
I don’t know, I said. I still like the setting. And I do. The perfect size, in white gold.
Let’s see if we can’t find a stone for it, she smiled, fetching down a box of loose gemstones. This now felt like One Thousand and One Nights or Outlander territory. She opened the lid and we began to select and place loose gems gently in the empty space to see how they would look. Opals, topazes, rubies, pearls, amethysts, sapphires glittered and rolled on the surface. The sapphires were my favorite. We found a sapphire dark as a storm cloud and about the size of the lost diamond. She tucked it into a bag and assured me that the repair and setting would be no trouble at all for her jeweler.
I asked if I could peek around her apartment; she said of course. Oh the treasures stowed therein! Would that I had such a pied-à-terre in Florence, but then I’d need the Italian banker husband to go with it.
She embraced Jason and me as though we were family. I paid her with a handsome stack of fifties, the sum total of the insurance payout, plus another few hundred. Would you like to look at any necklaces or earrings? she asked. I’ve got some lovely engraved Imperial jade set with diamonds, Art Deco. I sighed. Jason took my hand. We’ll think about it.
I tend to like older things. Books, clothes rings, cars, suitcases, music, more. I appreciate the history and the energy of a pre-loved item. Who knows on what hand glittered my ring, a hundred years ago, or out of what setting the loose sapphire itself had tumbled? The original engagement ring from 2004 was new, and in a way it represented my hopes for the future then: clear, unmarred. The new ring with its champagne diamond, alluring as a flute of prosecco, come down to me through who knows what chain of mysterious events, seems more appropriate to life as I now understand it. And this ring will always be the vintage ring that Jason and I bought in Florence together, rain into shine.
I laugh to remember Jason’s quip in the car when I was panicking about the vanished stone. Well, honey, looks like it’s time to get you a new ring in Florence. I resented his flip response in that moment. There in the car with our kids tearing up the backseat and raining finely ground cracker crumbs onto every exposed upholstered surface, I wanted to strangle him, for just a second. But, in the end, as he always is, he was right. New love is old love is new love. We find the rings that fit.
I enjoyed your reference to Italian bankers. At least in Siena, they would not be a source of money or anything else for furnishing an apartment elegantly. Perhaps do-it-yourself IKEA, but we don’t have one of those here. We all are dreading the day when “dal 1472” will vanish from the Monte di Paschi signs. Siena truly will be a poorer place when that happens.
I have a Monte dei Paschi di Siena story or two! They’re my bank …. hmmm since 1472 indeed. Idea for a future essay.
So glad you liked the piece, Nevin.