By Luke Cairns
“Friendship never forgets. That is the wonderful thing about it.” – Oscar Wilde
Where would society be without buckles? A frivolous question you may say, but I riposte, for fear we would all be caught with our trousers round our ankles! Just think about it, everything from your shoes, to your coat, to your bag, to your bicycle helmet will feature a buckle, and is rendered utterly useless without.
As a device, the belt is the perfect marriage of form and function. Since at least the Iron Age, the buckle has accompanied the strap, allowing mankind to suspend, secure and fasten everything from clothing, to baskets, to the saddle on the back of a trusty steed. This invention is comparable in significance to that of the wheel, transforming the lives and capabilities of those who were fortunate to possess them.
Its use solely as a functional tool would prevail until the 1500’s, where we first begin to see the motif used in jewellery, albeit in very small numbers. These consist of a buckle, belt or garter often in the form of a finger ring. At Berganza we are privileged to have within our collection an incredibly rare post-medieval ring from circa 1500, showcasing an incredibly well-crafted finger ring in the form of a belt and buckle, the circumference of which is intricately engraved with the words “at this point remains” in French. Buckle rings of this time period tend to hold a military connection, representing strength in unity and loyalty, forming an unbroken bond.
In the 1600’s the practicality of the belt was superseded by its fashionable applications. Men, although not exclusively, were particularly fond of these fashionable fittings, often decorating them with detailed engravings, casting them in precious metals and even adorning them with gemstones. Interspersed throughout a nobleman’s attire, buckles would gleam from his boots, his overcoat and cape, his scabbard, and his hat.
Reaching the 1700’s, we first begin to see the motif ascribed to mourning jewellery, often representing a physical tether between the wearer and the deceased. They also embodied something that physically held a family together after the loss of a loved one, providing stability. They became a popular vehicle for hair jewellery, and examples can be seen displaying the intricately woven locks of the dearly departed.
It is Queen Victoria who is responsible for the popularity of buckle rings in the 1800’s. She began wearing one to represent her membership in the Order of the Garter, a historic organisation founded in 1348 that is the most senior Order of Chivalry in Britain, whose members are often chosen for their lifelong public service. From that moment on, the popularity of this motif surged, and buckles inherited even more symbolism. Thought to represent loyalty, fidelity and strength, it wasn’t long before these rings were given as love tokens and wedding rings, symbolic of the physical joining of two people.
"Ordinary riches can be stolen; real riches cannot." - Oscar Wilde
The wit and dramatist Oscar Wilde, along with friend Reginald Harding, famously gave a yellow gold belt buckle ring to their dear friend and fellow student William Ward in 1876, during their time at Oxford together. Ward was planning to drop out of university and travel the world after receiving lower than expected grades in his exams, and Wilde and Harding wanted to gift him something to remember them by, a ring that signified their friendship. A Greek inscription on the outer band translates to “Gift of love, to one who wishes love,” while a set of initials engraved on the inside of the ring hints at the trio’s identities: “OFOFWW”, short for the literary icon’s full name, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, “+ RRH to WWW.”.
Years later, the ring returned home to Magdalen College, Oxford, where it sat proudly in a display case full of Oscar Wilde memorabilia. That was until one spring day in 2002 where the college cleaner and handyman, Eammon Andrews, broke into the college through a skylight, stealing the ring and some medals he had found. Andrews quickly sells the ring to a scrap dealer for a measly £150, with neither party knowing the ring’s true value of over £35,000. It then disappears altogether, with fears it had been carelessly melted down, with nobody knowing its true significance.
History however had not quite finished with the ring, when in 2015 a group of ambitious British pensioners carried out one of the most audacious crimes in British history: The Hatton Garden Heist! Making away with the contents of 73 safe deposit boxes, rumoured to be valued at over £20 million, a large portion of which police fear will never be recovered. It is believed that the ring was residing in one of the deposit boxes that were looted, as soon after the heist, in London’s seedy underground black market, rumours of an unusual Victorian ring begin to spread. Having quickly changed hands, it ended up in the possession of a man who had no idea of its importance. It was only when the acclaimed Dutch art detective Arthur Brand tracked the ring down that everything was made clear, and the ring returned to its rightful place within the walls of Magdalen College, where it remains today.
At Berganza, we are privileged to hold a beautiful selection of buckle rings. Buckle up, come and see them before they are gone!