Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is, as A.O. Scott put it in his review, about “the loss of life, yes, but also the erosion of meaning that accompanies the fading of experience into memory and memory into nothing.”
It’s also about men and jewelry.
Namely, three insignia rings originally made from three dollar liberty coins that were introduced in 1855. There are “only three of these rings in the world,” Russell Bufalino, the Philadelphia mob boss played by Joe Pesci, tells Robert De Niro's Frank Sheeran as he gives him a ring and welcomes him into a circle of trust. “And only one of them is Irish.” (The third ring belongs to Angelo Bruno, played by Harvey Keitel. )
The movie is based on the true story of Sheeran, a member of the Teamsters union who becomes a soldier for a Philadelphia mob boss, and the real rings are still with the families. “The coins themselves are quite rare” say the film’s costume designers Sandy Powell and Christopher Peterson. “And would have been quite expensive when Russell had them made into 14 carat gold rings surrounded by 25 diamonds."
Now, jewelry in Scorsese movies has always been an odd obsession of mine. Remember Ginger’s bed laden with Bulgari in Casino? Karen’s pearls in Goodfellas? Countess Olenska's garnets in The Age of Innocence?
The jewelry brief for The Irishman was, Powell and Peterson note, “much more understated. Casino was about excess. But these guys, there can be a bit of bling, but it’s quite understated. They would want to be well turned out but not stand out for the FBI. The jewelry was not meant to be really flashy, there was not something on every finger.”
There was however that big gold coin ring on Joe Pesci’s pinky (Robert De Niro’s Frank wears it on his ring finger). “At the time,” Powell explains, “a pinky ring was a thing that men did. They were often signet rings or school rings. It was a bit of flash. Sometimes they did it when they got engaged instead of a wedding band. My father’s pinky ring was his engagement ring. It’s why they’re in the film and on these men’s hands. Most of the pink rings we used are vintage. Bobby Canavale’s character [a mid-level mob boss named Felix] also wears one.”
I noticed. And much in the same way Lady Hale’s spider brooch forced me to confront a longstanding if irrational fear of brooches, The Irishman made me face my whole pinky ring thing.
“It’s about scale. Isn’t everything?” declares Brooke Neidich, owner of Sidney Garber jewelry, when I ask her for advice on overcoming my resistance. I have never seen Brooke without one, or two, or three. “One large ring or stacking two medium or three small they all work.” I tell Brooke I've been inspired by The Irishman. “Those are not," she tells me, “the pinky rings I am talking about.”
I turn then to Fred Leighton’s Rebecca Selva, a woman who has helped me cross many a jewelry bridge. Rebecca is a deep believer in using jewelry history as a modern day guide. How they were worn then provides clues into how we might wear them now.
“I often look at portraits, vintage jewelry ads, and photographs of what jewelry was worn and how worn,” says Selva. “I couldn’t think of a better way to show you how the pinky ring evolved from being a seal in ancient times, to a signet ring worn largely by men to show lineage, authority, and affiliation, to a jewel that women also said 'oh yes!' to became fashionable and a celebration of glamour and personal style."
She began, as she often does, in the 19th Century to chart the evolution evolution of the pinky ring to style statement, and of course to the woman she calls the greatest jewelry influencer ever: Queen Victoria.
“While I have yet to find an image of Queen Victoria wearing a pinky ring, and I will,” says Selva. “It was her youngest son Leopold who apparently loved to wear a pinky ring on his left hand and stack pinkies as was the fashion!”
I wonder aloud if Russell Bufalino knew this. Selva remains focused.
“Then came the the 1920’s and the intense creativity and artistry that marked the period, which truly brought that change. Jean Cocteau, Schiaparelli, and Coco Chanel all wore pinky rings. Belperron wore a rock crystal and diamond pinky."
"The pinky ring became a jewel," Selva continues, "In the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, jewelers such as Belperron, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Janesich created exquisite pinky rings for their distinguished clientele."
Hollywood stars wore pinky rings on screen and off screen. Selva rattles off names like Louise Brooks, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Mae West and Merle Oberon, Diana Vreeland, Slim Keith, Jacqueline de Ribes. All, she tells me, enjoyed wearing a pinky ring.
“The allure of the pinky ring continued through the ’60s and ’70s. It was glamorous and hippie. It's a jewel that says ‘I’m here’ and is a confidant, refined, and most personal expression of style. “
I bring up The Irishman again, as my current pinky ring inspiration. Selva wants to set the record straight, with me at least, if not with Russell Bufalino.“If, in popular culture, pinky rings have had an association with not-so-nice organizations, they have had a greater and longer association with elegance, style, and glamour.”
She takes out a Cartier gold and black onyx ring and puts it on my finger. My pinky, to be clear.
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