If fascination with men’s jewellery was a religion, then Yves Gastou would be its high priest. The pioneering Parisian antiquarian and gallery owner specialises in 20th-century modern design. In his eyes, no other piece of jewellery could be more powerful for a man to wear, even though the circular piece of metal could finger a man as effeminate, or as a hoodlum.
“Up until the 1930s, men were often seen wearing jewellery like pocket watches with big gold chains, embellished pins, finger rings,” he says. “It’s really after World War II that rings became associated with thugs – bikers with their skull rings, hippies with stones brought back from India, and of course homosexuals. But since the ’90s it has become chic again to wear jewels, even if I think it still takes courage to wear those and be as you want to be,” he adds.
The Symbolism and Nobility of Rings
Body adornment goes back to Mesopotamia and Egypt, and rings from that time would have scarabs and hieroglyphs on them. In medieval times, rings were worn by popes, kings and generals. And in Hollywood lore, wearing a ring could mean you were part of the mafia. Gastou sees rings on a man as erotic, and very symbolic.
Gastou grew up in the French Languedoc region near Carcassonne, famed for its fortified citadel built in Gallo-Roman times. He spent much of his childhood thinking about knights and crusaders who once walked the streets. The tales of their coats of arms dominated his dreams.
“I grew up completely fascinated by paintings of Francois I and other noblemen wearing jewels,” says Gastou. “I was transfixed by real-life bishops and cardinals wearing enormous rings with magnificent citrines and giant amethysts.” He describes how on one occasion, he kissed a bishop’s ring not once, but several times – just because it was so beautiful.
A Testament to the History of Male Adornment
Gastou received his first ring, a small silver signet when he was 8 or 9 years old. It spurred a lifelong passion for rings and has led him to collect around 1,000 pieces. They are now the subject of a book, Men’s Rings, published by Albin Michel. Gastou also curated an exhibition of men’s rings at Van Cleef and Arpels’ L’École, School of Jewellery Arts in Paris. The exhibit includes rings dating back to antiquity and ran until November 30.
Gastou’s collection of rings covers a broad range. It spans high jewellery to what might be considered kitsch – Mickey Mouse rings and the like. The spread makes it a testament to the history of male adornment. It includes associations with fraternity, from the Masons’ Guild to hell-raising biker gangs. Rings were once considered to be so personal that they were buried with their owner, or destroyed. Passing a ring to the next generation, like a family heirloom, only started in the 19th century, notes Gastou.
From the Rare to the Religious
Ask the septuagenarian what takes pride of place in his collection, and he points to his selection of episcopal rings. Roman Catholic leaders embraced the ring’s symbolic power in the 4th century. Worn on the fourth finger of the right hand, cardinals’ rings can sport huge cabochon diamonds, rubies, amethysts, and other semi-precious stones.
Gastou says episcopal rings are nearly impossible to find today. He managed to amass a collection of around 50 of such pieces only because he stumbled upon a large cache from Parisian jeweller Mellerio dits Meller. He was quick to acquire the lot, buying it in the 1980s when collectors were not keen on such objects.
A large part of his collection is devoted to 19th century “memento mori” skull rings, a style that was embraced by American bikers. Gastou admits one of his all-time favourites is a vanity ring of a skull with a black diamond in its mouth. Created by André Lassen circa 1970, Gastou describes this piece as being “spectacular and important”. Who are we to argue?
All photo captions: Photography taken from Bagues d’homme by Delphine Antoine and Harold Mollet (Albin Michel) © photo Benjamin Chelly / Albin Michel