Take a look at your hand. Are you wearing a wedding ring, graduation ring, award ring, or something you just enjoy seeing on your finger? Ever wonder why there are so many different rings?
That question bothered Keith Austin, owner of Austin’s Jewelry located at 230 East Idaho at Foster. “I have collected something all my life,” he says, referencing stamps, coins, barbed wire, date nails, and railroad collectibles. Today, he displays about 40 percent of his collection of 8,000 to 10,000 rings in his store’s Ring Museum.
Keith began working in retail at age 19, including a Sears store in Hobbs, New Mexico. When he left Sears, he bought a gift shop. “Timing is everything,” he says. “About a year after I bought that shop, the oil field went pfft! I lost it all.” (Remember the oil crisis of the 1970s?)
He accepted a job at a jewelry store in Las Cruces, where he and his wife had wanted to live. After eight years in the business, he decided to open his own jewelry store in 1988.
“I don’t generally have a savings account,” he relates. “I have a collection and, when I need cash to do something, I sell the collection.” He sold his, then, current collection to finance the remodeling of the new store he opened in 1996.
Keith had thought of opening an antique mall in Las Cruces — owning a similar business in Albuquerque — and locating his jewelry business next door. Since he was now starting a new collection, he says, “I thought, what could I collect that would connect the two?” He settled on rings.
“A ring is the only jewelry that serves so many different purposes. Most of the rest of jewelry is for adornment,” Keith says. Companies award rings for service, safe driving, and professional accomplishments. There are school rings, Boy Scout and Girl Scout rings, FFA, FHA, and 4H, fraternal, and military. “There seems to be a ring for every organization you can imagine,” he says.
What you can see
So, he began collecting. Keith has Greek and Roman rings from the first century, which because they are actually fairly common, he values at only about $30 each. In antiquity, people buried valuables to protect them. Often, they forgot where or died before reclaiming them. Today, people use metal detectors to find stashes of rings and coins.
Also, because they were mostly hand-made, it’s difficult to prove their authenticity. “A ring could be old or rare,” Keith says, “but it could just as well have been made last week and artificially aged. You wouldn’t know if it was seven days or nineteen-hundred years old.”
One ring currently in Keith’s museum is a mourning ring from 1739. The English started the trend of commemorating the life of a family member or friend who had died with a ring. It incorporated some black material and usually the decedent’s hair. They also are among the rings he’s most confident about their provenance.
“England had hallmark laws,” he explains. “The jeweler had to stamp a ring, noting what metal was used, what taxes were paid, what company made it, what year it was made, and what town it was made in. Hallmarks give me very specific information.”
In part, the value of a ring is based on its rarity. Keith tells about Superman rings that were sold in the 1940s. In the mid-1990s, a toy ring price guide listed some Superman rings at $50,000 each because they were considered so rare. “Back then, you added to your collection by phoning or writing people or visiting antique stores,” Keith recalls. Then along came the internet, and people began trading and selling on sites like eBay. What that exposed was Superman rings were far from rare. Lots of people had them, and that drove the value down. The five Superman rings Keith has are 25 times less valuable than that guide estimated.
Besides rings of antiquity, British mourning rings, and Superman rings, what would you expect to find in the Ring Museum? The collection includes items from around the world and in a wide variety of styles, materials, and topics. There are shelves of fine jewelry, made from common to precious metals, some with diamonds and gemstones, others made from unusual materials.
In Keith’s museum, there are toy rings associated with comic book characters, radio and TV characters, and promotions to get kids to eat a specific brand of cereal. There are cowboy rings, commemorating icons like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, gadget rings like the ones used by Batman and Little Orphan Annie, and novelty rings, notably decoder rings, gun rings, spyglass rings, and others. There are rings for fraternal organizations and schools, including a ring from Las Cruces Union High School’s first graduating class in 1926.
There are turquoise and silver Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni rings — kachinas, bird and insect fetishes, and rainbow man. Keith purchased a complete set of Superbowl rings, reproductions made with cubic zirconia, not diamonds. “They cost $14 apiece,” he says. “That’s the only way I could have gotten the set.”
Among the collections are also a number of tools. There is a small anvil a Spanish colonial would have used, more likely to repair a shoe than make a ring, but typical of the period. There are hand-made stamps for imprinting designs in the item. Keith is particularly proud of a mold made by Native American jeweler Tom Burnside. He used a rod, approximately the diameter of a finger, set in a sandstone mold with a pouring port. Once the molten metal had set, Tom, who was an active jeweler from the 1920s to 1940s, could separate the mold halves, knock the ring off the rod, and finish it.
Keith opened the Ring Museum in 2013. “Rather than keep my collection private,” he says, “I decided it was better to share these beautiful findings with the public.”
Austin’s Jewelry and Ring Museum are open Tuesdays through Friday 9:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m., and Saturday 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. You can also visit online at austinsjewelry.com.
Story and photography by Bud Russo
Originally published in Neighbors magazine.
Posted by LasCruces.com