"A cocktail ring is the antithesis of a wedding ring," writes Linda Grant, who found hers in France for a paltry €8. "It announces no status other than the desire to have fun" ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Spring 2009
A couple of years ago, I stepped into a narrow side street in the south-western French town of Bergerac and of all unlikely things found a shop that sold nothing but cocktail rings. The tiny interior was a brilliant dazzle of twinkling coloured glass and diamanté. Banks of rings raised their jewelled heads, like rows of icy flowers, hundreds of them clamouring raucously for my attention, large, cheap, vulgar and delightful. There were rings for all fingers, in all sizes, but modestly restrained to two prices: €8 or €13. After taking advice from my cousin, an interior designer, I bought a cluster of “emeralds” and “diamonds” in an Art Deco formation, unsure when I would ever wear it, or even if I would wear it. But €8 is only a sandwich and a cappuccino, and after all, my bedroom is shamefully full of worn-once things which cost £300. So a cheap ring which took up little room seemed a find worth celebrating.
Occasionally you buy something and whenever you wear it, someone remarks on it. The handbag designer Anya Hindmarch, whose taste I trust, locked eyes on my ring when she first saw it. “You must wear that all the time,” she said, prescriptively. She now says it every time I see her.
What is its appeal? A cocktail ring is the antithesis of the wedding ring; it announces no status other than the desire to have fun. How to wear a cocktail ring: against a very plain canvas. The more minimal the little black dress, the bigger the ring should be—ideally, it would be a camellia ring from Chanel, as bought for Samantha by Smith in the “Sex and the City” movie, a ring she wanted to buy for herself, to assert her independence.
A cocktail ring is seen to its best advantage when the hand holds a cocktail glass. It is the olive or the lemon peel in the martini, designed to be viewed through refracted light. It’s a showy, show-off piece and no one expects it to be real. Diamanté and rhinestones find their natural home in such big rings—and their size is their point, for the cocktail ring is cheap, false and doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. This is not the Crown Jewels we’re wearing, it’s disposable luxe. It belongs in cocktail-party conversation, brittle and, in the 1930s sense, “gay”.
What it is about my French ring and me, I cannot tell. I just know that an €8 piece of glass is one of the highlights of my wardrobe, one that everyone remarks on. It was made for me, I was born to wear it—but only now, not 20 years ago. It has had to wait for me to be old enough to get away with it.
Growing up, growing older is an abject lesson in the limitation of one’s choices. You cannot wear a tea dress after the age of 50. Leather jackets are mutton dressed as lamb. Keep the arms covered at all times. Forty years ago the prize a middle-aged woman received simply for remaining alive past childbearing age was a mink. But now we cannot wear fur, even if we wanted to, for fear of having a pot of paint thrown at us.
What is left? Statement jewellery. With real gems, the bigger the statement the more you land up in Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton territory financially—but if all you can afford is a single row of cultured pearls and a gold-plated necklace, you might as well go faux all the way. Statement jewellery, specifically the vulgar, flashy cocktail ring, has nothing at all to hide and it doesn’t care what you think. It is triviality personified. The clue is in the word cocktail. It’s not a fine-wine piece of jewellery.
At the start of the January couture shows, the designer Karl Lagerfeld announced the “end of bling” and presented a mainly white collection. He thinks we must be more sober now, to be in tune with the times. You could just as well say the opposite—if life is to turn depressing, the very least you can do is buy a riotous, €8, green-glass ring to adorn your fingers, to show that there remains some fun under the dying sun.
(Linda Grant is a novelist who has just won the "South Bank Show" literature prize, and been Booker shortlisted for "The Clothes on Their Backs".)
Illustration: Sandra Suy