THE VIOLET HOUR, or twilight, dusk, whatever you call it, was especially lovely tonight as I spent it at the atelier of one of the most venerable publishers, who happens to make jewelry as a means to relax. I admired a stunning ring on her hand years ago, and was thus initiated. Around then, I’d read that citrine was the stone for success and good fortune, and she said she had some loose ones. It took me about a year to catch up with her and get an appointment, and by then I’d been to London and the V&A, where I’d admired, on more than one occasion, the enormous rings of English avant-garde legend, Edith Sitwell. Born into an old English aristocratic family of wealth and eccentricity, she and her siblings Osbert and Sacheverell tore a streak across early 20th Century Bohemian society in London, keeping pace with both Modernism and modern publicity.
Edith thought her hands were her best feature and dressed them accordingly with giant rings, often set with stones her brothers brought back for her from far-flung travels. As I wrote at the time, I was gobsmacked by “a trio of two aquamarines and an amethyst. ‘Table-cut’ and otherwise unadorned, they might not have stood out at all where it not for their enormity, about the size of quail eggs.”
As soon as I returned, I wrote my jeweler friend and asked if she had anything that might fit the bill. She said I could come over and have a look at a couple of larger stones, which turned out to be a round citrine, pure yellow, and a blue rectangular stone, said to be a London blue topaz. It took about a year for us to find a day and time that suited both of our schedules. This spring, I chose them and she made them to fit the fingers of my choice, in simple, silver settings. Knowing those two rings were made especially for me imbues them with their own sort of frisson. I expected to wait another year, and so I bought a couple of rings, ready-made, to tide me over, including a pearl that reminds me of one mentioned in Frances Osborne’s delicious biography of her scandalous great-grandmother, The Bolter:
While her fellow Edwardian debutantes in their crisp white dresses merely contemplated daring acts, Idina went everywhere with a jet-black Pekingese called Satan. In that heady prewar era rebounding with dashing young millionaires –– scions of industrial dynasties –– Idina had married just about the youngest, handsomest, richest one. “Brownie,” she called him, calling herself “Little One” to him: “Little One extracted a large pearl ring–– by everything as only she knows how,” she wrote in his diary.
Back among the gems today, my friend and I discussed the grand gesture. Or shall I say, the Grand Gesture, which can be interpreted widely but has everything to do with something so above and beyond dramatically over-the-top that it can only be bestowed with every wonderful quality ascribed to anything that’s tumbled down since antiquity. Catching a flight to hash it out because damn it, the phone won’t do, is a grand gesture. It’s not always announced with such intensity. Once, I beckoned a man out to Palm Springs from Los Angeles, and sitting idly by the pool, I, having flown in, remarked that, given what I’d heard of the legendary gridlock, he seemed to have arrived awfully quick. “I drove a hundred miles an hour to see you,” he replied, with no more inflection or embellishment than the statement required. It was perfect, and perfectly unadorned. Sometimes the point of the Grand Gesture is that that’s all there is. Is it always romantic? Perhaps in my world; my heart leads me down the street most of the time.
Friends often counsel me on supposedly unrealistic expectations in relationships, but that’s the way I view things, as one Grand Gesture away from complete understanding and awareness of the titanic power of one human being to inspire another to exceed expectations, wherever they may lie dormant, high, low, or in-between. In college, my math study partner once called and asked me to a party at his house that evening. I said that I didn’t drink, and therefore would rather not attend, but I wasn’t turning him down; he was welcome to call me back and ask me out for coffee sometime. He called an hour later and asked if I’d like to meet him at a cafe. “What about your party?” I asked, confused. “I cancelled it,” he replied. I still remember the exact moment I stopped walking around my bedroom, straightening up, and stood very still, as awareness dawned and I smiled into the receiver. We had coffee for three hours and dated for two years.
Tonight I sipped bubbly and bought two pretty pinkie rings that twinkled sweetly against the black velvet tray, and stepped outside to find that a man I hadn’t heard from in a while had emailed to say that he was thinking of me. The message traveled thousands of miles, and I thought of all the times I’ve dismissed similarly casually relayed sentiments. Would they be grander if they fell from a dove’s mouth along with a sapphire? Sure. But maybe that’s not the way that men think. Not that I would know. I’m very much a woman. My favorite museum artifact in the entire world is easy to overlook, in a little case at the Cloisters, a tiny pin found in a castle with no other provenance, simply engraved on the back, “Autre ne veut (I want no other).” Perhaps that’s the grandest gesture of all.
Edith Sitwell, blessed with generosity and élan, made quite an impression on Gore Vidal during their friendship in the ’50s, as he notes in Palimpsest: “‘We shall have a red lunch. I have no money, you know. It all goes for lunch here.’ She would not let me pay. The red lunch was always lobster and strawberries and a bottle apiece of red burgundy.”
May your gestures be grand, and your lunches red.