At first glance,
it seems that Sicilians are obsessed with buying all
manner of jewellery even during a serious economic recession. As I write
this (March 2009), that at least seems to be the case. But is it?
The old saying "all that glitters is not gold" can be applied
very accurately to many Sicilians. While it's true that Palermo, Catania
and other Sicilian cities have more than their fair share of jewellers,
the astute observer may notice that most of what the Sicilian women --young
and old alike-- actually wear is not very valuable. As is often the case,
the island's largest city, Palermo, is a good example of what I'm saying.
Okay, I realise that Catania is a very different city in many ways, but
here I'm dealing in generalities, so bear with me.
There seems to be a lot of gold plate about, and much of what is sold
in the shops, often at ridiculously inflated prices, is simply cheap-looking.
Gold is everywhere but it's nearly impossible to find high-quality gems
and pearls except at a few larger, well-known stores or through a handful
of artisans. In Sicily the "average" woman owns one or two gold rings and
a solid gold necklace, and a great number of less valuable pieces.
That's one of those statements which, taken out of context, sounds ridiculous
because Italian women always seem so stylish --well, the younger ones, anyway.
But it's true, and it is the exceptions that prove the rule. Most Sicilian women
make it to their mid-twenties possessing no jewellery of value. To their credit, many have a
sophisticated fashion sense which, with the help of designer knock-offs and other tricks, allows
them to look great on a tight budget. But that doesn't change the fact that few young women, or their
boyfriends, have much extra cash to spend on luxuries. (I recall seeing a father buying a silk scarf
for his daughter in the Hermes boutique in Palermo. She looked to be about sixteen. The reason
I remember it is because it was such a rare thing to see.)
For those over thirty, the occasional gold chain is de rigueur, complemented by, naturally,
a wedding band. Engagement rings are just now catching on with younger couples.
And then there's the infamous "fedina." But first a little history.
By tradition, the ring ceremony was not formally part of Catholic liturgy. Among the
Orthodox, the wedding ring exchange is sometimes part of a betrothal ceremony that takes
place long before marriage. This is interesting in that Sicily's Albanian communities, which
today are Byzantine Rite Catholic, were initially Orthodox, and it explains certain customs.
The blessing of the bride's wedding band was a rite steeped in symbolism. Until the twentieth
century exclusively civil weddings were rare in Sicily; the civil 'act of marriage' was valid
in itself but usually performed in tandem with an ecclesiastical service.
Well into the 1940s wedding bands were something for wives but not husbands,
even if a few British men wore wedding rings during the Second World War to remember their wives back home.
It was not until the 1950s that the Roman Catholic Church altered its liturgical
ring-blessing language to reflect the exchange of two rings, in the process
creating the "double-ring" ceremony. In the United States, and
then in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, Protestants and everybody else
soon began to follow this new Catholic practice. This coincided with the growth
of prosperity in many places, including Italy.
Up to the time of the Second World War, when the great majority of Sicilians,
like most other Italians, were dirt poor, it was unknown for husbands to
wear wedding bands. Not only was the idea itself unheard of, it was usually
a financial sacrifice just to purchase a ring for the bride. Even back then
most Italian gold was eighteen karat (75% pure).
In late 1935 Italian women were asked to relinquish even their wedding
bands --which for most of them was the only precious item they owned. Italy's
military support during Spain's bloody Civil War, a costly military adventure
in Ethiopia, nationalistic trade protectionism and other short-sighted Fascist
fiascos were playing havoc with the country's economy (League of Nations
trade sanctions were to follow in 1936), and gold was the only available
asset that might help matters. Every woman who donated her ring to the
cause --and there were many-- was given a steel band as a substitute. Collaborating
with the state, the Church sponsored the Giornata della Fede
which included a rite to bless the steel rings en masse. Following the war
large sacks of unsmelted rings were discovered in the possession of Fascist
functionaries. It's difficult to imagine anybody making such a sacrifice today,
when most Italians consider the state their enemy.
Naturally, wealthier people could afford more gold than the popolino, at least into the twentieth century. Aristocratic
ladies preferred cut gemstones, while noblemen sported gold signet rings
bearing stones such as lapis lazuli or cornelian (bloodstone) into which
their coats of arms were engraved.
Tradition is one thing, but it was the "Italian Miracle" of the early 1960s, a period of unprecedented
economic growth, that found more working-class Italian men driving cars or at least riding motor scooters (Vespas and Lambrettas),
and an increasing number of males wearing gaudy trinkets like necklaces and bracelets.
Until the 1960s engagement rings were sometimes given among the aristocracy
or the most affluent bourgeoisie. These were not usually diamonds but rubies,
sapphires or emeralds. Even today, not all Sicilian couples follow the engagement
ring tradition, although the practice is certainly becoming more popular, and so are
diamonds. White gold too --but mostly for engagement and eternity rings. Sicilian women still seem to
prefer their wedding rings in traditional yellow gold. Then there's the fedina.
The Italian for a wedding band is "fede"(literally faith) because
it's supposed to represent a wife's fidelity (faithfulness) to husband.
"Fedina" is a diminutive. It's a much thinner ring exchanged by
teenage "fidanzati" even if they're not formally engaged. In fact,
engagement is rarely the case, and most fedine cost less than a hundred
euros. In recent years this teenage custom seems to be less popular than
it was just ten years ago, perhaps more for social reasons than financial
ones. Today many young people consider it a silly thing to do.
On a more sober note, the shops that buy used gold do so by the gram
(forget the item's "artistic" value) far below the quoted "trading"
rate, and dealers I spoke to say they're doing well. So maybe people are
In the end, it may be more than just a band of gold.
About the Author: Maria Luisa Romano has
written for various Italian magazines, including this one.