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Bands of Gold - Sicilians and Rings
by Maria Luisa Romano

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Just a band of gold?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 buying less.

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.

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© 2009 Maria Luisa Romano