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Sunken Treasure

This is a mystery about sunken treasure.

The story begins in San Diego, sometime in the late 1970s.  It was a teeth chattering, lips blue, eyes squinting in the overcast, hair whipping around in the 20 mph wind kind of day at the beach.  But rather than pile the seven of us back into the Buick and drive on home to Utah, we huddled in the lee of whatever we could find, tossing seaweed around and eating saltine crackers while Dad went scuba diving.  Just when we were about to give up hope of ever leaving, Dad emerged from the waves, treasure in hand.  Gold!  Down under the murky waves, the yellow gleam had caught his eye.  He reached out a neoprene-gloved hand and snatched it up out of the deeps, just like Smeagol with his Precious.  It was a gold ring, cryptic and enigmatic.  We could tell it was probably stolen from an Aztec tomb and dropped into the waves from a conquistador’s ship.  Wow!  We were rich!

Dad took the ring to a jeweler who confirmed that it was indeed gold, and likely worth (drum roll) a couple hundred bucks.  Not even enough for a new car.  The ring sat in his dresser drawer for 30 years until one day Dad plunked it down on the kitchen table in front of me.  There it was, a heavy, square, flat-topped ring with a series of cryptic looking symbols etched on the top.   A perfect fit on my ring finger.   And all that mystery returned.

Like a good research scientist, I turned to the Internet.  I learned that gold rings made in the USA after 1904 should be hallmarked to indicate their purity.  No stamps anywhere on this ring; must be antique.  Or perhaps it was made in 1973 by an “indie artist” like me.  Ha.  I’ve never hallmarked anything.

A few tips from friends convinced me that the ring is a signet ring.  A ring worn on the pinky of an Important Man and used to impress his coat of arms, or signature, in the wax used to seal letters in days of old.  Ah yes, a coat of arms.  The striped square is a shield, and it’s divided into four unequal sectors with a king in the upper sector and three cloaked men kneeling before him in the lower sector.  There is a feathered battle helmet too, up at the top and looking oddly like an afterthought or a mistake.

I promptly melted a few drops of beeswax onto a sheet of paper and pressed the ring into it.  Hmmm, a sticky mess, followed by ten minutes of picking beeswax out of the fine engraving with a toothpick.  I guess that’s not how you do it.

But this particular seal doesn’t follow the austere rules of heraldry.  One Internet Expert said the ring “appears hand engraved, but not a regular heraldry symbol, like a coat of arms… I see nothing resembling this, even in my old catalogs of fraternal organizations.”  Wow, it’s not even in the old catalogs!  We do have a shield, a helmet, and a crown, check.  But we’ve got the whole king’s head, not just his crown.  And the crown is supposed to be at the top, above the shield, and never, ever below the helmet.  The human figure is rarely depicted in a coat of arms.  Maybe those figures are three ships in the water, or mountain peaks rising out of the sand?  And there is no fancy mantle surrounding the helmet, no raring quadrupeds embracing the shield, and no banner or lettering of any kind.  The design looks starkly primitive.  There is none of the fancy calligraphy or clip art symbolism that typifies the modern seal.

Another Internet Expert supplied the following information:

“Antique signet rings are highly collectible, primarily because of their scarcity. Only a few authorized copies of these rings were ever created, in order to reduce the chances of fraud. Quite often the official signet rings of Popes would be ceremonially destroyed upon their deaths. Surviving signet rings of political leaders or other notable personalities would most likely be found in museum collections or under strict lock and key. ”

Maybe this thing should be in a safety deposit box?  Buried in a trunk in the back yard?  At least I should have it appraised.

After being succinctly blown off by three antiques dealers, I finally spoke to a kind antique jewelry specialist who tried his best to let me down gently.  He told me that there is nothing special about an old signet ring.  They are, in fact, not rare in any way, and are precious only to those for whom they mean something.  Despite what the Internet says, their value comes almost exclusively from the amount of gold in them.  He explained patiently that jewelry purchased from K-Mart today still won’t be worth much in 100 years, because age does not impart worth.  And as for my desire to find out where and when the bearer of this ring might have walked the earth, he assured me that the design styles used in crests and seals have been standardized for so long that the crest itself will lend no clues as to its provenance.  He suggested I take it to O.C.Tanner to find out how much it weighs and the current spot price for gold.

So, what is this mysterious sunken treasure?  Maybe it’s a low budget class ring from the 1970s.  Or perhaps the ill-designed symbol of somebody’s wannabe fraternal organization, not even long-lived enough to get into the old catalogs.   Or maybe it really was stolen off the corpse of an Aztec King by marauding Spaniards, and lost in the waves off the coast of California some years later.  The story ends here, but the mystery is yours to ponder.

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