Thursday, October 11, 2012

Trade, Reindeer Moss, and the Cold War

The mysterious ring from Carmel.

One of the most interesting things you can do, when you shop for goods in the United States is to check the labels to see where the item you are holding in your hand was made. By doing this, you can learn a lot about American foreign policy and American trade policy--which are almost always tied very closely together. 

I did not expect any of this to come to mind as I poked through a box of my late mother's odds and ends of jewelry. It wasn't her best stuff--that had been divided up already. And it wasn't the costume jewelry--that we sold at the garage sale. It was a box of things too valuable to get rid of, yet too quirky to have found a claimant in the family circle. It was in this shoe box I spotted the ring from Carmel.

The odd ring from Carmel is HUGE.

I remember very clearly the day my mother bought it, because I also recall urging her to purchase it, the ways teenagers do sometimes. It was as a teen that I developed my love of interesting jewelry, something that has stayed with me all my life.

Dad was at Fort Ord doing his thing with the Army Reserve, and we often visited nearby Carmel when he was there. Carmel had always been very artsy. It was the late 1960s, and big, ethnic jewelry was a hot trend, coming to America via Europe and Carnaby Street in London. Mom had a chic, taupe, knit sweater dress and, looking in the window at the unique things in one Carmel shop, we spotted the golden ring--something that seemed to have been made to wear with Mom's new dress.

Mom bought it and wore it a bit, made a splash as she always did, and that's about all I remember. Still, one doesn't easily forget a ring that looks like a giant mushroom hat.

The ring isn't really gold, but when we had the garage sale after Mom's death, I remembered its history and put it back in the miscellaneous box of stuff to save. Yesterday, when I had to stay indoors during our first rainy day of the season, I poked through the box and found it again. 

Curious about its origins, I examined the shank.

No 14k gold mark, I'm sorry to say, but it turned out that this objet d'art was from Finland. Finland? Not a place one imagines America--much less Carmel, California--importing a lot of goods from in 1960s. Those were the days when Congress, at the behest of trade unions, kept goods from all over the world out of the US.

Was it worth anything?  I used that highly technical tool of research (Google) and Googled it.

Since it did resemble a mushroom, I Googled "Finnish Mushroom Ring" at first, and nothing turned up, so I went on eBay and looked up jewelry from Finland. That's where I discovered that Finland, in the 1960s and 1970s, was a center for modernist jewelry. And there was more:

The ring we bought in Carmel was designed by Anhanger Hannu Ikonen for a company called Valo Koru in the 1960s. He worked in bronze and silver--our ring is clearly bronze. And what looked like a mushroom to me, is indeed the depiction of a fungus, but is actually renmoosbl├╝te or, in English, "reindeer moss." (I had to look that up too.)

It isn't exceptionally valuable, but a ring like this one is still fairly rare and is now worth several hundred dollars. It is a stunning piece of cast bronze sculpture and it has an international story behind it.

Finland was at the borders of the Cold War--with Russia to its east and Europe to its west and it spent a lot of time trying to maintain some sort of neutral stance that would keep both sides at bay. But, I learned, the first hint of the changes ahead came in the 1960s, when Finland joined the European Free Trade Association--the beginnings of the European Common Market, and the EU--as an associate member. 

That was a large opening for the West to woo little Finland away from the East and communism using trade as a carrot. And though Finland continued to trade with both East and West, communist political influence in Finland began to wane in the 1970s. The ring is a beautiful remnant of Cold War history.

Renmoosbl├╝te, rendered in bronze, for a lady's hand.

Every object has a story to tell. From reindeer moss, to modern jewelry artists, to Cold War spies mixing with trade delegates in Helsinki, to posh importers for hip Carmel shops, this one could have a been a novel. You never know what might turn up when you dig through an old shoe box on a rainy day.

Add to 
Google Reader or Homepage
Subscribe to Robin Chapman News


Jack said...

That's a great example of the stories that lie about us all the time just out of our perception, Robin. They shimmer at the edge, like they're in an adjacent dimension, waiting for the right moment to reveal themselves through a fleeting portal. Without the rainy stay-inside day, without your evocative memory associated with that moment of shared discovery with your Mom, which specifically (who could know at that moment?) led to this experience, without all the work at Google developing the search engine that tops all competitors, you would have never fleshed out the story, and we wouldn't have had the opportunity to smile as we share your memory of time spent with your mother. I commute by bike, and as I rode past a house up for sale this week, looking at its completely empty interior, I was struck by the echoes of all that happened over the years behind those windows, celebrated birthdays, weddings, worries about that year's finances, kids running from one room to the next, and now everyone's gone, the house awaiting new memories. I think of that when I look at your ring now, the history the ring symbolized. Nice post, Robin.

Robin Chapman said...

How fine of you to be able to share the portal with me. It isn't just the Hope Diamond that has a story in it, is it?

Anonymous said...

I love this story. I was given a Hannu Ikonen ring for x-mas this year. A gift from my best friend who told me she bought it off a street vendor in New York City who told her it was from an Artist in South America. I didn't really examine the ring until now when I looked inside and saw a "made in Finland" stamp I laughed and called my friend to tell her that she was told the wrong story about this ring! I typed into google "bronze finish ring" and looking through all the images found mine matched exactly to Ikonen's reindeer moss collection. I love it! I love the story you told and now have a greater appreciation for my new ring :) thanks

Robin Chapman said...

Go on eBay and you'll still see a few of these. They are really gorgeous and I am going to try to resist my DNA/collecting gene and start a collection of them. Glad to find someone else who found this interesting!