Eleven years ago I moved my workshop from Wells to the pretty village of Wedmore. Days were (and still are) punctuated by interesting and supportive chats with people from the area. Topics range from the Great Barn Fire of ’96 to the finalists of the Turnip Prize. Amongst these pearls of local information, I quickly became aware of a jewellery find that was always discussed with excited and hushed tones – ‘Have you seen the Wedmore Ring?’ I was asked on many occasions, ‘You’d be interested in that – being a jeweller and all!’
It wasn’t long before curiosity got the better of me and I started off on one of my wild-goose chases to explore this mysterious ring. After tracking down the owner, I arranged to see the ring and borrow it for a while .Dating from Saxon times (The British Museum recon 6th or 7th Century) this knot ring of copper alloy wire had surfaced whilst the vegetable bed was getting an annual turn-over. But for a certain ‘Je ne sais quoi’ it would have been thrown into the rubble bucket. As soon as I saw it I understood exactly why it created the moment of hesitation that saved it from going into landfill!
Although tired, greenish and flattened (who wouldn’t be after hundreds of years underground?), the ring has a certain presence. It is remarkably whole and the symmetrical knot-work and patterning of the barley-twist shoulders mark it apart from a discarded snippet of barbed wire.
I have to confess to feeling a considerable ‘tingle factor’ when I turned it in my hands – a deep connection with the original maker and resonance with the jewellers craft.
Suddenly my head was filled with questions – Who made it? How? Where? Why? Who wore it? What was the jeweller’s workshop like? Did they suffer the same frustrations of a bad day at the bench? How did it end up in this potato patch?
I set about trying to understand more about this ancient object, and the first task was to work out how it was made. Try as I might, I couldn’t fathom it out after that first viewing. I had no option but to sleep on it.
Over the course of the night I had a dream. In it, I was making the ring from scratch! Every bend and curl of the intricate knot work became clear and simple. Out of all the dreams I’ve ever had, this really was the most helpful – although plenty have been more entertaining (particular the recent one where I was a security guard at a guinea-pigs’ crazy golf course)!
On waking, too excited to make it to the workshop, I grabbed some garden wire from the itsy-bitsy drawer and in as much detail as possible (given my tools were a vanilla pod container, bacon scissors and desert fork,) I recreated the ring. When I compared it to the original I was disappointed. Something was wrong. I had made the knot in reverse! Because I’m left handed I had instinctively turned the wire in one direction, and I assume the original jeweller was right handed and created it in the most natural way for a right-hander. I later discovered that arrows can reveal whether their makers were left or right handed depending on the direction in which the flights are wound.
The ring’s shape is created and held together simply from the tension of the knot. No soldering, joining or riveting is required. Two pieces of wire are used; one long round piece which doubles over and then creates the knot, and a shorter twisted wire which makes the shoulders.
As far as Saxon jewellery goes, the ring’s form and construction are simple. Some of the fine gold granulation and filigree work associated with finds such as The Alfred Jewel, would have required far greater technical skills and expertise. (More about that in another feature). It is unlikely to have been of massive importance as it is wrought in a non-precious metal, but it was customary for chiefs and Royalty to give rewards in the form of a ring (King Alfred was known as The Ring-Giver). The finger size is big, so it could have been a man’s ring.
The ring seems so special, of such local interest, and a timeless and practical design, I decided to recreate it in a variety of coloured golds, platinum and silver. Rose gold would have been nearest to its original copper colour.
I make the round wire needed for the main knot by a method known as drawing. It is pulled through a succession of narrowing round holes drilled in a flat ‘draw plate’. It is not known whether the original Wedmore ring wire would have been made in this way, or if the wire was formed by rolling the metal. The main wire is bent around a tapered steel ring stick called a triblet. It has to made to the correct size at this point, as alterations on a finished ring are very difficult.
Precious metals work-harden the more they are bent, and eventually they would fracture. To maintain malleability, the wire needs to be frequently annealed or softened. This is done by warming it with a flame to a ‘worm red’ and allowing it to cool. The metal then needs to be cleaned as oxidation creates a black surface, so a weak acid is used to bring the colour back.
The knot is formed using pliers. The second, shorter piece of wire is given a square cross-section, either by forging with a hammer, or rolling through square rolling-mills (which are rather like old-fashioned mangles). Then this is twisted. The twist is threaded through the centre the main knot and folded around the sides. Cutting and shaping of the ends is important to finish it off neatly, and shaping with a leather mallet makes it completely round.
After hallmarking, I give the rings an individual number with steel ‘swans neck’ punches made for me by the London Assay Office.
Wedmore and surrounds must have been busy times in the Saxon age, yet to date, this is the only piece of Saxon jewellery found in the village. I often wonder what else might appear to reveal a little more of that age, and whether I’m not the first goldsmith on this exact spot to be hammering and soldering away to meet a deadline!