I can tell you exactly when I took it into my head that I wanted a lapis lazuli intaglio ring. Intaglio, as I’m sure you all know, is a carving incised into stone (as opposed to a cameo, which is a carving in relief). And lapis is the stone of my dreams, a blue so intense you can fall into it, often flecked with what looks like gold but is actually iron pyrite. It’s another of those semiprecious stones that have been prized for millennia—by the ancient Egyptians, for example, who used it in the funeral mask of King Tut.
Lapis lazuli has long been ground into powder to make ultramarine, the most expensive blue pigment, still resplendent in the robes of many a Renaissance Virgin Mary. It is, to mangle a metaphor, the gold standard of blue. The word “azure” derives from it. The best lapis is (and has always been) mined in Afghanistan and Russia.
Intaglio-carved lapis is not hard to find. But I never encountered any until June of 2000, when I first attended the West Chester University Poetry Conference. At the opening banquet, a striking young woman entered the room radiating sensuality and self-assurance. She wore some sort of poet-appropriate floaty dress, but what caught my eye was her silver ring with a carved lapis stone—an image of a horse, I think. I was too intimidated to grab her hand and stare at it. She had just published a new collection of poems, and much was being made of her. I bought the book, but I wanted the ring.
It wasn’t until nine years later that I had my own intaglio made—with a carving of a spider. Until then, I would not have wanted a spider on my person in any form. From earliest childhood, I was terrified of them. Couldn’t be in a room with one. Repeated readings of Charlotte’s Web did not help (except to expose me to superb writing). But I had recently undergone a kind of conversion. A large garden spider—the scary, hairy kind—had taken up residence in the window of my study. Outside the glass, because inside would not have been an option for either of us. She wasn’t easy to look at, but she was magnificent. (I know she was a she: Male garden spiders are much smaller. They’re prey-sized, and prey is what they generally become after mating.) I once saw her capture and wrap a wasp with deadly, lightning precision. And every few nights, I had the privilege of watching her build a new web, going meticulously inward, clockwise, around and around the spokes she had somehow placed in thin air, the whole apparatus anchored to the house by impossibly long strands. Her webs were at least two feet across. She would hang content in the center, swaying gently in the wind. I was glad to see her—imagine! She disappeared that winter, though one gleaming line of silk remained. In spring, she reappeared, much thinner, but still game. Miraculous.
She was my first resident spider. I wrote poems about her, lucky poems that got published. Other spiders followed. One got wooed, won, and knocked up by a tiny male. She grew huge. She made an egg sac, attached it to a drain pipe, and went off somewhere to die, her job done. I began to want a spider ring, in lapis.
So I commissioned my jeweler friend Michele Berman, who relishes this kind of assignment. She found a carver for the spider intaglio—in Germany, of course. There’s a town called Idar-Oberstein that’s been a center of stone cutting for centuries. They use lasers, ultrasonics and computers these days, but the work is still exacting.
I furnished Michele with the spider photo above. She had the image re-proportioned by computer so it would fit comfortably on a ring—if we’d used the real proportions, the legs would have been long and the body tiny. We chose a suitable lapis cabochon and sent it to the cutter. So far, so good, right?
Not right. The first effort, at left, looked more like a tick—the body too large, the legs too small. And hairy. Not pretty. Michele found another carver, who produced a successful image. When the intaglio arrived in the U.S., Michele got to work on the ring. She is one of the few remaining goldsmiths who still builds a design by hand, carving the wax for the casting. Most jewelry design is computer aided now; it’s certainly more efficient and less time consuming.
But there are things a person can do that a computer can’t. A heavy ring like this has to sit perfectly on the finger and not twirl. Michelle accomplished it elegantly, driving herself half mad in her quest to get the proportions exactly right…which is exactly what you want in a jeweler.
Now that my home is a city apartment on a high floor, I don’t live with spiders anymore. There was a time when this would have suited me fine. But I miss them. They make beautiful, useful things which are regularly destroyed and have to be rebuilt. Of course their webs don’t last—lasting isn’t the point of the spider’s art. Survival is.