Episode 177 Part 2: History at Your Fingertips: How Beatriz Chadour-Sampson Catalogued 2,600 Historic Rings

Episode 177

What you’ll learn in this episode:

  • How Beatriz discovered and catalogued the 2,600 rings in the Alice and Louis Koch Ring Collection at the Swiss National Museum
  • How Covid lockdown changed how people wear jewelry
  • Beatriz’s tricks for making a jewelry exhibit more engaging
  • What it’s like to work with jewels uncovered from shipwrecks
  • How global trade has influenced how jewelry is designed and made

About Beatriz Chadour-Sampson

Beatriz Chadour-Sampson studied art history, classical archaeology and Italian philology at the University of East Anglia, and at the University of Münster, Germany. Her doctoral thesis was on the Italian Renaissance goldsmith Antonio Gentili da Faenza. In 1985 she published the jewelry collection of the Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Cologne. Since 1988 she has worked freelance as a jewelry historian, curator of exhibitions and academic writer in Britain. Her numerous publications on jewelry, ranging from antiquity to the present day, include the The Gold Treasure from the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción (1991), and 2000 Finger Rings from the Alice and Louis Koch Collection, Switzerland (1994). She was the consultant curator in the re-designing of the William and Judith Bollinger Jewelry Gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum (opened in 2008), London and was guest curator of the ‘Pearl’ exhibition (2013-14). She is an Associate Member of the Goldsmiths’ Company, London.

Today Beatriz Chadour-Sampson works as a freelance international and jewelry historian and scholarly author. Her extensive publications range from Antiquity to the present day.

Additional Resources:



Working in jewelry sometimes means being a detective. As a freelance jewelry historian and curator of the Alice and Louis Koch Ring Collection at the Swiss National Museum, Beatriz Chadour-Sampson draws on her wealth of knowledge to find jewelry clues—even when a piece has no hallmark or known designer. She joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about how she creates jewelry exhibits that engage viewers; how she found her way into the niche of shipwreck jewelry; and what it was like to catalogue 2,600 rings. Read the episode transcript here.

Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. This is the second part of a two-part episode. If you haven’t heard part one, please head to TheJewelryJourney.com. My guest is Beatriz Chadour-Sampson. She’s been the curator of the Alice and Louis Koch Ring Collection at the Swiss National Museum for almost 35 years. Welcome back.

Beatriz: You asked about the catalogue. We didn’t know if the exhibition was going ahead at one point, but I was asked by V&A Publishing to do a book on pearls, which I did. So, yes, we did a book which was for sale during the exhibition. That was in 2013. We redesigned the jewelry gallery, and 2008 was the end of that. The pearls exhibition was in 2013, the beginning of 2014.

Sharon: Why was it redesigned, the gallery?

Beatriz: The jewelry gallery. With all galleries, there comes a point where they need to be refreshed and renewed, and the previous design needed it. You even had gates you had to get through, and if you weren’t quite as slim as myself, you would have problems getting through the gates. When it was redesigned, it was a completely different aesthetic. As I said, the boards have to tell the story, so when the visitor walks in, they have to understand the story and go from one to the other. Some people say the gallery is very full, but it is a study collection. We asked the education department artists to do certain things. 

I was very keen on going “from cradle to grave.” The gallery is chronological, so you want a display before you start to know why you wear jewelry. A child wears jewelry or a mother wears jewelry to protect them at childbirth, or they wear it for status or religion or whatever it is. Jewelry is multitasking, multifunctional. Today we think of jewelry as decorative, but that is not the case. Jewelry was made for an occasion and a reason. With status, you always have the big diamonds and the big stones. That has always existed, in recently centuries definitely. But there are so many more reasons for jewelry, for mourning and birth and good luck. That sort of exists today, probably with charms. So, jewelry is multifunctional. 

Then we have a screen with pictures from different centuries showing portraits because, at a jewelry gallery, you can’t see the pieces on someone. They need the body, but they don’t have the body. So, it’s good to have a screen showing how the jewelry was worn through the centuries, which is very important. Also in the display, each board—let’s say you had earrings, a necklace and a bracelet. The concept was that what you wear on the top of the head goes on top. What you wear around your neck comes next and then the base, so you have a feeling of an abstract body in a way. It’s not always obvious, but I try to think of it logically. 

Of course, with the contemporary, we couldn’t do that. It is all chronological until you get to about the 1950s, and that’s it. You have to find a completely different concept. So, we decided to do it by materials. Good chronology at the beginning, but then it comes into materials. Natural materials, new metals, techniques. You couldn’t do decades. That couldn’t work. So, we did it by materials, which is an interesting aspect because you have all the different materials they use in comparison to all the gold and silver you see throughout the gallery. Suddenly, you’re seeing a whole wall of completely different materials.

Sharon: What is your role as co-curator? You’re curator and co-curator of so many places. What’s your role as a co-curator? What do you do? What do they call in you for?

Beatriz: It’s an advisory role. The Victoria and Albert Museum is a bit more than just an advisory role. You’re working with the team, with the architect. It’s a team procedure, but as I say, everybody has their own role to play. It intermingles, of course. 

Sharon: At other times, you’ve talked about a different museum in Switzerland where you came, and it looked just—was it at eye level? Was it low? Was it too high?

Beatriz: Oh, that one, no. You remembered that detail. The eye level, that was the Victoria and Albert Museum. That is in the center of the gallery because we did a display for a tourist who goes to the museum and only has 10 minutes to look at jewelry history. So, in the center you’ve got these curved glass cases. The jewelry is on special mounts. You remember that. I asked my colleagues of different heights, from four foot something to six foot something. In the storage room, we had glass doors where there was a lot of storage space with artifacts in it, and I used Post-it Notes to put the different heights of people to see what a good eye level is. So, if you’re looking at a broach or a tiara or something, you want it on the level where you more or less visualize it on your body so you can see it well. So, yes, that’s the Post-it Notes. I used not only double-sided tape and pieces of paper, but also Post-it Notes, trying to find the right height for the pieces. 

Eye level is hugely important, but the other museum you’re thinking of may be something I’m current advising on. This is really an advisory role. It is a museum that will open next year, the Dubedeen, a German museum. Of course, there are gemologists there that are very specialized, but their museum experience is missing. So, I’m giving a little bit of advice on the background of things. Don’t put a plinth that you can fall over. Don’t make drawers that a child can get their fingers caught in. You learn these things from places like the Victoria and Albert Museum. There’s health and safety. There’s also the height of displays, the attention span of visitors. Text shouldn’t be too long. It’s more of an advisory role than an active role.

Sharon: I’m thinking about attention span. You must have seen that really go down. It seems nobody has more than two seconds for attention anymore.

Beatriz: There is an element of that. I think the Koch Collection of rings in the Jewelry Gallery is one of the most visited in the England museums. When you get to sparkle and glitter, there’s more attention span, but not so much on the text.

Sharon: Yeah, that’s probably true. You’ve also done a lot of work on shipwrecks. That’s very interesting.

Beatriz: That goes back to 1989. By sheer coincidence, I came to work on shipwrecks. I was in New York when I was working on the Concepción Collection. I met Priscilla Muller of the Hispanic Society of America in New York, and I helped her with some Spanish and Portuguese jewelry. When she was asked, she just didn’t have the time to work on the shipwrecks. She thought with my Spanish and Portuguese knowledge, I would be suited for that, so I was asked by Pacific Sea Resources in 1989 to work on an incredible shipwreck called the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción from 1638 that sank. It was the usual thing, mutiny and the wrong person taking care of the ship. That’s a private story, not a jewelry story, but the interesting thing is that the jewelry was basically made for Spaniards in the Philippines. The jewelry was made in the Philippines, the majority of it for Spaniards. It was a Spanish colony at the time.

When I was first went through it, I thought, “It looks quite European. It looks O.K.” I signed the contract, and little did I know how much research was involved for the material, which I hardly knew. It was because of the influence. The Spaniards definitely had European design books they brought with them. By then, you had printed books with designs in them, and they must have had them there. Chinese craftsmen were working for them in the Philippines, and of course the Chinese had great skills with outside countries. Some of it looks very European, and some of it is Indian influences, Siamese influences, and influences from Java, Sumatra. The chains, heavy gold chains, were certainly Chinese filigree. In fact, I told the Ashmolean Museum it belonged to Sir Elias Ashmole, whose portrait and chains still exist in the Ashmolean Museum, and I told them that one of the gold chains he had was Chinese. It was given by the Kuffners from Brandenburg, and I happened to find out that the Kuffners from Brandenburg travelled to China. So, that all fit. That was a little like detective work. That was published in 1990.

I’ve recently been working again on shipwrecks, just a few pieces of absolutely fascinating jewelry found off the shore of the Bahamas, which has now been in the Maritime Museum on the Bahamas for only a few months. I also worked on the Atocha in Key West. I organized an exhibition in Hanover for them, where we did a display of the Atocha and Santa Margarita events. But what’s so fascinating about shipwrecks is that we see so many portraits of beautiful jewelry from the Renaissance, the 16th, 17th centuries, where they really documented beautifully painted jewelry in paintings. Thanks to that we can study them in detail. All this jewelry doesn’t exist anymore, especially gold chains, because gold chains were the easiest thing to melt and reuse for more modern jewelry. As I have said, I have a smile when somebody talks to me about recycled gold being something new. Well, it’s nothing new. Recycling gold goes back centuries. 

Sharon: I’m surprised because in the pictures, you always think it’s a straightforward gold chain with no Chinese engraving or anything. You think of it as a gold chain.

Beatriz: Some of it is simple, what they called a P-chain. You saw loads of it, especially on Dutch paintings. But in the Atocha there was a spiral. You can see they’re very tidy on the portraits, but it looks as if they had a spiral at the back holding the chain so they flowed down properly. Some of those chains we had were definitely Chinese filigree because those chains are filigree. In the 1655 shipwreck from the Bahamas, there’s a chain like that, and that’s mainly why they asked me to look at it. That certainly reminded me of some of the Concepción work, which was Chinese craftsmanship. 

The trade was amazing. You had trade happening in the Philippines. Even the Dutch were trading with the Spaniards. The Dutch were trading silks and spices from China and so on. These big galleons went from the Philippines to Acapulco and Vera Cruz and then to Havana. They went on a route around South America, loading and offloading things from Europe. It’s interesting because in Seville, there’s the Archivo General de Indias, and there they have all the books on the shipping material. Like with the Atocha, they found out which ship it was because the gold bars have a text mark on them, and that coincided with the documents they have in Seville. It’s fascinating. It’s a fascinating field.

Sharon: It seems like it.

Beatriz: It’s a mystery and it’s global, of course. Made in Asia; there’s nothing new. It’s hundreds of years. There would not be any porcelain in 18th century Europe the other way around.

Sharon: Do you get to see the ship right away? When it comes up, do you see it when they pull it from the ocean?

Beatriz: No. When I was asked to work on the Concepción, I had to travel to Singapore where it was being cleaned and conserved. In one instance I had to say, “Stop cleaning because I think there’s enamel underneath, black and white enamel. Stop.” You have to be careful because you have to get rid of the marine dirt. No, I got to see it after it was cleaned or while it was being cleaned. 

Sharon: Wow! And then what? It goes to the museum? What happens afterwards?

Beatriz: It nearly got split up and sold at auction. I’m glad it didn’t because it’s a historical find, but unfortunately you have to go the Mariana Islands to see it. You can’t see it always. The material is put together, and it was published in a black and white archaeological report. It was published in 1990, so at least it’s documented. National Geographic did a beautiful spread with color, so you know what it’s like.

Sharon: What have you learned from parsing these shipwrecks, from researching the shipwrecks?

Beatriz: The extent of influence in Europe of some motifs and how far they went. It was made in the Philippines and sold in Europe because everything that was made and transported on this galleon, the Atocha, at some point went to Seville and then it was traded on. We definitely know that the emeralds the emperors were after came from Colombia and then went through Havana to Seville. It’s a fascinating trade, but the trade is something we never think about. In Roman times, the Roman emperor wanted pearls, so they traveled to southern India to get pearls. History does amaze one. 

Sharon: It does. You’re working on many projects now. What can you tell us about some of them?

Beatriz: I can tell you what’s half-finished and what’s coming. I’ve had a year of three books. I co-edited a book with Sandra Hindman, founder of Les Enluminures. I need to add Les Enluminures because for many years, I’ve been their jewelry consultant. They’re based in Chicago, New York and Paris and are specialized mainly in Medieval and Renaissance jewelry, but this has nothing to do with the book we did. It just happened to be that we worked together again. Sandra and myself did something called a liber amicorum in honor of Diana Scarisbrick, a leading jewelry historian. It was for her 94th birthday, and we kept it a secret until her birthday. It had 20 authors in three languages all writing in her honor. That has come out. It’s now available. It was published by Paul Holberton. It’s on varied topics, from archaeology to today, really. 20 authors contributed towards that. 

Today I received my copy of a book I worked on for the Schmuckmuseum, so it’s now published. The launch is on Sunday, but I won’t be traveling to Germany for that, unfortunately. It has to be a Zoom celebration for me. It’s to do with the humanist Johann Reuchlin. He was from Pforzheim. He lived in the late 15th to the 16th century, and it’s about script and jewelry from varying periods. It’s a lot of contemporary jewelry as well. The cover doesn’t really tell you that because it was the 500th anniversary of, I think, his death date. So, he was honored in this book, which has just come out, with essays from many people. Lots and lots of jewelry. That was published by Arnoldsche, and it’s called—I have to think of it—German sounds so much easier in this case. It means script and pictures worn on the finger. I worked on rings with script on them.

Sharon: With writing you mean?

Beatriz: Yeah, writing, that’s it. There are a lot of other topics in the book as well, but jewelry is certainly the dominant. Yes, they are rings. Mary Queen of Scotts is somebody who wrote her inscription inside the ring and was loyal to the queen. Had that been seen, her head would have gone to the chop. It’s rings with prayers on them or rings with some sort of amuletic inscriptions. It’s all inscriptions on rings in my case, and it’s about Josiah Wedgwood who gave this ring to John Flaxman. You’ve got a whole history behind it. It’s rings with script on them, highly visible on the bezel, either visible on the bezel or inside the hoop.

Sharon: In English or German?

Beatriz: It’s basically German, I’m afraid to say, but with lots of good pictures with excellent captions, which are international. I am bilingual in German and English, but I haven’t written German for a long time. 

I’ve actually written a third book that’s coming out, but that won’t come out until January. That was a huge task. It’s on jewelry from Bossard from Lucerne. It started in the early 19th century, but the two I worked on were a father and son from 1869 until 1934. That was the period of historicism. It was also a time of fakes of Renaissance jewelry being made, because there were so many collectors who wanted Renaissance but couldn’t afford the real Renaissance jewelry. So, it was very tempting for fakers to make fake jewelry. When I started, I didn’t know what I was in for, but I have come to the conclusion that it’s pure historicism, what Bossard made. I had very little jewelry to go on, just a few pieces in private hands, but I did find by sheer coincidence a drawing, and I found the bishop who it belonged to. You have a hundred drawings by the Bossard Company over this whole period, and it’s very interesting material to see their designs they were making. In some instances, it’s real Renaissance. I don’t know if they were Renaissance or if it was actually made later. Then it gets critical. It’s a very complex period, but a very interesting archive in the Swiss National Museum in Zurich.

Sharon: For next year, do you have other projects going on?

Beatriz: Yes, the coming projects. I mentioned the gem museum, which is opening next year. I’m in the midst of advising. I’m going to be working very shortly—I’ve already started a bit—on the jeweler Eileen Coyne from London. She’s been working on jewelry since the 1970s and continues to make jewelry very, very different to anything I’ve worked on before. What I find so fascinating is that her imagination and inspiration come from the material. It comes with the material and the tools. She also uses interesting gemstones and beads that come from ethnic backgrounds. She uses the most amazing materials. Also jades, carnelians, all kinds of things. So, we’re going to do a book. She had a shop in the 80s and into the 90s. Her jewelry was displayed in Harvey Nichols in London, and she had a shop where all the celebrities and royals went shopping. It was quite an interesting clientele. We’ll see if we get photographs or if they allow us to show some of the things they bought. It’s very much about discretion in such cases. So, that’s interesting, a completely different type of jewelry. 

I’m really excited about it, but at the same time, I’ve also been involved, and am more involved now, in an artificial intelligence project. That is a ring that has been designed by Sylvia Reidenbach and John Emeny in England. Sylvia Reidenbach is German, but she teaches in Glasgow and London and all over Europe as well. She has created, with John Emeny, a ring with artificial intelligence based on one or two rings from the archaeological museum in Munich, a few rings from the 

Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremburg, and 150 rings from the Koch Collection. There’s one design. The machine makes the design, mixes it all and combines it into one design. The ring is now being made. The stone is labradorite. It’s been on display since Wednesday last week in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum but will be coming to Zurich afterwards. So, I’ll be learning a lot about AI and design. That is completely different from anything. I like the natural materials and history, and then the contrast is the AI.

Sharon: The AI is the dimensions of all these hundreds of rings?

Beatriz: Yes, the images are put into the machine, the AI. Don’t ask me the technology of it because I haven’t got a clue about AI technology. I’m at the beginning of it all. I’m learning, but I have seen how it develops. The images are fed into the machine, like the 150 rings from the Koch Collection and the others, and the machine designs one ring out of that.

Sharon: Wow! So, it’s already made and in the museum.

Beatriz: Only just now. It’s hot off the press, but there’s more to come on that. There will be more to come on that, yes.

Sharon: You’ve written several other books. You wrote “A Life in Jewels.”

Beatriz: That is the book we did for Diana Scarisbrick, honoring her. I’ve written books since 1981, so it’s added up quite a bit. Sometime I can give you a list. 

Sharon: How about the influence of women on 20th century jewelry? Has it changed jewelry? Has it made it more feminine? 

Beatriz: It’s an extremely complex story, the role of women in design. You have to see it from the role of the woman in history. Just recently by coincidence, I’ve seen some material on women painters from the 16th and 17th centuries. In Bologna, for example, there were quite a few, and it’s only now coming to the fore. You also have to see high jewelers’ workshops in the field of jewelry. You don’t have a Renaissance piece of jewelry and know, “So-and-so made it.” That didn’t exist. It’s only in the 19th century that we start that. The hallmarking system in England goes back to the 13th century, but jewelry was considered smallware, so they didn’t consider putting a hallmark on it. 

That changed later on, the but the name of the designer is something that we very often don’t know. The high jewelers of the 19th century, when you knew the name of who made it in Paris or New York, you never know the name of the designer. That is something that came in in the 20th century. You have some classical examples. With Cartier, it was Jeanne Toussaint. She designed some of the iconic pieces for Cartier and the Duchess of Windsor. She worked for I don’t know how many decades designing jewelry. She was a very important female designer. Then you’ve got Coco Chanel. She designed jewelry, mostly costume jewelry, but she also designed diamond jewelry. Not that she wanted to, but it was for the nation and probably the economy that she did it. Elsa Schiaparelli, with her fantastic surrealist jewelry, made that incredible neckpiece with beetles in plastic. If you had to date that as a jewelry store and you didn’t know the background, you’d easily say 1970s or 80s. It’s so amazing. In that period, you also had Suzanne Belperron with her really unique designs in jewelry. 

Of course, the role of the woman changed after the First World War. You had millions of widows, and they had to work. The whole society was changing. After the Second World War, it became even more evident that women were working. I was very cheeky. I did a lecture. It was in the British Museum, and I was talking about the changing role of men and women buying jewelry. You can imagine the shock of some of them. I said, “Women go out and buy their own jewelry.” Before it was classical: the husband bought the jewelry for the wife. They were the earners, so they bought it. There were a few examples in the early 1900s, like the Duchess of Manchester, whose tiaras are in the Victoria and Albert Museum. She was one of these Dollar Princesses and quite a character. She liked smoking cigars and all. She went off with the family diamonds to Cartier and said, “Make me a tiara, and use up the garments.” You have Lady Mountbatten, who, after the birth of her daughter, Pamela, decided to go to Cartier and buy herself a nice bracelet that she could also wear in her hair in the 1920s. 

There are a few examples. On the whole, it was always the husband buying the jewelry, but past that, you have women earning money and buying their own jewelry. The 60s sets off in that direction, and then it becomes jewelry that’s more affordable. Jewelry has never been so diverse as in the last decades. It’s never been so diverse in all its history. If you look at the Royal College of Art, I think you’ll find that, in general, there are a lot more women in training to become jewelers. You find so many names of women designers, now one doesn’t even talk about it. Whether it’s a man or a woman, it’s just become a norm. 

Sharon: That’s interesting. If you stop to think about it, I don’t even know if there are that many male designers. I’m thinking about when I go to studios. You see more women than you do men.

Beatriz: It’s more and more, yes. There are more and more women, absolutely.

Sharon: What would you advise? What piece of advice would you give emerging jewelers or people who want to follow in your steps?

Beatriz: Remember that if you’re a jewelry historian, you’re an academic. Remember that. You have to really enjoy what you’re doing. In my case, I was very lucky. I’ve worked for so many different projects and so many different jewelers internationally. I’ve specialized in that, but it’s very difficult. Maybe, depending on the economic situation, people can volunteer in a museum to learn the trade. I think what you really have to know is do you want to work in a gallery, or do you want to work in an auction? Do you want to work in a museum? They don’t always mingle, so you have to learn where you want to go. It depends on what your interests are. If you have anybody, send them to me privately. I’m happy to talk it through.

Sharon: Thank you for being with us.

Beatriz: My pleasure.

Sharon: Well will have photos posted on the website. Please head to TheJewelryJourney.com to check them out.

Thank you again for listening. Please leave us a rating and review so we can help others start their own jewelry journey.

Sharon Berman