Yves Gastou’s vast collection, now on display in Hong Kong at L’École School of Jewelry Arts, charts not only his singular taste but also the significance of men’s jewellery through history.
The name of the late Yves Gastou was familiar to many in the art world. A trailblazer in antiques, Gastou had an eye for beauty and eclecticism and a bejeweled finger firmly placed on the pulse of contemporary design and modern tastes. As a curator, he was visionary, the first of his generation to showcase Italian design in Paris in the 1980s, bringing in the provocative works of Sottsass, Mendini and Kuramata, while reviving the eras of Art Nouveau and Art Deco. As a collector, he was partial to rings – extremely so. His idiosyncratic collection caught the eye of L’École School of Jewelry Arts in 2018, which collaborated with Gastou and his son Victor on an exhibition his of his rings that featured pieces worn by ancient Egyptians, Venetian Doges, a Malian chief and even members of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang.
This month, the exhibition showcasing Gastou’s not-so-secret obsession arrives in Hong Kong. “It was important for us in Hong Kong to be very faithful to the Paris exhibition,” says L’École’s Asia managing director Elise Gonnet-Pon. “We’re showing the many facets of Yves’ passion, his personality, the things that touched his heart and the aesthetic beauty of the rings, which are like art objects and sculptures. This accumulation really shows a lifetime of collecting, a journey rooted in his childhood, when his passion for rings emerged.”
Co-curator Victor Gastou recalls his father’s incredible passion and how it influenced him as a collector. “He had such a way of speaking about his passion that you can only be part of it,” he says. “It’s like a tornado that brings you into his crazy movement. In the beginning, I just wanted to help him. As art dealers, we travelled a lot and saw a lot of things and sometimes I’d find objects. If something caught my eye, I’d send him a photo. But once you start searching, you build an interest – I’m not as crazy as my father was, but after some time I also began to take an interest in rings.”
Men have worn rings since ancient times. In fact, the ring is one of the oldest known jewels: it was the first ornamentation made by humans before the invention of mirrors. The people of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia hammered gold, silver and bronze into circular bands, and there’s also documentation of even earlier examples in ceramics, earthenware, glass and even bone. In time, the top half of the bands began to be decorated with stones or a flat bezel surface that could be engraved, now known as the signet. Men wore jewellery – the adornment wasn’t reserved for women – to display their wealth and power.
Gastou and his son bought important rings, which they stored in boxes, rarely taking the time to take stock of their collection as they continuously built upon their passion. The exhibition provided them an opportunity to open all their boxes and, says Victor, “When we did that, we realised how crazy it was to have more than 1,000 rings. It was a sea of rings – rings were everywhere. It was great. Before, they were just objects. But when you have a chance to put them together, they become a collection and you can make a connection between them. That’s what’s so fantastic about the exposition with L’École. We managed to connect all the rings and give them another dimension.”
If the collection seems indiscriminate at first, rest assured it isn’t. Each ring reflects Gastou as a person, the memories of his many trips and the innumerable encounters on his travels. And though collection ranges from the rare and priceless to inexpensive and commonplace, Gastou had a singular way of choosing his rings, which are all deeply rooted in symbolism.
Victor calls it a Chinese portrait. “The themes in the collection give different facets of Yves’ personality; once you see the things he liked, they give an idea of how he was. There are Gothic rings, which represent his love for romance; Baroque, which is the excess of life; the biker rings show his search for freedom,” he says. Sharing a particular anecdote, Victor tells me that as a boy, his father lined up again and again to greet the local bishop until his mother told him to stop, only for him to protest, “But mother, he has such a beautiful ring!” Gastou also owned a number of English mourning rings that date back to the 18th and 19th centuries; engraved with the name of the deceased, they sometimes contained a lock of hair or a portrait to honour the death of loved ones.
The flagship pieces in the collection, however, are the Momento Mori skull rings that embrace the vanitas theme, a reminder to make the most of life before we die. Yves was an avid biker himself, passionate about the free and rebellious spirit of the Hells Angels. He’s often portrayed wearing a silver skull ring by André Lassen, which held a cut hematite clenched between its teeth.
In L’École’s perspective, according to Gonnet-Pon, the exhibition is noteworthy because the rings represented a living collection. “You can really connect with the collection because it’s not only beautiful antique jewellery, but it’s also daily jewellery,” she says. “The fact that Yves also wore these rings is very important. It’s not a collection just for museum display but it’s a living collection.”
Gastou died in 2020 but his collection continues to live through the exhibition as well as Victor, who is continuing his father’s legacy and collection. “I have an artist at the gallery doing some mosaic work and I recently had the opportunity to find an 18th-century micro-mosaic ring,” he tells me. “I bought the ring for the artist and when I offered it to her, she started to cry. It was just a little present but it’s a link between people – it’s such a strong object … the ring is small, but it always comes with great signification. The ring is always meaningful.
“The main message Yves had was that beauty can be found everywhere,” Victor continues. “Being the most expensive ring doesn’t always mean it’s the most beautiful. It’s what touches you the most. It’s very personal and I think the show is successful because of this message.”
(Hero image: Yves Gastou’s Skull Ring, designed by André Lassen)