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With This Ring . . . : Divorce: Marriage starts with a band of gold. And for some, ends that way--thanks to an artist who sets up parties where the symbol of what once was takes a pounding.

July 07, 1993|MICHAEL HAEDERLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — At first glance it seems to be just another happy-hour gathering of co-workers on the elm-shaded patio behind this old North Valley adobe restaurant.

But there's an unusual song selection blaring from a boombox . . . Why, it's Tammy Wynette sobbing, "Our D-I-V-O-R-C-E becomes final today."

And here, tying on a white canvas apron is Melissa Barker, about to smash the engagement ring from her first marriage with a four-pound sledgehammer.

As her friends and fiance look on approvingly, Barker mutters under her breath, "OK, guys, watch me miss!" and brings the hammer down.

With a sharp ping, the thin band zips off the anvil in a golden blur, striking a bystander. Turns out it was just a glancing blow, but Barker slams the ring squarely on her second try.

"Yes! It's flat--it's goooone, " she drawls, looking pleased with herself.

A small blond woman named Lynn Peters, who's wearing a bright-red apron with a diamond ring-shaped logo on it, asks Barker how she feels.

Wonderful, says Barker, whose divorce became final eight months ago. Then, eyeing the squashed ring, she remarks, "I didn't know it was going to turn into shrapnel."

Peters beams. Another satisfied customer. A commercial artist and part-time jeweler, she dreamed up the ring-bashing ritual for divorced people three years ago and since has supervised nearly 50 bashings.

"Something happens--I've seen it in every bashing I've performed," she says. "When they hit the jewelry with the sledgehammer, there's a release. They say, 'I feel so much better.' "

While the start of a marriage is generally marked by extravagance, a divorce is finalized with the signing of a few papers. There is, says Peters, a sense of loss and emptiness--and little more.

The ring-bashing ceremony, usually capped with a champagne toast, is like a wedding in reverse. It offers "closure, transition and completion," she says.

Convinced that people will pay for that kind of catharsis, Peters founded Freedom Rings: Jewelry for the Divorced.

For a fee ranging from $100 to $600, Peters will supervise a bashing, then melt down the old ring and recast it as a new piece of custom-designed jewelry. Those who want a bashing alone can have the deed done for $50.

She has done group bashings for as many as five people at a time.

Should the idea prove to be a smashing success, Peters will be ready.

She is creating a catalogue of Freedom Rings products, including T-shirts, lapel pins, license plate frames, calendars and announcements--all targeting divorced people. And because she had the foresight to trademark the name, Peters is thinking of franchising the ring-bashing portion of the business in other cities.

When it comes to divorce, Peters, 41, has lived the subject inside and out.

As a teen-ager, she and her two younger brothers were sent to live with relatives in Santa Fe during her parents' own "horrible" breakup.

Years later, with a master's degree in fine arts and a career as a commercial artist, she married a fellow artist, but the union ended in 1988 after six years.

Struggling with the trauma of the divorce, Peters put her wedding band away and tried to get on with her life. But early in 1990 she had an epiphany.

"I found the ring on my little holder and I thought, 'What am I going to do with this?' " Peters says, her accent hinting at her West Texas origins. "Then I said, 'I should just bash this sucker and make something new from it.' "

Inspired, Peters consulted with several of her divorced friends. Some had thrown away their wedding bands, while others had pawned or sold them. They told her the ring-bashing idea was a winner.

Among Peters' early clients was Clayta Campbell, who these days often attends ring-bashings to serve as hammer-bearer.

"It was great--it was very symbolic," Campbell says of her own bashing. "I wanted to make something beautiful out of something tragic, and she did it."

Since Peters held her first ring-bashing in April, 1990, she's had clients ranging from 25 to late 60s--some divorced for as long as 15 years (and some still waiting to sign the final papers). Two-thirds of her clients are women, but Peters maintains she's non-sectarian.

"I do not want to be accused of being sexist here," she says. "This is not meant to be a bashing of either sex."

And while her logo incorporates little wedding-cake figures of a bride and groom who happen to be holding pistols, Peters insists, "I'm not promoting the negative side of this. I'm promoting a process for people to acknowledge their feelings and get past it."

With word of Peters' service reaching an ever-widening audience, she has gotten feedback from people who regularly deal with divorce.

"I've heard from therapists, divorce attorneys and divorce recovery groups," she says. Therapists, she says, are "intrigued, especially the ones dealing with people who are going through a divorce."

But at least one therapist wonders whether the ring-bashing ritual does much good.

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