Rome, Imperial period, late 1st century BCE–early 2nd century CE. Carnelian intaglio set into a gold ring. Private collection, Paris.

From the Exhibition:

Charles Percier: Architecture and Design in an Age of Revolutions

The story of “Percier’s ring” is emblematic of the longevity of Percier’s legacy and of the extent to which the French academic Beaux-Arts tradition, which survived until the student uprisings of May 1968, was rooted in the first years of the nineteenth century. The origin of the practice of transmitting the ring from architect to architect dates to 1838. Surviving letters of transmission document its journey and the sequence of its custodians.

The object itself, a carnelian intaglio mounted on a gold ring, features a portrait probably of Marciana, the elder sister of Trajan, and dates from the end of the first century CE or the beginning of the second.

The first known owner of the ring was Julien David Le Roy, a member of the Académie royale d’architecture, whose sponsorship had enabled Percier to compete for the Prix de Rome. Upon his death in 1803, Le Roy bequeathed the ring to Percier as a token of friendship, although his reputation was later eclipsed by that of his student.

It is not known who established the protocol for the ring’s transmission. Achille Leclère, the first custodian and author of the first letter of transmission (fig. 1), was unclear on this point.

Fig. 1. Letter of bequest of Percier’s ring. Achille Leclère, September 15, 1838. Pen on paper, wax seal of the ring. Private collection, Paris.

He noted that he had received the precious talisman from the executors of Percier’s estate: “I kept it; it cannot be sold. And after me [it goes] to Provost, with the stipulation that he is to transmit it to [Louis Hippolyte] Lebas, member of the Institut, or failing him to the most skillful architect and also the finest man.” After this pronouncement, which established the rules governing transmission, Leclère inscribed: “Such is my will on this September 15, 1838.” But was it his will or Percier’s? Jean-Louis Provost died before Leclère, and so Lebas became the ring’s second custodian. On June 14, 1867, two days after Lebas’s death, his daughter wrote to Charles Édouard Isabelle: “He bequeathed to you, sir, a ring that belonged, in succession, to his master Percier and his friend Achille Leclère. How should I convey to you this ring, which was for my dear father a veritable relic and which is now one for me? It never left his finger.”

Isabelle was not a student of Percier but knew him well, and Isabelle’s two books dedicated to circular buildings in which Italian examples predominate, belong to the tradition of published anthologies of Italian architectural models. Scarcely one month after receiving the ring, he chose as its future custodian Léon Ginain, a product of Lebas’s atelier and a professor at the École des beaux-arts.

With Ginain began a second period, an extended one, for the ring would be held by his students until 1957. As demonstrated by the following passage from a letter written by the widow of Victor Blavette in September 1933, the principal criterion was affiliation with the atelier: “I am quite sure that I honor my husband’s intentions by designating you, dear sir, his faithful friend and esteemed disciple, as the [next] possessor of this token, which should remain in the hands of an architect of talent and integrity, and preferably a student of Léon Ginain.”

When there were no more Ginain students, the tradition was carried on, and the architect who loaned it to Bard Graduate Center Gallery is its thirteenth custodian.