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Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences

Department of Anthropology

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Museum of Anthropology

American Material Culture

Al Capone and the Bootlegger Diamond

cocktail ring owner

Margaret DeVito Mazzei on her wedding day, 1943.

Cocktail rings naturally evolved out of the glamorous and excessive 1920s, as women were set free and alcohol was locked up. Americans generally don't like to be told what they can and can't do, so underground speakeasies and cocktail parties became popular (and illegal) activities during the Prohibition Era. During this time of economic prosperity, women dressed in their flapper attire and wore extravagant cocktail rings, flashing the precious gemstones while casually holding their illegal alcoholic beverages in one bejeweled hand and a cigarette in the other.

cocktail ring

Diamond cocktail ring, originally owned by Margaret DeVito Mazzei, worn by her daughter Patricia Barriball.

Cocktail ring designs initially started out as one large gemstone surrounded by pave diamonds, but evolved into elaborate statement rings. My grandmother's ring (pictured) is crafted in a more traditional cocktail ring style, though hers dates to the 1940s.

Despite being made after the Prohibition Era, her ring is has tangible ties to that period The large center diamond originally comes from her father's tie clip - he had the diamond split in two and made into rings for my grandmother and her sister. This tie clip originated back to the 1920s, and is a relic from my great-grandfather's time working for Al Capone in Indiana. Capone ran a large bootlegging operation out f Chicago, but frequently took trips to a hotel in Indiana where my great-grandfather spent several weeks doing unspecified business for him before returning to his home in New Jersey.

cocktail ring

Diamond cocktail ring, originally belonging to Margaret DeVito Mazzei.

This ring is an unexpected yet interesting representation of multiple decades of American material culture. From its beginnings as a tie clip bought with bootlegger money, to its repurposing as a ring, to being passed down as an heirloom, economic and cultural trends throughout the 20th century American materialism can be traced through one diamond.