Austin’s Fine Jewelry: Home of the Ring Museum
From the Bard of Avon to the Queen B, there have likely been thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – of references in poems, songs, and stories to rings. Most likely, rings were first used as an official symbol or signet to make an impression in clay or wax. The finger ring came later and represented, among other things, a commitment of love.
For Keith Austin, the owner of Austin’s Fine Jewelry, the ring has been the thing for quite awhile – he’s been collecting them for more than 20 years.
“When I tell people that I collect rings, it’s difficult for them to envision what that entails,” he said. “But then they step into the museum.”
About 3 ½ years ago, Keith took two rooms in his fine jewelry store – 140 to 150 square feet – and converted it to a museum where he could display his impressive collection. The room even has a vault door that used to be in a sheriff’s office in El Paso.
“I can display about 40% of my collection at any one time,” he continued. “I like to rotate the items and refresh the displays fairly often so visitors don’t see the same things all the time.”
And there is plenty to see.
“I have Roman rings that date back 1800-1900 years and mourning rings from 18th-century England.”
He explained that a mourning ring was worn to show that the wearer was in mourning after the loss of a loved one.
“Often the mourning ring would contain hair from the deceased person,” explained Keith. “Half mourning rings were worn to show that the wearer was coming out of mourning, about halfway through the accepted period, and were lilac in color.”
There are rings from the Civil War – one made from the hoof of a mule killed on the battlefield – and rings from other U.S. wars right up through Desert Storm.
“I have learned so much about history while I have been collecting,” he said. “Rings have been used for many things in the human experience.”
The collection contains rings from fraternal organizations such as the Masons, school rings, souvenir rings from many states, and athletic and championship rings. He recently added a complete collection of replica Super Bowl rings.
There are toy rings from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, puzzle rings, rings with secret compartments. And no ring museum would be complete without rings from Cracker Jack boxes.
One can see the ring collection any time during business hours, six days a week, and Keith is happy to answer any questions or give the “tour” to any small groups that make arrangements ahead of time. But there is more to Austin’s Fine Jewelry than just the ring museum.
Keith has been in retail all of his adult life. He went to work for Sears at age 19 and was managing his own store by the time he was 21. He moved to Las Cruces from Hobbs, New Mexico, and found himself working for a local jewelry store.
“I fell in love with jewelry and decided to become a certified gemologist,” he said. “I wanted to sell and be able to appraise gems.”
After 8 years, he struck out on his own, working at first out of his home. He had two smaller retail spaces prior to moving into his current location.
“When I opened my first store, I had one case with 12 rings,” he recalled. “I’ve been in this location for 20 years and have remodeled several times.”
After 28 years in the jewelry business, Keith is not considering retirement any time soon. He is having too much fun doing what he loves.
“I hear people say the word ‘retirement’ and I know it’s in the dictionary but it doesn’t mean anything to me,” he laughed.
Keith and his wife, Kathy, of 46 years –a nurse practitioner at La Clinica De Familia – would like more time to enjoy some other passions like antiques, fine art and grandchildren, but for now he is perfectly content offering quality service and merchandise to Las Crucens.
“To me, it’s all about celebrating life,” he concluded. “I want to be able to provide items that people will want to pass down to future generations – jewelry that will become heirlooms. We can help you find whatever it is you’re looking for and we do all our custom design and jewelry repairs in house.”
Keith Austin wants his store to be known as THE fine jewelry store in Las Cruces, but being known as the home of the ring museum – that’s important, too.