Totenkopf Rings

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Craig Gottlieb Militaria

The following information has been prepared for Craig Gottlieb who contacted me in order to inspect, review and to render my opinion as to the construction method used in the production of the SS Totenkopf rings. Mr. Gottlieb supplied me with the six following rings that were engraved on the interior and are identified by owner as follows:


Diddens 42

Roder 34

Salisch 40

Heesch 40

Hoffer 43

Schmutzler 34


According to Gottlieb’s book on the Totenkopf Ring, these rings are all 1940s style rings, and are therefore suitable for comparison (Schmutzler and Roder are re-issue rings that bear a 1934 date). These names will be referenced when referring to specific rings when reviewing and supporting the conclusion as to the method of producing these rings.


The four methods of producing an item of jewelry such as this that were taken under consideration were as follows:


· Hand fabrication and engraving

· Die striking

· Die casting

· Lost wax (investment) casting


Hand fabrication and engraving was eliminated first due to the fact that there were a high number of rings produced (according to Boyle and Gottlieb, over 20,000), and given the number of matching identifying characteristics that were present between the six examples it would be impossible to have them all be identical as it would be unlikely for an engraver to make a series of rings with identical matching characteristics given the high degree of detail found in each ring.


Die-casting was eliminated second since this method of production is not one commonly associated with the production of jewelry and is typically used in the production of machine parts.


Die striking was first considered due to the number of identical matching characteristics found in all six examples and would explain why these similarities occurred during the span of production of the rings. There are two methods of die striking that could have been used in the production for these rings. The bands could have been created using a two part or three part steel die followed by a separate steel die to create the skulls which would have then be attached to the finished bands. The two part die would involve the creation of two flat steel dies that would correspond the top and back of the ring which in striking the silver blank would impress the design into the surface of the band. The flat band would then be formed around a steel mandrel to shape the ring to the proper size.


The three part die would be comprised of a mandrel, and two steel dies (each corresponding to half of the exterior design) that would compress a silver half domed band against the mandrel at the same time as pressing the design into the top surface of the ring. The advantage of this technique is that one can produce a large quantity of identical pieces that maintain a high degree of detail in the finished product even after multiple use and that requires a limited amount of hand finishing work.


The second method under consideration would be that of lost wax casting.

In the lost wax process the original model for this ring would have been made of either carved wax or metal, possibly steel. The model would then be placed between sheets of vulcanized rubber that when heated would surround the model. The mold would then be cut open and the model removed in order to create a negative space into which would be injected molten wax to produce an identical wax model. The wax model would then have a gate attached to it (a conduit by which metal can be poured into the model) This is then placed into a can which is filled with investment (a heat proof plaster like substance) and once set is heated to extract the wax and thereby creating a negative space that is filled with molten metal. Once the metal has cooled the investment is broken and the metal model is extracted. The advantage to this method is that one can produce multiple wax models that can then be used to produce multiple castings when clustered together into what is referred to as a casting tree.

Upon close inspection and comparison between the six rings, I have come to the conclusion that these rings were cast, using the lost wax process and that the original model used would have been made of metal. The original metal model would have been the only means by which to achieve the high degree of detail found in the surface of the ring in combination with the low relief profile of the ring.

The creation of original artwork from wax would not have produced and maintained the high level of detail and could not have withstood the process of casting and finishing of the original from wax, followed by the rubber molding, casting and refinishing that would have been required to produce a ring by this method. This is also supported by the fact that most of the European jewelers and jewelry manufacturers had a long tradition of working side by side with model makers and tool makers who worked in steel in order to produce models that were used in the production of jewelry.

Further evidence that supports lost wax casting as the method used to create Totenkopf rings is illustrated beow. For the purpose of comparison, I will discuss the ring shanks and the skulls separately as these two elements were produced independent of one and other and then soldered together in order to complete the rings. Factors such as wear were taken into consideration in the examination process of the rings


Upon inspection of all six rings there were a number of identifying characteristics that were consistent with all six examples, even though the ring size of each of the rings varied. These matching characteristics would indicate that the ring shanks were produced using a method that created identical multiples.

Starting from the back of each of the rings, moving towards the front of the ring, it would first be noted that all of the runes are in the same position with the same sized length of oak leaves between each of the runes. The only times that the oak leaf segments vary in length is toward the front section which brace the skulls as this is the section that was altered in order to size the ring for the wearer as is covered in Mr. Gottlieb’s book on The SS Totenkopf Ring. The consistent positioning of these elements and lack of distortion would also indicate that the ring shanks were produced in a circular form as opposed to being produced as a flat band and shaped to size. This thereof eliminates die striking using two dies as a possible method of production.

Under 10X magnification, the shape of the leaves, the recessed areas and evidence of tool marks (engraving, plannishing and burnishing) were all consistent and matching to all six of the rings. Of all the examples, the Schmutzler 34 ring was the one in the most pristine condition with the least amount of overall wear and was used as base line for comparison. It will also be noted that all examples exhibited some or all evidence of porosity, casting flash and gas bubbles (appearing as small granules of silver adhered to the model). It was the Schmutzler ring that exhibited the largest degree of casting flash, porosity and gas bubbles. The presence of these factors are indicative of the lost wax casting method and would not have been present had the rings been die-cast or die struck using a three part die.


The sig rune panels also share the same similarities as do the oak leaves in terms of having matching forms and tool marks which are consistent with the techniques of engraving, plannishing and burnishing of the metal in the original model.

One of the most notable characteristics of the sig-rune panels is that all six examples match one and other, with five of them having an additional identifying characteristic. All of the rings except for Heesch 40, have an addition matching recession within the background that occurs near the interior point, below the crosshatching in the reserve. This would indicate that the Heesch 40 ring would be the earlier in the series since this additional mark occurs lower in position and is repeated in the other rings. It would also support the fact that the rings were rubber molded and that any change in the mold, either through the degrading of the mold or alteration would therefore continue to show up in subsequent models. Since the mark appears below the surface of the previous form, it could be hypothesized that it would have come from a build up of the mold release or wax that had adhered itself into the mold.


The skulls for the rings were produced separately by the casting method and applied to the rings during the sizing process. One of the difficulties confronting the comparison process is the introduction of solder around the base of the skulls and in the areas surrounding the bones flanking the skulls which in some cases either filled in some of the characteristic markings found on all six skulls. In addition each of the skulls are in slightly different positions on the ring shanks that has contributed to the various degrees of wear to the highpoints on each of the skulls. The four characteristics that were observed in the six skulls are as follows. Comparisons were made between the shapes and positioning of the bones, the join marks at each side of the skulls were the bones are attached to the skulls, the number of and configuration of the teeth, and tool marks found on the left sides of the skulls. The two rings that matched across all four categories were:

· Heesch 40

· Salisch 40

The Diddens 42, Roder 34, Hoffer 34 and Schmutzler 34 examples matched in the shape and position of bones, teeth, in addition Roder 34 shared a similar characteristic to the Heesch 40 and Salisch 40 in that it matched at the bone joins. Lastly the presence of flashing and porosity in the Schmutzler example is a further indication of that the lost wax casting method was used in the production of the skulls.

In conclusion, it been determined that the method used in the production of the six Totenkopf rings presented to me is through the lost wax casting method.

In addition all six rings have identical matching ring shanks and share enough commonalities to in the skulls to conclude that these too are all matching.

Peter J. Shemonsky G.G. Director: Circa, San Francisco, Ca.

Mr. Shemonsky has worked within the jewelry industry throughout his

professional career in retailing, design, manufacturing and the auction business in addition to being a practicing goldsmith. He holds a B.F.A. from the Philadelphia College of Art in goldsmithing and a Graduate Gemologist degree from the Gemological Institute of America.

He is the former director for North America of the fine jewelry & timepiece department of Bonhams and Butterfields in addition to having been the former director of the jewelry and silver department of Grogan & Company and as the assistant to the director of the jewelry department of Skinner Inc of Boston Massachusetts.

He is a member of the International Society of Appraisers and is the course writer and instructor for the society’s course on Antique and Period Jewelry. In addition he is a nationally recognized lecturer and writer on antique and period jewelry, and one of the founding board members for the American Society of Jewelry Historians West Coast chapter in addition to being an appraiser who has appeared on the antiques Roadshow on PBS.


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Lost Wax Casting#3448

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