Sunday, March 18, 2012

Dr Sonjah Stanley Niaah's Tribute to Ralf Bender

Sonjah: "Twas a beautiful service. The offering was taken up as a contribution to establish a scholarship for jewelry student at Edna Manley College."

For Ralf: A Lifetime of Gemology and Craftsmanship

They say people come into your life for a reason, season or lifetime and indeed, it all depends on what you understand each of those words to mean. A lifetime can be a moment, a day or as old as the baobab tree because arguably it is the impact that counts. For me, Ralf and I shared a lifetime. There is something timeless about precious things given to us by nature, something eternal about those things he nurtured and crafted that he has left in our hands, minds, in our hearts and, yes in our collections.

A friend, partner, lovely soul, I first heard about Ralf Bender from an undergraduate classmate of mine at the UWI. Sometimes it seems I've been at the UWI for a lifetime. It was my friend Suzanne Wynter's hand with a stunning wedding band that had caught my eye and I had to inquire of its origin. I decided instantly, long before I had even found a partner that the same jeweler would make my wedding band. We're talking about 1989 and I got married in 2000. I had to meet this man and more importantly I had to acquire one of his pieces. My status was then that of a student and though constrained with budget, my marriage which was now pending would occasion my acquisition of one of the custom built treasures that Ralf was famous for.

True to form, when the time came, I happened into Suzanne again, got details of Ralf's whereabouts and BAM!! the deal was sealed. I went to Ralf with my husband to be and having had a dream about the rings, I proceeded to sketch the idea I had in mind. The rings were made and they sealed the lifetime I share with my husband but also the one I share with Ralf Bender the gemologist and master jeweler par excellence.

However, our relationship merely began there. My husband who participated in the reflection for this tribute, wants me to share that for me Ralf Bender is somewhat of an addiction, because one finds oneself all sorts of excuses to return to his store, to have Lorna dazzle the eyes with the latest of her fineries or ideas for new pieces, sometimes beyond the reach of the pocket. Eventually I thought that I needed to make my trips in secrecy, so that my addition would only be known to those in the store and that they would help by not publishing my love, my virtual obsession.

The Bender pieces therefore mark important rituals in my life and systematically unraveled, they tell stories about achievements, milestones and progress. For example, when myself and my husband graduated with PhDs we once more acquired Bender pieces as our gifts and investments in ourselves and our achievement.

I have no need here for confession - because this tribute freely gives insights about me and my fascination for jewelry, their construction and design that Ralf helped me to nurture. But it also speaks of the man behind the pieces. The soul that created with duty and commitment much of what we are left with as reminders of his genius and dedication.

Whether it was the latest travel, desired excursion, orange stones I wanted to acquire, design ideas I had, or the explanation for the setting I was seeing for the first time, Ralf satisfied the needs of my longstanding love for nature, exploring the world, and design. I will never forget the stories of Iceland and the reggae band Lorna and Ralf discovered, the pictures of Ecuador, the profound stories about Christmas Island.

You see, I found a kindred spirit in Ralf in so many ways, and eventually I came to know Ralf and Lorna as close friends, and often-times family. I was attracted to the quiet strength that exuded from the space that they created for their clients, and I was impressed with Ralf's comfort in the Caribbean and his deeper spirituality that could only be hinted at through his vibes and aura. Ralf provided a meeting spot for different generations and cross-sections of people traversing this space and time… He allowed us to understand that Jewelry was in and of itself an occasion that should be enjoyed and he was always patient enough to provide his clients and friends with this occasion, and of course products.

Precious and timeless is how I wish to remember him as I bask in his treasures that humbly surround me—intimately on my neck, hands and ears, almost like whispers of comfort and wisdom beckoning us to a higher more magnificent splendor.

I will remember Ralf as a man with eyes that could see the soul of anything and anyone. A man who was more in touch with spirituality that the ordinary person would have known about him. A man who lived and loved in full, and man who was entirely passionate about and dedicated to his craft.

I am not one for regrets. But if I had one it is that I did not fulfill one of my dreams of becoming a jeweler under Ralf's tutelage.

Walk good Ralf. Your soul lives on. There is only a change in your garment.

I will forever cherish you and the role you played in my life.

March 16, 2012

S Sonjah Stanley Niaah | Ph.D
Senior Lecturer, Cultural Studies, UWI

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