Finger ring made of red gold, carnelian, onyx and chrysoprase, around 1820.
With this ring Goethe tried to capture the heart of young Wilhelmine Herzlieb. Alas, to no avail. Alice and Louis Koch collection / Swiss National Museum

Goethe’s Heart Throb for Young Miss Herzlieb

What does a poet do when his lyrical wooing falls on deaf ears? He presents his queen of hearts with a ring. Alas, this too did not change Wilhelmine Herzlieb’s mind. The rare jewel, however, survived.

Andrej Abplanalp

Andrej Abplanalp

Historian and communications chief of the Swiss National Museum.

Goethe not only enchanted the lovers of literature but also many women of his time. His numerous liaisons not only contributed to his personal enjoyment, they also had a profound impact on his literary oeuvre. The Sorrows of Young Werther, for example, helped him to get over his rejected love for Charlotte Buff, while his liaison with Friederike Brion resulted in the Sesenheimer Lieder. In his younger years, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a passionate and impetuous lover, but this changed in the course of his Italian Journey (1786 to 1788). He became quieter and more focussed on stability. However, in the autumn years of his life, his Sturm und Drang side resurged. Well over fifty, Goethe fell in love with Wilhelmine “Minna” Herzlieb and attempted to sweet-talk her with the aid of one or two sonnets. However, the young woman ignored his reveries in ink. Did this prompt the ageing poet to declare his love in a more tangible form? In 1820, Goethe gave Wilhelmine, then eighteen, a ring made of red gold, adorned with three stones of different colours, incised with the symbols of Faith, Love and Hope. Unfortunately, the latter remained unfulfilled since Minna Herzlieb failed to raise any enthusiasm for Johann Wolfgang. Later she gave the ring as a present to her best friend, Auguste Wittig, and went on to marry the German professor of law, Friedrich Walch. It was a marriage of convenience and ended tragically for Wilhelmine Herzlieb. She fell into a deep depression and died many years later in a mental hospital.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe at the age of 80, painting by Karl Joseph Stieler, 1828.
Goethe dedicated a few sonnets to the young woman. Wikimedia / Neue Pinakothek
Minchen Herzlieb, oil painting by Luise Seidler.
Minna Herzlieb married another man. Wikimedia
Minna’s ring remained in possession of Auguste Wittig’s family and was finally auctioned off to the collectors Alice and Louis Koch in London in 1981. Their collection, which comprises over 2,500 rings, has been held by the Swiss National Museum since 2015. Unlike the love-stricken poet, visitors can strike gold: the famous piece of jewellery is on display in the permanent exhibition "Collection in the West Wing" at the National Museum Zurich.
Finger ring made of red gold, carnelian, onyx and chrysoprase, around 1820.
Finger ring made of red gold, carnelian, onyx and chrysoprase, around 1820. Alice and Louis Koch collection / Swiss National Museum

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