With this ring Goethe tried to capture the heart of young Wilhelmine Herzlieb. Alas, to no avail.

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 and will shortly be on show at the National Museum Zurich.

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.

Goethe dedicated a few sonnets to the young woman.

Minna Herzlieb married another man.

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. Around 300 pieces are on permanent display at the National Museum Zurich. Under normal circumstances Goethe’s ring is not exhibited. But unlike the love-stricken poet, visitors are now about to strike gold: the famous piece of jewellery is on display in a special exhibition from 19 May through 22 October 2017.


Jewellery. Material Craft Art

In a special exhibition the Swiss National Museum is putting on display a selection of its best pieces from its extensive jewellery collection. The spectrum ranges from archaeological objects to sacred, bourgeois as well as peasant creations through to contemporary pieces. Of course, Goethe’s ring also features in the “hit parade” line-up.

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Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).