The Story Behind Keith Richards's Most Famous Birthday Gift

Robert Cianflone/Getty Images
Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Today is Keith Richards's 75th birthday, which on its own would be a momentous occasion for the Rolling Stones guitarist who has cheated death so many times, people often can't remember if he's alive or not. In fact, there's even a phenomenon called the Keith Richards Effect, wherein Google Search traffic for "is Keith Richards dead?" spikes every time another famous rocker, such as David Bowie or Tom Petty, dies.

But December 18 is a special occasion for Richards for a couple of other reasons. Today is also his 35th anniversary—Keith met American model Patti Hansen in New York in the late '70s, and they married in 1983, on his 40th birthday. (Incredibly, Hansen told Vogue, they connected at the Roxy roller rink during his 1979 birthday party, and "have been together ever since.")

This year also marks another important anniversary for Richards, though. It's the 40th anniversary of a birthday gift that is so closely associated with Richards and his aesthetic that it’s now hard to picture him without it. No, not his eyeliner or headbands or custom Fender Telecaster. His right-hand skull ring.

In 1978, Richards was planning a blowout 35th birthday party in New York. Among those invited was David Courts, a longtime friend who was a craftsman and jeweler in London.

"At the time there was a big connection between the art scene and the music scene," Courts told Richards biographer Victor Bockris in 1992. "I think it had a lot to do with a lot of musicians coming out of art school, and so it was quite easy to jell. I started making jewelry for Keith through Anita [Pallenberg, Keith's longtime girlfriend]."

Courts said that his work for Richards started in the 1960s with a skull pin, which he'd adorned with a bishop's miter covered in sapphires, rubies, and diamonds. Pallenberg immediately wanted it custom-engraved for Richards, and after that, Richards was a regular customer of Courts's often-macabre works.

By the late '70s, Courts and his business partner, Bill Hackett, had been working on making realistic miniature skeletons. Using a real skull for reference, they had carved out a detailed mold, set it in silver, and created the large, heavy ring. Immediately, they knew that Richards was meant to have it. "From the moment he put it on his finger," their site declares, "the magic began."

For decades, Courts and Hackett never made replicas. Keith's ring was featured on album covers, magazine spreads, seen live at every concert—essentially the best possible product placement imaginable—but they never appeased fans by making the ring commercially available. That is, until 2009 (and with Keith's blessing, their site points out). Called the "Death's Head Skull Ring," it's sculpted from the same skull and features the same cranial and nasal detailing as Keith's. The solid 925 sterling silver ring can be custom-ordered to size for roughly $440.

As for Richards, his famous memento mori has resonated with him as much more than just a fancy talisman. "[My skull ring] is to remind me that we're all the same under the skin," Richards told Rolling Stone in 1988. "The skull—it has nothing to do with bravado and surface bullshit. To me, the main thing about living on this planet is to know who the hell you are and to be real about it. That's the reason I'm still alive."

Harry Potter: A Hogwarts Christmas Pop-Up Is a Festive Holiday Decoration, Calendar, and Book for Potterheads

Insight Editions
Insight Editions

If you find the weeks leading up to Christmas to be interminable, Harry Potter: A Hogwarts Christmas Pop-Up from Insight Editions can help make the wait a bit more whimsical. This unique, interactive hardcover opens up to a festive illustration of Hogwarts’s Great Hall, modeled on its appearance from the Harry Potter movie series. In the center is a pop-up Christmas tree that measures 13 inches tall. And since no tree should be left barren during the holidays, there are 25 ornaments, all based on magical artifacts from the series, that can adorn the branches.

The ornaments are housed right in the pages of the Great Hall and can be removed one day at a time like an Advent calendar. Also included in the package is a mini book that features behind-the-scenes details and images about the props, sets, and holiday moments from the movies.

Buy Harry Potter: A Hogwarts Christmas Pop-Up on Amazon for Christmas 2019.
Insight Editions

Harry Potter: A Hogwarts Christmas Pop-Up will be available on October 22 for $39.99 (or $27.99 if you pre-order on Amazon), but that’s not the only Harry Potter book on offer from Insight Editions this fall.

Harry Potter: Magical Places brings the film series’s most iconic locations to life with the help of fully illustrated, multi-layered diorama scenes. These immersive depictions of Potter locales are combined with behind-the-scenes details and descriptions to throw you further than ever into Harry’s world. Harry Potter: Magical Places is on sale now for $29.99.

Harry Potter: Magical Places: A Paper Scene Book
Insight Editions

There’s also Harry Potter: Exploring Hogwarts An Illustrated Guide, which showcases full-color illustrations of the nooks and crannies of Hogwarts, shining light on some of the more obscure details hidden in the school of witchcraft and wizardry. It goes on sale on October 8 for $29.99 (or $20.99 on Amazon).

Harry Potter: Exploring Hogwarts: An Illustrated Guide.
Insight Editions

And be sure to check out our latest List Show, where we discuss the origins of 30 words and spells from the Harry Potter series.

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10 Dramatic Downton Abbey Fan Theories

Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey (2019).
Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey (2019).
Focus Features

Despite its exhaustively polished veneer, Downton Abbey was always a soap opera. Julian Fellowes's historical drama about a family of aristocrats and their many servants could never resist a good shocker, and it deployed plenty of them over the course of six seasons. The valet was suspected of murder (twice). One of the Crawley sisters got knocked up by her older married boyfriend, who promptly went missing. And another sister’s first sexual encounter ended in death. Considering all this, it should come as no surprise that fans have developed similarly wacky theories about the show. These fan theories include secret parentage, undercover spies, and, of course, poison.

Brush up on the best of them before the Downton Abbey movie hits theaters—just in case the whole miscarriage curse comes up.

1. Mr. Carson is Lady Mary’s father.

This theory all comes down to eyes. As you may recall from science class, certain genes are dominant and others are recessive. This is perhaps most easily understood through eye color, where brown eye color, a dominant gene, is expressed as BB and blue eye color, a recessive gene, is expressed as bb. A parent with brown eyes might carry the recessive blue eye gene (i.e. Bb), but if you plot out genetic probabilities on a basic Punnett square, two blue-eyed parents with double bbs have seemingly no shot at producing a Bb baby. Now, what does any of this have to do with Downton Abbey? Both Lord and Lady Grantham have blue eyes, but their eldest daughter, Mary, has brown eyes. This has led some fans to speculate that Lady Mary is actually the daughter of Carson, the family’s beloved butler who has always acted as as sort of second father to Mary. As debunkers have noted, two blue-eyed people can have a brown-eyed child, because recessive genes aren’t that simple. But isn’t it wild to think of Carson and Cora having an affair?

2. Thomas Barrow poisoned Kemal Pamuk.

One of the soapiest subplots of Downton Abbey's first season involved “poor Mr. Pamuk,” the dashing Turkish diplomat who makes a fateful visit to the Abbey. After enjoying a day of fox hunting and an evening of sparkling conversation, Kemal Pamuk drops dead ... right in Lady Mary’s bed. The cause, it is later revealed, was a heart attack, but many viewers suspected something more sinister. Earlier in the episode, the Crawleys’ closeted footman, Thomas Barrow, made a pass at Pamuk, which the diplomat rejected quite forcefully—so much so that he threatened to get Thomas fired. That placed the footman in a tricky situation, but it was nothing a little poison couldn't fix, and that’s exactly why some fans believe Thomas slipped something into Mr. Pamuk’s dinner.

3. Lady Grantham’s miscarriage started a curse.

In the Season 1 finale, tragedy strikes. The newly pregnant Lady Grantham slips on a bar of soap, falling onto the bathroom tiles and inducing a miscarriage. It’s a sad moment, but it’s also, Reddit claims, the source of the house’s future misfortune. According to this theory, the miscarriage kicks off a curse of deadly pregnancies: Lady Sybil dies in childbirth; Matthew Crawley dies in a car accident soon after the birth of his son; and when the maid Ethel Parks becomes pregnant with Major Bryant’s child, he dies, too.

4. Mr. Bates is actually a bad guy.

Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey (2019).
Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey (2019).
Focus Features

Downton Abbey invests a lot of time and effort in convincing us that John Bates, Lord Grantham's trusty, is a great guy—despite his checkered past and multiple murder allegations. But what if everyone’s assumptions about Bates are exactly right? Some Redditors believe Bates is just a remorseless serial killer, pointing to his intense hatred of his first wife and “creepy vibes” as evidence. Anna had better watch out.

5. Michael Gregson is a spy.

Lady Edith’s boss and lover Michael Gregson is the publisher of a London magazine, The Sketch. Thanks to his job, he knows tons of important people, travels all over the world, and speaks multiple languages. He eventually disappears inside Germany in season 4, and later dispatches to the Crawley family imply that he was a victim of Adolf Hitler’s “thugs.” (The show timeline places Gregson in Munich right around the time of the Beer Hall Putsch.) Or at least, that’s the official story. Another one suggests that Gregson was a British spy gathering intel on the insurgent Nazis—and he might not have died at all. His superiors simply needed to feed Edith a lie that would discourage her from poking around, so they made up a cover story that someone who follows the news would believe.

6. Lady Rosamund Painswick is Lady Edith’s mother.

When Lady Edith becomes pregnant with Michael Gregson’s child, she finds a strong support system in her aunt, Lady Rosamund Painswick. Upon learning Edith’s secret, Rosamund travels to Downton Abbey to help her niece through her pregnancy, and suggests adoption options as the due date draws near. Some fans have interpreted this empathy as a clue that Rosamund, not Lady Grantham, is Edith’s true mother. It could also explain why Edith looks (and behaves) so different from her sisters. Or it could just be a sign that Rosamund cares about her niece.

7. Lady Mary’s “operation” was IVF.

In season 3, Lady Mary claims to have undergone a “small operation” that will help her start a family with Matthew. It’s maddeningly unclear what this operation entails, but one wild guess is that she had an early version of IVF. The complete crackpot theory is that this was a cover for Matthew’s infertility, which the doctors wouldn’t disclose to him, presumably to preserve his 1920s masculinity.

8. Lady Mary’s son George becomes a Royal Air Force pilot in World War II.

Lady Mary’s son George is only five years old in the series finale of Downton Abbey. But that means he would theoretically be 18 in the fall of 1939, which is exactly when World War II broke out in Europe. He would almost certainly enlist, as show creator Julian Fellowes himself has suggested. But Decider has more specifically theorized that George would join the Royal Air Force (RAF), “with a desire to rebel against his emotionally distant mother and find purpose in a greater cause.” Sounds like George would be taking part in some dangerous missions, putting the entire family’s future at risk.

9. Public tours keep the estate alive.

The Crawleys spend much of Downton Abbey fretting about the future management of their estate—partially because Lord Grantham is kind of bad at it. But Lady Mary has taken over when the series ends, and Fellowes believes she’d find savvy ways to keep her family’s home in their hands. “She would probably have opened the house to the public in the 1960s, as so many of them did,” Fellowes told Deadline. “And she’d have retreated to a wing, and maybe only occupied the whole house during the winters. My own belief is that the Crawleys would still be there.”

10. The Dowager Countess keeps Denker and Spratt around for the drama.

Gladys Denker is a maid to the Dowager Countess. Septimus Spratt is her butler. These two do not like each other, and they’re quite public about it. Denker and Spratt’s unprofessional squabbles would’ve gotten plenty of other servants fired, but fans believe the Dowager Countess keeps them employed for her own amusement.

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