Pope's goldsmith hopes ring will be spared destruction

The goldsmith who crafted the "Fisherman's Ring" worn by Pope Benedict XVI said he hoped his work would not be destroyed once the pontiff steps down as is customary in Catholic tradition.

"I hope the ring is preserved and exhibited. It is a jewel that has so much symbolic value," Claudio Franchi, a Rome artisan who was commissioned to make the gold ring when the pope was elected in 2005, told AFP in an interview Monday.

Benedict was the first pope since the 19th century to commission a "Fisherman's Ring" -- his predecessor John Paul II wore a simple gold ring with a cross -- and he has worn the chunky gold ring at all his major public appearances.

The ring is so called because it depicts Saint Peter, who was a fisherman by trade, pulling up his net from a boat. The one worn by the current pontiff carries the inscription "Benedictus XVI" -- the pope's official title in Latin.

Benedict referred to it at his first mass as pope in which he was handed the papal pallium -- a type of vestment -- and the ring. He spoke of the Gospel story of Jesus Christ telling his future disciples that he would make them "fishers of men".

Franchi said the ring was placed on St Peter's tomb before the pope first put it on.

The ring has an elliptical shape -- an artistic representation of St Peter's Square, the famous Vatican plaza designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the 17th century.

It has been kissed by world leaders as well as the masses of ordinary Catholics who have met with the pope during his eight-year pontificate, which is coming to an abrupt end on February 28.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said at a briefing last week that the ring would probably be "terminated" in private in the days after the resignation.

The ring contains 1.23 ounces (35 grams) of gold.

Fishermen's Rings once played a critical role in the running of the Church as signet rings used by popes to put their official wax seals on documents.

They were removed from the hand of a dead pope by the Cardinal Camerlengo, the prelate who takes over before a new pope is elected, and destroyed with a hammer so no fake documents could be drawn up in the pope's name.

Others were completely scratched and melted so that they would no longer be valid.

Few of the rings have therefore survived the centuries and Franchi said the only one on in the Vatican Museums belongs to the "antipope" Clement VII who was elected in 1378 by French cardinals opposed to Urban VI in Rome.

Franchi, who is deputy head of the association of Rome goldsmiths, said the commission he received in 2005 had revived a centuries-old relationship between the papacy and local artisans that had created "an artistic flourishing".

The ring "is a symbol of this pontificate," said Franchi, a fan of Benedict who studied art history and comes from a family of goldsmiths.

His workshop "Franchi Argentieri" is just on the other side of the Tiber River from the Vatican.

Asked if he would like to fashion the ring for the next pope, Franchi said: "I would be happy to but it's really not up to me."