With This Ring . . . : Divorce: Marriage starts with a band of gold. And for some, ends that way--thanks to an artist who sets up parties where the symbol of what once was takes a pounding.

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At first glance it seems to be just another happy-hour gathering of co-workers on the elm-shaded patio behind this old North Valley adobe restaurant.

But there's an unusual song selection blaring from a boombox . . . Why, it's Tammy Wynette sobbing, "Our D-I-V-O-R-C-E becomes final today."

And here, tying on a white canvas apron is Melissa Barker, about to smash the engagement ring from her first marriage with a four-pound sledgehammer.

As her friends and fiance look on approvingly, Barker mutters under her breath, "OK, guys, watch me miss!" and brings the hammer down.

With a sharp ping, the thin band zips off the anvil in a golden blur, striking a bystander. Turns out it was just a glancing blow, but Barker slams the ring squarely on her second try.

"Yes! It's flat--it's goooone, " she drawls, looking pleased with herself.

A small blond woman named Lynn Peters, who's wearing a bright-red apron with a diamond ring-shaped logo on it, asks Barker how she feels.

Wonderful, says Barker, whose divorce became final eight months ago. Then, eyeing the squashed ring, she remarks, "I didn't know it was going to turn into shrapnel."

Peters beams. Another satisfied customer. A commercial artist and part-time jeweler, she dreamed up the ring-bashing ritual for divorced people three years ago and since has supervised nearly 50 bashings.

"Something happens--I've seen it in every bashing I've performed," she says. "When they hit the jewelry with the sledgehammer, there's a release. They say, 'I feel so much better.' "

While the start of a marriage is generally marked by extravagance, a divorce is finalized with the signing of a few papers. There is, says Peters, a sense of loss and emptiness--and little more.

The ring-bashing ceremony, usually capped with a champagne toast, is like a wedding in reverse. It offers "closure, transition and completion," she says.

Convinced that people will pay for that kind of catharsis, Peters founded Freedom Rings: Jewelry for the Divorced.

For a fee ranging from $100 to $600, Peters will supervise a bashing, then melt down the old ring and recast it as a new piece of custom-designed jewelry. Those who want a bashing alone can have the deed done for $50.

She has done group bashings for as many as five people at a time.

Should the idea prove to be a smashing success, Peters will be ready.

She is creating a catalogue of Freedom Rings products, including T-shirts, lapel pins, license plate frames, calendars and announcements--all targeting divorced people. And because she had the foresight to trademark the name, Peters is thinking of franchising the ring-bashing portion of the business in other cities.

When it comes to divorce, Peters, 41, has lived the subject inside and out.

As a teen-ager, she and her two younger brothers were sent to live with relatives in Santa Fe during her parents' own "horrible" breakup.

Years later, with a master's degree in fine arts and a career as a commercial artist, she married a fellow artist, but the union ended in 1988 after six years.

Struggling with the trauma of the divorce, Peters put her wedding band away and tried to get on with her life. But early in 1990 she had an epiphany.

"I found the ring on my little holder and I thought, 'What am I going to do with this?' " Peters says, her accent hinting at her West Texas origins. "Then I said, 'I should just bash this sucker and make something new from it.' "

Inspired, Peters consulted with several of her divorced friends. Some had thrown away their wedding bands, while others had pawned or sold them. They told her the ring-bashing idea was a winner.

Among Peters' early clients was Clayta Campbell, who these days often attends ring-bashings to serve as hammer-bearer.

"It was great--it was very symbolic," Campbell says of her own bashing. "I wanted to make something beautiful out of something tragic, and she did it."

Since Peters held her first ring-bashing in April, 1990, she's had clients ranging from 25 to late 60s--some divorced for as long as 15 years (and some still waiting to sign the final papers). Two-thirds of her clients are women, but Peters maintains she's non-sectarian.

"I do not want to be accused of being sexist here," she says. "This is not meant to be a bashing of either sex."

And while her logo incorporates little wedding-cake figures of a bride and groom who happen to be holding pistols, Peters insists, "I'm not promoting the negative side of this. I'm promoting a process for people to acknowledge their feelings and get past it."

With word of Peters' service reaching an ever-widening audience, she has gotten feedback from people who regularly deal with divorce.

"I've heard from therapists, divorce attorneys and divorce recovery groups," she says. Therapists, she says, are "intrigued, especially the ones dealing with people who are going through a divorce."

But at least one therapist wonders whether the ring-bashing ritual does much good.

Joan K. Rossman, an Albuquerque psychotherapist who has spent 20 years counseling women and couples struggling with the pain of divorce, says that divorce "is a process, not an event," a journey that takes years to complete.

"Divorce is more destabilizing and more wrenching than any other emotional crisis, including death," she says. "The legal divorce is really far easier to arrive at than the emotional divorce and the psychological divorce."

Rossman thinks people who are in a hurry to put their divorces behind them may be avoiding coming to terms with the issues that caused the divorce in the first place.

"I think it's misleading to talk about 'closure,' " she says. "There's something to be said for doing the hard psychological work of what has happened in the relationship, and applying that to new attachments."

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For Melissa Barker's ring-bashing, Peters has pulled out all the stops. She's arranged for some tables at a Mexican restaurant where Barker and her guests can gather.

An anvil cut from an iron rail rests on one black velvet-draped table. The taped country-Western soundtrack is appropriate for the occasion (in addition to Wynette's "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," Peters has included Wynette and George Jones singing "Golden Ring").

Peters, who has already extracted the diamond from Barker's engagement ring, sticks the doomed gold band to the anvil with a piece of clay.

Barker learned of the ring-bashing process from Dawn Bradley Berry, a "happily married" attorney friend of Peters' who has helped out at ring bashings from the beginning and who is on hand today as the ring bearer.

Barker, who says she burned her marriage license the day her divorce was final, wants Peters to make a pin from the ring and some other old jewelry from the marriage. Her fiance, Dale Waltemire, supports her decision. He says he threw the ring from his first marriage into the Cooper River in Charleston, S.C.

Wearing an apron adorned with a pin in the shape of her logo (made from her wedding ring) and a button that says, "I still miss my ex-husband--but my aim is improving," Peters calls everyone to attention and reads a liturgy of her own devising.

"Dearly Enlightened," she begins. "We are gathered here today to celebrate the new life of Melissa Barker."

She enumerates the rights and responsibilities of the newly released, among them, "To have and to hold anyone you damn well please."

As Campbell hands Barker the hammer, Peters tells her, "Bashing this circle will bring you full circle."

Afterward, Barker seems satisfied, so much so that she'll recommend the process to her mother, who's divorcing her father.

Barker says she moved from Dallas back to her hometown of Albuquerque a year and a half ago as her marriage fell apart.

"I moved back here to start over," she says. "The new life is sort of already there."

Peters, too, is pleased.

"I've had more fun with this. Every time I do a bashing or a (jewelry) piece, it feels really good, because the clients are having a good time."

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