At the same time that Western culture is being permanently changed by rapid and monumental shifts in technology, we’re seeing a near-obsession over all things antique. From the millions rummaging through flea markets and haunting Ebay for vintage bargains, to the proliferation of modern designs and styles whose inspiration hearkens back to the Edwardian and Victorian eras, antique is definitely cool in the 21st century.
This trend is clearly evident in jewelry stores and online jewelry marketplaces. The enormous selection of designer settings which are derivative of antique and vintage styles, along with the prices that sellers are able to charge for true vintage and antique rings, make it obvious that buyers want “old”.
Those who favor antique pieces give many different reasons for their preference. Some believe that antique engagement rings (or even antique-style engagement rings) are evocative of a much more romantic time, some fall in love with the often-understated look of antique rings, and others feel that if they look in the right places and shop wisely, they can score a real bargain on an antique ring. Some claim that the workmanship evident in the crafting of most antique jewelry makes old pieces far more desirable than most cheaper jewelry manufactured today, while others are attracted to the idea of purchasing an “instant heirloom”. And most fashion experts agree: modern styles will continually change and evolve, but antiques are truly timeless.
No matter the reason, an antique engagement ring certainly makes a strong statement when worn by a bride. We’ll take a look at all of the choices available to couples in the market for antique diamond rings, after we first get a few definitions out of the way.
Vintage and Antique Styles
Many people use the words vintage, antique, estate and even “antique-style” interchangeably. When it comes to rings and jewelry, however, those terms have very different definitions which are generally accepted in the industry; they are important distinctions to know before you go shopping.
In most cases, 50 years is the important number to remember. Rings which are older than that – as long as there’s actual value in their craftsmanship, metal and/or stone – are considered antique rings (needless to say, you won’t do very well trying to sell a tin foil ring that your grandmother made in elementary school as an “antique”). Those pieces which are between 25 and 50 years old are most often referred to as vintage, although some people don’t hold hard and fast to that specific range, and simply mean “old” when they say “vintage”.
The term “estate” actually means that jewelry has been passed down as part of an inheritance, because the property that a person leaves behind after their death is called their estate. However, the term is also often used by laymen to describe vintage rings or jewelry of any age. Finally, antique-style rings are those manufactured recently, but in a style reminiscent of those which were crafted generations ago.
As you can tell, it can be risky to rely solely on a seller’s description of a ring as antique or vintage; always try to determine the piece’s actual age as best as possible.
Important Periods To Know
Antique engagement rings are most often described by the period in which they were designed or crafted. That’s because very different styles were popular in the various eras covered by the blanket term “antique”. Here are the time periods you should learn more about before you go searching for antique diamond engagement rings – or any other type of antique piece (we’re skipping the Georgian period (1714-1837), because virtually no pieces from this era have survived to be sold on the open market).
Bracketed by the rule of Queen Victoria of England, this era actually had several different periods which many say were primarily defined by the status of the Queen’s love life. Early Victorian jewelry is often described as “playful” yet elegant, mid-Victorian pieces are considered more sedate and somber (with black gemstones commonly seen) because this was the period after the death of Victoria’s husband, and late Victorian jewelry again became whimsical yet was influenced by Japanese and Egyptian designs and edgier themes. The overall contrast between the feel of early and late Victorian design is illustrated by the fact that early designs were inspired by nature, while late-era designs were more likely to feature more interesting adornments like griffins and dragons.
Looking more specifically at Victorian antique engagement rings, the early period was highlighted by large rings with flamboyant designs and bright colors. It was common for these rings to have a number of different gemstones ranging from diamonds to amethyst and garnets, as well as other design materials like ivory and coral. Early Victorian antique diamond rings often feature what we today call pavé-style small stones (in that era’s version of halo settings), with brilliant cut diamonds popular as center stones. Predominant metals were 18 and 22 carat gold and rose gold. In addition to nature-themed rings, this period’s rings were likely to be fashioned in the partial shape of a snake, which was not only a symbol of eternal love at the time, but the same design as the engagement ring (decorated with emeralds) the Queen received from her husband, Prince Albert.
Antique engagement rings from the mid-Victorian era have a different look. Silver became quite common during the period because of falling prices for the metal, and less-expensive gold alloys became a more popular alternative to the nearly-pure gold previously favored. Handcrafted rings with more sophisticated and intricate designs were often seen on brides’ fingers, but the increased mining of diamonds in South Africa also led to an increase in the number of diamond engagement rings (with diamond clusters) which were produced. Black stones in keeping with the period’s somber tone, as well as pearls and rubies, were also common choices.
Late Victorian engagement rings, for the most part, evolved considerably. Mass-produced settings and bands replaced most of the handcrafted rings seen in the early part of the century, platinum became much more popular as a precious metal choice (although silver, yellow and rose gold were still used as well), and the diamond solitaire setting debuted to popular acclaim. A wider-than-ever variety of precious and semi-precious stones were included in the era’s rings, including sapphires, opals, aquamarine and emeralds.
There’s one other thing you should know about antique engagement rings from the Victorian period: most did not have any sort of maker’s mark until very late in the era, because the government of England did not require them. That makes it quite difficult to properly authenticate antique rings from this period; getting a professional evaluation for the ring as well as an appraisal for the stone is extremely important before laying out good money for what seems to be a valuable antique.
King Edward VII didn’t rule England for very long, so the period named for him (also known as the “Belle Epoch” or “Beautiful Era”) is equally short, although some historians consider the Edwardian period to have run until 1914 which was four years after his death. This was still a time when romanticism was celebrated, and the most famous engagement rings from the era featured filigree patterns on the band and crown, along with the hearts and flower designs popular during much of the previous century. Delicate milgrain etchings and scrollwork were also a staple of the period.
Antique diamond engagement rings from the Edwardian era again show the use of small pavé stones to complement a center stone which was most commonly round cut, but might also be an emerald or cushion-cut diamond. During this time sapphires and rubies were sometimes used as engagement ring center stones as well. Bands were made from platinum, white gold and silver during the Edwardian period, with yellow gold rings quite rare.
The features that stand out most on antique engagement rings from this time are fine detail work and delicate design. More than anything else, they’re what will help you distinguish a true Edwardian antique ring.
Art Deco (1908-1935)
Although this era is said to have lasted nearly thirty years, the impact of the Art Deco movement was at its height in the 1920s and 30s, and trailed off because of the start of World War II. Art Deco defines a design style rather than the reign of a ruler; the period’s art, as well as its jewelry, were based on symmetry, geometric shapes, bold colors and over-the-top ornamentation which often included extremely elaborate settings.
In keeping with those values, antique engagement rings from the Art Deco era are usually large, often with contrasting colored stones (and sometimes contrasting colored metals as well). The most popular precious metal was platinum, thought to be the most “modern” and a perfect counterpoint to the diverse colors of an Art Deco ring’s stones.
You’re unlikely to find a solitaire antique diamond ring from this period, as different colored stones were almost always added to contrast with the shiny white center diamond. Asscher-cut, baguette and emerald cut stones are most commonly seen in Art Deco engagement rings because of their unique shapes, and the stones surrounding them – often rubies, jade, emeralds, turquoise or onyx – were normally cut in different geometric shapes. The extravagance which marked the Roaring 20s is exhibited well in the era’s jewelry design.
This era is usually not rigorously defined by year, because “retro” describes a feeling more than a specific time period. It’s loosely understood as the years after World War II, when the world was “entering the future” and designers were thinking on grand scales, at times inspired by the glamour of Hollywood. For this reason, retro antique engagement rings are most often quite large, yet feminine; you may see ribbons, flowers and bows as elements in ring designs, but on a grand scale. Gold returned to the fore during the retro era because of a platinum shortage caused by the war, but rose gold and even green shades of gold (created by a copper alloy process) were used in addition to traditional yellow gold.
Semi-precious and synthetic stones were commonly seen in retro engagement rings, because the war had caused a shortage of precious stones and had put a dent in many budgets. However, this was also the period when the diamond solitaire made its stunning comeback in popularity, so diamonds were once again prominently featured in the latter stages of this period.
Antique vs. Antique-Style Rings
It’s easy to understand why brides would want to wear an antique engagement ring. The distinctive appearances of rings from these eras clearly stand out in a sea of modern round brilliant diamond rings, while “connecting” the wearers to the romantic past at the same time. And depending on the bride’s personal style, her antique diamond ring can be the perfect way to show feelings of romance, whimsy, glamour or extravagance.
A true antique ring which makes that sort of statement, though, can be extremely expensive. As just one example, a quality Edwardian antique engagement ring will usually cost at least $5,000 to $10,000, and can sell for much more depending on condition and the value of the stones. They’re also often difficult to find; it can take a long search with the assistance of specialized antique dealers to locate suitable pieces, even at those high prices.
That’s why many brides have opted for antique-style engagement rings, often referred to as “antique-inspired” rings. Today’s expert jewelry designers have used modern techniques to replicate the look and feel of antique diamond engagement rings. They may appear to the casual observer to be real antique pieces yet are easier to find and purchase, usually at a much more affordable price.
Most antique-style engagement rings, though, aren’t intended to “fool” anyone. Their real purpose is to give brides a feeling of being connected to an earlier, more romantic era, with a unique look which matches their style. Just as importantly, brides opting for antique-inspired rings are able to customize every aspect of their “antique diamond engagement rings” to choose the diamonds’ color, clarity, cut and size, as well as the setting, side stones, bands, detail work – and of course, the cost.