You’ve decided the glitzy bling of modern engagement rings lacks uniqueness and your wandering interest has been piqued by the allure of antique engagement rings. There’s an unmistakable character and style about them that modern rings are decidedly missing. But, you need to know more about these one-of-a-kind, instant heirlooms before you purchase one.
The age at which a ring is considered an antique is a bit debatable in the jewelry world. Old school jewelry appraisers say a ring must be 100 years old to be labeled an antique. This year of demarcation has been relaxed in recent times and now appraisers declare a ring must be only 50 years old. We will compromise and educate you on rings made in and before 1930, which signifies the end of the Art Deco period of jewelry design.
How do you know how old a ring is? A qualified appraiser and gemologist will assist with dating a ring. Dealing with a reputable antique jewelry store is a must if you want to purchase an authentic ring from a jewelry design period. Be wary of rings may be marked as reproductions, meaning it’s a modern ring made to resemble an antique. A reputable vintage ring dealer will guide you in the identifying the difference.
Characteristics of a ring that aid in identifying its age:
- Motif – the overall style, ornamentation, and symbolism of the ring is the first calling card of its date of production. Graceful lines, bold patterns, and depicted scenes used will pinpoint age. Historical events can also drive motif. For example, the opening of Egyptian and Etruscan tombs saw an influx of these designs during the 1800s.
- Cutting styles of gems – the shape and faceting style of the diamonds and gemstones used in the ring will aid in pinpointing its era. A few important cut styles are:
- Table cut – a square shape with a large flat top and few facets. It’s one of the earliest cuts and not commonly seen.
- Rose cut – a rounded shape with a flat bottom and a domed top and few facets. One of the earlier cuts that premiered in the 1500s and saw a revival in rings made in the 1800s.
- Step cut – square or rectangular shape with long facets. Used in 1800s through modern times.
- Old mine cut – a rounded square shape with decidedly more facets than the table and rose cuts. Rings dated in the 1800s through early 1900 will often contain this style.
- Old European cut – a round faceted shape that is a precursor to today’s modern round brilliant cut. It is a bit clunkier than the modern round and is often used in rings dated through the 1900s.
- Gemstones used – gemstones have been available for centuries, but their popularity in rings waxes and wanes based on color and tastes. For example, Queen Victoria liked blue and, therefore, turquoise was en vogue during her reign. Rubies, sapphires, emeralds were uniformly popular throughout eras.
- Metals used – the metal or combination of metals used in fabrication will also aid in dating the ring. In the 1700s, silver was sometimes used to set diamond.
While antique rings are a beautiful alternative to modern engagement rings, there are three important differences between them that should be considered:
- Diamond grading is a relatively new phenomenon. The infamous ‘4 C’s of diamond grading, used as the common diamond language between buyer and seller, were established by the Gemological Institute of America in the 1940s. However, diamond rings from the 1700s only came out to play by candlelight and were evaluated differently. Yellower diamonds were common, mostly because of the mine that yielded them. Due to lack of technology, diamonds were not cut to exact proportions like today’s are. Rose cut diamonds of old were flat on the bottom and domed on the top with few facets, seriously hampering brilliance. In contrast, today’s round brilliant cut has 58 facets, laser cut to specified proportions to unleash maximum brilliance.
- Gemological laboratory reports accompanying all center diamonds in engagement rings is an even newer phenomenon. A G.I.A. report extolling the color, clarity, carat weight and cut grade to give a diamond its pedigree is often nonexistent for antique engagement rings. Some antique rings will have a report, but only if the center diamond can be removed from the mounting without damaging the setting.
- Antique jewelry may show signs of being ‘loved’. Antique jewelry has been handed down through generations and will show some wear. However, this also aids in establishing the authenticity of the ring. Careful, though, too much ‘love’ devalues the ring.
Knowing the jewelry design periods can help you focus your search for the ultimate antique engagement ring:
During the Georgian Period, intricate metal work, called repousse, depicting natural themes was in fashion and the use of faceted gemstones became the new rage.
Motifs – flowers, butterflies, ribbons and scrolls
Cutting styles – the table cut, the rose cut, and the old mine
Gems used – diamond, garnet, emerald, topaz, and amber (hardened tree resin). Gemstones were often set in closed settings with foil backing for enhancement. Special considerations should be taken if your Georgian ring is foil backed because foil can be ruined when it comes in contact with water.
Metals used – 10k, 18k, and 22k yellow gold, silver over 18k gold, and pinchbeck, which is 83% copper and 17% zinc.
Rings from the Georgian Period are very rare.
The ring below is a classic example from the Georgian Period (courtesy of Lang Antiques and photographed by Cole Bybee). The 21 rose cut diamonds are set in silver with an 18k rose-colored gold shank. The intricacies of the hand-made repousse metal work and its pristine condition will supersede the quality of the diamonds and set the price of the ring. However, the fact that the diamonds are not chipped or abraided is a plus. The ring retails for $1,450.
Victorian Period – 1837-1901
Queen Victoria reigned for a LOOONG time, so this jewelry period is usually broken into 3 segments – Early (or Romantic), Mid, and Late Victorian.
Early Victorian/Romantic – 1837-1860
Early Victorian rings reflected the love this young queen had for husband, Albert, and is therefore called the Romantic Period. Victoria was a lover of diamonds, fueling their popularity. The lady’s birthstone in the engagement ring was popular.
In 1840, large-scale jewelry manufacturing began, but numerous pieces were still being hand-fabricated. Hand fabricated pieces will garnish a higher price based on detail and condition.
Motifs – snakes (the eternal symbol of love), angels, love knots, crosses, Celtic, Greek and Roman designs, clovers and flowers
Cutting styles – rose cut, old mine cut, step cut
Metals used – 18k and 22k gold in various colors, silver, rolled gold (gold plating over a base metal), and pinchbeck
Mid-Victorian – 1860-1885
The queen’s husband passed away and the Civil War raged in America during this tumultuous period. Rings often were dark and heavy reflecting a mourning state. Diamonds were discovered in South Africa in 1867 and were used abundantly. The California gold rush flooded the market with gold.
Motifs – acorns, bees, birds, flowers, geometric patterns, stars, Etruscan (fine granulations) and Egyptian designs, enameling
Cutting styles – rose cut, old mine cut, step cut
Gems used – garnets, diamonds, emeralds, black onyx, pearls, opals, jet (fossilized wood that is a type of coal), and black glass
Metals used – 9k, 10k, 15k gold, silver, steel and rose colored gold in all karats was exceedingly popular.
Late Victorian – 1885-1900
Rings are more airy and light as compared to the mid-Victorian ones. Rings and engagement rings, up until this point, had been mostly clusters of gems. In 1895, the solitaire engagement ring was becoming popular. Platinum entered the scene as the luxury metal of choice. Rings are no longer being strictly hand-fabricated.
Motifs – crescents, horseshoes, moons, oak leaves, trefoils, double hearts with crowns or knots, bows and ribbons, navette or marquise shaped rings
Cutting styles – old mine and rose cuts
Metals used – platinum, gold, silver, rolled gold
This mid-Victorian ring (courtesy of Lang Antiques and photographed by Cole Bybee) features 5 cushion cut sapphires, totaling .55 cts, ringed by 18 old mine cut diamonds, totaling .55cts, in an 18k yellow gold hand engraved shank. The rich, velvety blue of the well-matched sapphires and the uniformity of the old mine cuts set the price. The hand-engraved shank helps as well. The ring retails for $2,250.
This mid-Victorian ring (courtesy of Lang Antiques and photographed by Cole Bybee) depicts the Etruscan motif common for the period, along with the coral, enameling and its bold presence. The coral is accented with small, rose cut diamonds in an 18k yellow gold mounting. The enameling isn’t chipped or broken and adds value. The detailing of the Etruscan beading, using the valuable 18k gold, is sublime. The ring retails for $1,750.
This late Victorian ring (courtesy of Lang Antiques and photographed by Cole Bybee) is the classic navette shape. It features 7 sapphires, totaling 2.00cts, accented with platinum mounted 30 rose cut diamonds, totaling .25cts, and an 18y gold shank. The sapphires are a vivid blue, well matched, with descending uniform sizes. They set the price along with the hand-fabricated platinum mountings for the diamonds. The diamond weight helps out too. The ring retails for $5,850.
Art Nouveau Period– 1895-1915
This is the age of the artisan. Jewelers considered themselves artists and their jewelry was fluid, graceful, and beautifully crafted. The beauty of Art Nouveau is better captured in the pins, necklaces, and hair combs of the time, but some rings are available.
Motifs – fluid lines, depictions of nature, enameling (especially the plique a jour style)
Cutting styles – old mine, Old European
Gems used – tourmaline, small diamonds, pearls, emerald, opal, amber, lapis lazuli, moonstone, carnelian, synthetic gems
Metals used – platinum, white and yellow 14k and 18k gold, silver
This Art Nouveau ring (courtesy of Lang Antiques and photographed by Cole Bybee) reflects the natural motif common with the period. The 2.50 ct cushion cut diamond is set in oxidized silver over gold mounting with gold prongs stretching out to anchor the diamond. The diamond determines the price but the beautiful metal work lends value. The ring retails for $12,750.
Edwardian Period – 1901-1914
(Edwardian overlaps Art Nouveau, but each gets its own design period due to their distinctive styles)
Edwardian rings are known for their graceful and airy nuances using open wire designs and filigree. Platinum surged onto the scene because the metal’s unparalleled strength enabled jewelers to create the delicate and lacy mountings. Enameling was immensely popular.
Rings from the Edwardian Period should have a hallmark (metal purity) and/or a maker’s mark (firm responsible for production) stamped inside the shank.
Motifs – bows, ribbons, moon and stars, flowers, leaves, shamrocks
Cutting styles – rose cut, old mine cut, and Old European cut
Gems used – pearls, diamond, peridot, emerald, sapphire, ruby, opal, moonstone, mother of pearl
Metal used – platinum, gold (especially 18k) in multi-colors, silver, rolled gold
This Edwardian ring (courtesy of Lang Antiques and photographed by Cole Bybee) captures the airiness of the period. It features a .73 ct J color VS2 clarity Old European cut diamond set in a platinum, floral motif engraved mounting. The ornateness and the pristine quality of the engraving and filigree are fantastic, but the diamond sets the price in the ring. The ring retails for $4,950.
This Edwardian ring (courtesy of Lang Antiques and photographed by Cole Bybee) highlights the intricate, platinum lattice work common for this period. The Old European cut diamond weighs 2.20 carats and is L-M color and SI1 clarity. The accent old mine cut diamonds total .55cts. The weight of the center diamond determines the price, but the accent diamonds contribute. The intact intricate platinum work, as well as the metal itself, is a major player, though.
Art Deco – 1920-1930
Art Deco rings are the most popular of the antique rings and are the most abundant. Art Deco is resplendent with bold geometric patterns and colors, filigree and milgrain work, and lots and lots of diamonds! This was an era of unheralded opulence, wild abandon and faith in American progress and nothing exemplifies all of that more than sprays of diamonds.
Motifs – geometric patterns, Egyptian, African, Oriental, American Indian influences, enamel accents
Cutting styles – old mine cut, Old European cut, step cuts, new styles of shield shapes and calibre cut
Gems used – diamond, emerald, sapphire, ruby, black onyx, crystal, ivory, jade, mother of pearl, synthetic gems
Metals used – platinum, white gold, silver, chrome, marcasite
This ring (courtesy of Lang Antiques and photographed by Cole Bybee) showcases all that is glorious of Art Deco rings – a milgrain engraved platinum mounting highlighting a 1.31carat Old European cut of J color and VS2 clarity in the center with caliber cut sapphires as accents. The diamond establishes the price of the ring as well as the platinum and the accent diamonds. The excellent condition of the sapphires is noted. This ring retails for $9,950.00 (in contrast a modern round brilliant cut diamond weighing 1.30ct and of JVS2 quality would retail from $8,000 to $10,000 for just the diamond).
If you like the look of this ring, but are considering replacing the center Old European cut diamond with a modern round brilliant cut, then move along. Replacing the center diamond compromises the integrity of the piece and destroys its aura of timelessness. An option would be to shop modern engagement rings that have an antique look. Tacori engagement rings capture this beautifully.
There’s a whole new world of antique jewelry waiting to be appreciated by you. Make sure you shop at reputable stores, including brick and mortar and on-line. There are many reproductions in the market and a gemologist and appraiser will guide you in selecting an authentic piece. Lang Antiques is knowledgeable, accessible, and they have an immense collection. Also, Brilliant Earth has an extensive collection. Or you can check out Custom Made, which can replicate any of these styles for you. Start with their websites.