Vintage engagement rings are becoming increasingly popular in our day and age, and for good reason – each one is a beauty that represents a bygone era and is typically one-of-a-kind. They also have an ethical advantage over modern engagement rings since they contain pre-existing gemstones, which reduces the need for mining new ones.
If you’re thinking about buying a vintage engagement ring, our guide below covers all the basics, from the difference between ‘vintage’ and ‘antique’ jewelry to the six main jewelry periods that gave way to the different styles of vintage engagement rings we have today.
In the jewelry industry, the term ‘vintage’ is used to describe any ring that is at least 20 years old. Although ‘vintage’ is frequently interchanged with ‘antique’ in conversation, a distinction needs to be made here.
‘Antique’ is used to refer to jewelry that is 100 years old or more. Thus, all antique rings are vintage, but not all vintage rings are antique.
We can practically guarantee you that most modern jewelry stores have not had rings in stock for that long. So, if you see a piece labeled ‘vintage’ it is more likely that you are looking at a vintage-style engagement ring.
Allow us to explain.
Vintage engagement rings were produced during one of the six main jewelry periods in history, whereas vintage-style engagement rings (also referred to as vintage-inspired engagement rings) were produced recently using modern-day methods and equipment. In other words, vintage-inspired engagement rings are knock-offs or replicas that imitate the styles of the past.
There is another category of imitations that you need to be aware of too, namely, vintage recreation rings. These rings were also produced in recent times but were handcrafted using the same tools and techniques from the eras that inspired their design. They also typically feature an antique diamond as a center stone and smaller antique diamonds as accent stones.
If you make a conscious decision to buy a vintage-inspired engagement ring, that’s great. However, if authenticity is what you’re after, you’ll need to be careful about who you buy from and be on the lookout for modern reproductions that are marketed as ‘vintage’.
If you’re in the market for a vintage engagement ring, having a basic understanding of the styles that characterized each of the most significant jewelry periods can give you a better idea of what to look for in a ring.
Antique jewelry from the Georgian era is characterized by its bold, decorative style and ornate metalwork, both of which are nothing short of impressive given that everything during this period was handcrafted. Some of the recurring motifs in Georgian jewelry are flowers, ribbons, leaves, and other minute details only achievable by hand.
Common materials for Georgian engagement rings include 18-karat yellow gold, silver, and a metal alloy composed of copper and zinc called pinchbeck. Interestingly, colored gemstones were much more prevalent than diamonds in Georgian jewelry, but this is likely because the diamond trade was almost non-existent at the time.
This era also introduced the old mine cut, an antique gem cutting style that would later develop into the round brilliant cut – a shape that is commonly featured in diamond engagement rings today.
Unfortunately, jewelry pieces from this historical period are quite rare, so your chances of finding an authentic Georgian engagement ring are slim. However, there are no rules against modeling your ring after the style of this particular era if it happens to resonate with you.
The Victorian era was broad and can be divided into the Early Victorian, Mid-Victorian, and Late Victorian periods. Each of these periods was distinct and showcased a different aesthetic, making it relatively easy to distinguish one from the other.
The Early Victorian or Romantic period was defined by the royal love story between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, which is clearly depicted by the sentimental motifs that dominated the jewelry designs of the time. Colored gemstones were still more prominent than diamonds at this point in history, with amethyst, garnet, emerald, and ruby being some of the most popular.
The Mid-Victorian or Grand period coincided with the untimely death of Prince Albert and marked the beginning of a drastic change in style for the jewelry of the era. Large, somber pieces featuring black onyx, jet, and opal became popular, as well as items made of silver and low-karat yellow gold.
The Late Victorian or Aesthetic period brought about a return to lighter, more feminine motifs, leaving behind the dark, heavy ornamentation that characterized the previous period. Diamond engagement rings were also more common following the discovery of diamonds in South Africa in 1867. Vintage engagement rings from the Aesthetic period are relatively easy to find in modern-day antique stores since jewelry was predominantly being made by machines at this point.
Jewelry from the Edwardian era is characterized by its light, flowy designs and lace-like filigree accompanied by milgrain detailing. Diamonds were also all the rage and new advances in jewelry making allowed for platinum to be used on its own for the first time, replacing yellow gold as the preferred setting metal for engagement rings.
The delicate scrollwork and floral motifs that dominated the Georgian era also made a comeback in Edwardian jewelry, while round-cut diamonds replaced the old mine cut as the most popular shape for center stones in engagement rings.
The Art Nouveau era is named for the artistic movement that began in France between the Late Victorian and Edwardian eras. It developed as a response to the growing industrialization in Europe at the time, which was perceived to be taking place at the expense of the environment.
In an effort to cultivate an appreciation for the natural world, artisans began to incorporate more nature-inspired designs into their work. Flowing, curved lines and stylized depictions of fauna and flora were abundant in the jewelry of the period, and colored gemstones were favored as the center stones for engagement rings.
In terms of precious metals, traditional silver and yellow gold continued to be used, as well as platinum. White gold had also been invented by this time, although it was not widely used until the Art Deco era.
Art Deco engagement rings are popular among vintage ring enthusiasts today, probably because they are from one of the most recent and widely known jewelry periods. The Art Deco era abandoned the delicate foliage and filigree of the previous eras, replacing them with bold, symmetrical designs.
Due to the rising cost of platinum, white gold became a popular setting metal for engagement rings and other jewelry at this time. Rose gold was also popularized during this period and remains a favorite choice for vintage-style engagement rings today.
Antique diamond cuts became prevalent during the Art Deco era due to their clean lines and geometric shapes, which matched the style of the era perfectly. Emerald and Asscher cut diamonds also became popular during this time.
The latter part of the Retro era marked the end of big and bold designs for engagement rings, adopting the more minimalist style that is commonly seen in the solitaire engagement rings of today. It was also during this time that the diamond became the preferred stone for an engagement ring and when the round brilliant cut became the most popular shape for a diamond.
The onset of World War II led to many changes in the materials that jewelers could use for making jewelry. For example, the use of platinum was prohibited, and restrictions were also placed on the use of other popular precious metals, including yellow gold. This means that many older Retro-era rings were made from palladium or silver. Low-karat gold alloys, such as white gold and rose gold, were also common.
One of the drawbacks of settling on an authentic antique or vintage engagement ring is that these pieces can be hard to come by. You can try your luck at estate sales, pawn shops, and thrift stores, but also be prepared to pay a pretty penny if you do happen to find what you’re looking for. Vintage engagement rings are a significant investment and may not be within everyone’s budget.
That being said, you can always opt for a vintage-inspired engagement ring if you’re strapped for cash. These rings incorporate design elements from vintage styles and are much more readily available and affordable than the real deal.
This means that, at the end of the day, it all boils down to personal preference and what you can afford.
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