Why a vintage engagement ring?
By Lisa Schoening & Kurt Rothner for Excalibur Jewelry
The best answer is probably this: an antique or vintage engagement ring will be as unique to your marriage as you are. Throughout most of history, jewelry was made by hand, by craftsmen shaping metal to fit the individual demands of hand-cut gems. Because each diamond’s faceting is unique, its setting must be too – so whether your preference is for the lush gold of Victorian times, the delicate platinum of Edwardian-era rings or the clean modern lines of Art Deco and mid-century jewels, your vintage engagement ring will perfectly reflect your taste, your style, and your commitment to each other.
The Victorian era
The 1800s were a time of tremendous change in the way people lived, worked and dressed. The early part of the century saw fashions shift from the simply-cut gowns and delicate neoclassical jewelry of the Jane Austen era to the romantic and naturalistic styles beloved of the young Queen Victoria, while the heavy fabrics and heavier revival jewels of the 1860s and ‘70s soon gave way to the pale elegant dresses and diamond colliers and bow brooches popular at the end of the century.
Along the way, discoveries like that of California’s gold fields in 1849 and South Africa’s vast diamond deposits in 1867 meant that these precious materials were increasingly available to the growing numbers of wealthy industrialists and middle-class shopkeepers and farmers on both sides of the Atlantic, and jewelers were kept busy crafting rings, brooches, hat pins and bracelets in a variety of materials to meet the demand.
Victorian engagement rings, typically a three-stone ring or an Old Mine cut center stone surrounded by smaller, often rose cut, gems, are most frequently yellow gold of 9k or greater fineness. The fashion for diamonds set directly into gold marked a change from the “old-fashioned” silver-set stones of the 1700s and, furthermore, would have reflected the Victorian passion for the solid gold jewels of Classical antiquity.
Of equal interest, though, to the deeply sentimental Victorians was the story told by each piece. Prince Albert’s ongoing gift to Victoria showcased enameled orange blossoms to remind her of the flowers she’d worn at their wedding, and Victorian engagement rings are often set with interlocking hearts or entwined serpents, symbols of eternal love and devotion.
The Edwardian era
Among other shifts, the late 1800s saw the advent of electric lighting as well as technical advances that changed the look of jewelry. All of a sudden, rich Victorian colors and heavy gold jewelry looked gaudy and old-fashioned next to the light graceful fabrics and diamond-set platinum brooches favored by Princess (later Queen) Alexandra.
Platinum’s remarkable strength allowed turn of the century jewelers to craft settings that seemed to disappear under shimmering gems, highlighting the work of diamond cutters bringing stones to unprecedented heights of liveliness and sparkle. Engagement rings from this era are frequently called “filigree,” but the lacework effect is actually the result of saw-piercing, a time-consuming and technically-demanding process that required the use of saw blades as fine as human hairs.
Finished with painstaking milgraining and delicate hand-engraving, Edwardian-era rings are masterworks of the jeweler’s art.
And with Tiffany & Co.’s introduction of the “Tiffany” setting in 1886, a revolutionary design which lifted the diamond up on prongs to capture the light, the classic solitaire engagement ring began to capture the hearts of couples across the United States.
The years after the end of World War I saw more profound changes: to transportation, to the shapes of buildings and city skylines, and perhaps most notably, to women’s lives and the way they dressed. Gone were the corsets, sweeping gowns and high-piled chignons of the Edwardian era, styles that required jeweled combs, tiaras and heavy diamond-set brooches.
In 1925, Paris played host to the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriel, a festival of fashion, decorative arts and jewelry that would, in the 1960s, give its name to the style of the era: Art Deco. And popularized by Hollywood, Deco’s dynamic lines and clean modern look spread throughout the world. All of a sudden, women wanted their hair bobbed and their dresses slim and straight – and jewelers scrambled to embrace this new passion for all things geometric.
Deco jewelry is easily recognizable. Its stylized forms and geometric shapes set it apart from the delicacy of Edwardian design, while its strong primary colors and reliance on diamonds and black onyx give it a boldness not seen in Art Nouveau’s misty watercolor dreamscapes. Art Deco engagement rings are typically platinum (or white gold after 1926) and frequently feature baguette, shield-shaped or tiny round diamonds, sapphires, rubies or emeralds as accent gems. And thanks to advances in diamond cutting know-how, their center stones are extraordinarily lively, whether in the just-introduced modern brilliant or the traditional Old European cut, or in one of the elegant new variations on square and rectangular shapes: the Asscher, emerald and radiant cuts. Art Deco jewels evoke both the elegance of the past and an enduring fascination with the dawn of the modern era.
Seen through the softening lens of nostalgia, the 50s and early 60s seem to have been a time of innocence, a time when the country’s eyes turned back toward home and family, a time when certainties outweighed the questions that society would start asking in just a few years. The jewelry, graceful and unabashedly pretty, mirrors our fascination with this time.
Engagement rings from the post-war/mid-century period can best be summed up by the phrase “classic beauty.” Most frequently crafted from platinum or white gold and set with the sparkling diamonds beloved of style icons Grace Kelly, Lana Turner and, of course, Marilyn Monroe, 1950s design is strong, clean and feminine. And many of the designs first popularized during this period have become enduring favorites: round, emerald cut or marquise-shaped center stones flanked by tapered baguettes, tiny sparkling brilliants or diamond-set shoulders. You can be assured that an engagement ring from the mid-century era will reward its wearer with decades of timeless elegance.