A Guide to Buying An Antique or Vintage Engagement Ring
Shopping for an engagement ring is an exciting step in a relationship. It's also one that requires some research ahead of time. If an antique engagement ring or wedding band is on your wishlist, it's even more important to educate yourself before you visit a jeweler or shop from a collection of vintage rings online. Doing your homework ahead of time will not only help you get a better idea of what kind of antique ring you want, but it also makes it less likely that you'll fall for a fake.
We tapped two fine jewelry experts who specialize in antique jewelry: Mia Moross, founder of The One I Love NYC, and Ashley Zhang, founder of Ashley Zhang Jewelry, to answer all of the FAQs about how to buy an antique engagement ring. Read on for terms you need to know, the questions you should be asking and the antique ring characteristics to look out for.
In this article:
What is an Antique Engagement Ring?
"Technically speaking, the term 'antique' is defined as an object that was fabricated over 100 years ago, whereas the term 'vintage' has a looser definition of around 40 years," says Moross. "However, jewelry from the Art Deco period (1920 to around 1937) is widely considered antique amongst jewelers and collectors alike—confusing, I know. The good news is that antique and vintage jewelry is recognized by period and valued based on the quality of craftsmanship and rarity."
Why Choose an Antique Engagement Ring?
Pros of Antique Engagement Rings
There are many pros to buying an antique engagement ring. For someone who wants a truly unique ring, antique engagement rings are often one-of-a-kind. This is also one reason why antique diamond engagement rings are so trendy right now, according to Zhang. "I think with the rise of social media, many customers feel they have seen the 'same ring' everywhere. Antique rings are different," she says.
In addition to their rarity, there is also history and sentimentality attached to antique pieces. There are also environmental and ethical benefits. "These rings have almost no carbon footprint. Very little materials are used to clean or resize these rings so they are both the most ethical and environmentally friendly options available," says Zhang.
"By purchasing antique, you're helping society move one step farther from the horrific side effects of modern mining practices," Moross says. "That's not to imply that antique diamonds are conflict free; they most certainly are not. But if we shut every diamond mine down today, we would still have more than enough recycled diamonds to go around the world, maybe twice."
Cons of Antique Engagement Rings
If you're looking for perfect modern craftsmanship or lots of customization options, an antique engagement ring may not be for you. "You have to take an antique ring for what it is," says Zhang. "These rings are old and not meant to be perfect. If you become too focused on a ring you have in your mind it may not actually exist in the real world. Try to just find something you love because you love it."
What Constitutes a Ring In Its Original Condition?
When shopping for an authentic antique engagement ring or wedding band, you will probably come across rings labeled "original condition." What does this mean, exactly? Moross breaks it down below.
"A ring in its original condition would be one that has been left untouched since its creation," says Moross. She points out that there is some flexibility on this definition from jeweler to jeweler, but the older a piece is, the more important this term becomes. "When we're looking at pieces from the Georgian Period and before, it becomes extremely important," she says. "Advancements in technology have given us wonderful modern jewelry techniques like laser cutting and CAD rendering, while jewelers in the old world forged every piece by hand, using entirely different alloys and tools. This always brings me back to the Ship of Theseus. How much can we repair, replace, or change before it becomes an entirely new piece all together?"
"A practical example of this is when we're asked about diamond grading," Moross says. "To have a diamond graded by GIA, it must be dismounted from its setting, inspected as a loose stone and re-set after certification. Sounds easy enough, right? Wrong. This can be simple for pieces from the last half of the century, but the farther back a ring is dated the more difficult it becomes to re-set a stone with the same techniques used during its creation. This is why we tend not to dismount older stones from their original antique settings for grading, as it can ruin the integrity of the piece."
How Do You Care for an Antique Engagement Ring?
"Many antiques require a lot of TLC and can be considerably high maintenance for the modern bride," Moross says.
When asked about the differences in upkeep and resizing antique rings, Zhang says it depends on the craftsmanship and the materials. "For example, when silver ages it darkens over time. This can make the diamonds or stones set in it pop. If you over-clean a silver antique ring then you can lose the whole antique look of the ring."
The bottom line? Given that all antique rings are different, there are no hard and fast rules where caring for them is concerned. Reach out to a professional jeweler to get tips on how to care for your specific piece.
How Much Do Antique Engagement Rings Cost?
Comparing Antique Engagement Ring Prices to Modern Engagement Ring Prices
It can be challenging to define a general price range for antique engagement rings, given they are all different and come with different historical significance and thus value. "Modern jewelry, with exception to signed pieces, comes with a price tag largely based on the value of their stones and metal," Moross says. "Antique pieces are valued on their rarity along with their stones and metal. And just like any industry tied to supply and demand, a great antique holds part of its value in its rarity alone."
Do Antique Engagement Rings Keep Their Value?
When considering the price of an antique engagement ring, keep in mind that antique rings do keep their value, as do diamonds and colored gemstones—and some will also increase in value over time, according to Moross. "It depends on the rarity of the piece you are purchasing and the demand," she says. "For example, eighteenth century diamonds will always hold value, and the great ones kept in their original collet settings will increase in value as they become harder and harder to find."
What to Look for When Shopping for an Antique Engagement Ring
It can be daunting to begin the search for a reputable antique engagement ring from scratch. That's why Moross stresses the importance of doing your research before you shop. "Educate, educate, educate. I cannot stress this enough," she says. "The market is flooded with fakes. Disreputable jewelers are getting so good at producing forgeries that it can be difficult for the most seasoned eyes to tell the difference." Below, some tips to help streamline the antique engagement ring shopping process.
Purchase from a Reputable Seller Specializing in Antique Jewelry
After you've done general research on antique rings, Moross recommends purchasing from a store you trust. "Look for one with a good reputation that specializes in antique jewelry. Do your homework on the retailer."
Try on Rings in Person
It's best to visit a jeweler in person if you have the opportunity, so that you can more easily work with them to understand what you want, narrow down the options and find the best fit for your budget, vision and lifestyle. Another plus? You can see antique pieces up close. When you're in the store, you can physically try on the rings they have in stock and also ask about new finds.
Consider Your Lifestyle and Expectations
"Once you have tried a few things on, you can get a better sense of what you do and don't like," Zhang points out. "I usually consult on my clients' lifestyle and expectations for their ring. Some antique rings are more delicate than others."
"If you insist on purchasing privately, then be aware of pricing that seems too good to be true. A good rule of thumb is that if a piece is rare, it won't be cheap, and if it's cheap, it won't be rare," Moross says. "If you're unsure of the markings you need to look out for on an authentic piece, then I suggest you educate yourself before pulling the trigger on your dream ring. This includes commonly used diamond cuts, metal, style of craftsmanship and characteristics of jewelry from that specific period."
Time Periods of Antique Engagement Rings
According to Estate Diamond Jewelry, this is the widely-accepted breakdown of the six eras in jewelry between the 1700s and the 1950s, listed from earliest to most recent. Each era's style and craftsmanship reflects what was popular and available at the time, from the center stone shape (old mine cut diamond, old European cut diamond, transitional cut, cushion cut, asscher cut, marquise diamond), the center diamond's carat weight and the setting composition (yellow gold, white gold, platinum, rose gold, palladium).
Georgian (1714-1837) — Georgian jewelry is often composed of a high-karat gold or silver and common stones include foil-backed diamonds, topaz and garnet. Jewelry from this era is very hard to find.
Victorian (1837-1901) — The Victorian era is split between the Romantic, Grand and Aesthetic periods. The styles during the three sub-periods differ quite drastically and jewelry from the latter periods is much easier to get your hands on. Generally, stones in this era included garnets, amethysts, turquoise, pearls and diamonds.
Edwardian (1895-1915) — Jewelry from this period has clean lines similar to those from the Art Nouveau era (info below), but it usually incorporates a more traditional and delicate motif from the Victorian Era. Platinum, diamonds and pearls are among the most used materials.
Art Nouveau (1890-1910) — Jewelry from this era is also referred to as Arts & Crafts, Jugendstil, Liberty Style, Secession and others depending on the country of origin. The designs tend to be flowery, draping and very delicate.
Art Deco (1920-1940) — Art Deco design is geometrical, angular and clean (you'll see architecture with the Art Deco vibe too). Emeralds, rubies and sapphires tend to be used most and designers commonly worked with jade, onyx and enamel set in platinum. Art Deco is the most famous period among the five eras of antique jewelry.
Retro Era (1939-1950) — The Retro Era concluded with the end of World War II. Influenced by the victory of winning World War II, Retro Era jewelry was big and bold. Gemstones were large and colorful. Platinum and yellow gold were both common. White gold began to gather traction because of shortages of platinum but still remained the secondary choice.
Questions to Ask Before Buying an Antique Engagement Ring
"Start by verifying the period of the ring, then ask the dealer to elaborate on that specific time period to ensure they know what they're talking about," Moross says. "Secondly, ask if the ring has had any known repairs, replacements or tweaks. A good retailer will be transparent in what they know and don't know about any given piece of jewelry. Lastly, inquire about paperwork, but also understand that many antique rings will not come with grading reports, and this is not a representation of its authenticity."