What To Know Before You Buy an Antique Engagement Ring

For starters, there is a difference between antique and vintage jewelry.
shelley brown - the knot
Shelley Brown
shelley brown - the knot
Shelley Brown
Senior Fashion & Beauty Editor
  • Shelley writes and edits articles for The Knot Worldwide, with a speciality in fashion, beauty, jewelry and accessories
  • Shelley writes and edits articles for The Knot magazine, as well as styles the magazine’s fashion and cover shoots
  • Prior to The Knot Worldwide, Shelley was a freelance Digital Editor at Conde Nast’s Lucky Magazine and freelanced for FLAUNT Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, Backstage.com and Paste.com
Updated Mar 06, 2023

Shopping for wedding rings is an exciting step that requires some research ahead of time—and 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 rings online. While antique sparklers have inherent heirloom appeal and lots of sentimental value, they're different than their modern counterparts in several ways, including their materials, durability and how they're priced. 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 three fine jewelry experts who specialize in antique jewelry: Elizabeth Doyle, graduate gemologist and co-owner of Doyle & Doyle, Mia Moross, founder of The One I Love NYC and Ashley Zhang, founder of Ashley Zhang Jewelry, to answer all of your 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?

According to Doyle, an antique engagement ring must be 100 years or older. But that's not all there is to it. Below, we break down antique versus vintage (yes, there is a difference), as well as the most popular time periods of antique engagement rings.

Vintage vs. Antique: What's the Difference?

While the terms vintage and antique are often used interchangeably, there's actually a difference between the two. "A vintage ring must be 50 years or older, while an antique ring must be 100 years or older," says Doyle. However, where rings from the Art Deco period are concerned, things get a little more confusing. "At the moment, early Art Deco Rings (1920-1923) are antique, whereas later Deco rings (1924-1935) can only be classified as vintage," she says.

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 1940s, listed from earliest to most recent. As you can probably guess, an antique ring's time period affects its design and materials. Each era's style and craftsmanship reflect what was popular and available at the time, from the gemstone used (diamonds were not always the most popular option), center stone shape (like old mine cut, old European cut, transitional cut, cushion cut, asscher cut, marquise) and the setting metal.

Georgian (1714-1837): Georgian jewelry is often composed of 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, the stones used 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 (more on that below), but it usually incorporates a more traditional and delicate motif from the Victorian Era. Platinum, diamonds and pearls are among the most popular 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 were frequently used as center stones as well as accent stones, 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. Like we said above, Art Deco from 1924 to 1935 are vintage, and not antique.

Why Choose an Antique Engagement Ring?

There are many pros to buying an antique engagement ring, especially if you're in the market for a standout sparkler with a rich history. Another plus? Opting for a ring from a bygone era is an (über luxe) way to reduce your carbon footprint.

Uniqueness: If you want 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. "With the rise of social media, many customers feel they have seen the 'same ring' everywhere. Antique rings are different," she says.

Sustainability: In addition to their rarity, there are also environmental and ethical benefits to antique rings. "They have almost no carbon footprint. Very little materials are used to clean or resize these rings, so they're both the most ethical and environmentally-friendly options available," says Zhang.

Perfectly Imperfect: While antique rings can't offer you perfect modern craftsmanship or customization options, they do have lots of character. "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 find something you love because you love it."

Tips for Antique Engagement Ring Shopping

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, find expert tips to help streamline the antique engagement ring shopping process.

Seek out Reputable Sellers

The best way to ensure an antique engagement ring is authentic? Purchasing from a seller you trust. A jeweler experienced with antique jewelry should be able to explain the various characteristics of the ring that allow for accurate dating. "You should look for an established business with a strong reputation," Doyle says. "Check reviews and see if the business has professional accreditations and affiliations." Pro tip: The most respected accreditation for jewelers in the US is the Graduate Gemologist degree from the Gemological Institute of America.

Try on Rings in Person

It's best to visit a jeweler in person, so that you can more easily narrow down the options and find the best fit for vision, budget and lifestyle. "It's really important to try on as many different shapes and sizes as possible," Doyle says. "You may fall in love with a certain style in a photo or on someone else's finger, but it might not be the most flattering design for your finger. It is important to see it on your hand." Another plus? You can see antique pieces up close, ask about the history of the ring as well as new finds.

Think About Your Wedding Band

Consider how your wedding band will sit with your engagement ring. "Many antique engagement rings have a shape that does not allow the band to sit flush against the ring," Doyle says. "Some people embrace the slight gap and are fine with the engagement ring and wedding band being two distinct rings, but for others this gap might bother them." Try on various combinations of rings and bands to find something that you love. If you find a ring you love but it doesn't pair well with a band, you can always opt to wear your wedding band on your right hand. (We love this option because it allows you to start a whole new stack. Bring on the bling.)

Consider Your Lifestyle

Given their age and rarity, antique engagement rings can be fragile and tough to replace if damaged. "I usually consult on my clients' lifestyle and expectations for their ring. Some antique rings are more delicate than others," Zhang says. If you're hard on your jewelry (you work with your hands, you tend to knock your rings against things), you'll want to choose an engagement ring that can stand up to wear and tear.

How Does the Cost of Antique Engagement Rings Compare to Modern Rings?

It depends. Given antique engagement rings are all different and come with different historical significance, it can be challenging to define a general price range for antique engagement rings compared to modern engagement rings, "A rare antique engagement ring will be more expensive than a modern ring with comparable diamond specs. But a very finely made modern ring could be more expensive that a more common antique ring with a similar diamond," Doyle says. It's important to judge each engagement ring based on its specific merits.

Frequently Asked Questions about Antique Engagement Rings

How do you care for an antique engagement ring?

The most important thing you can do for your antique engagement ring is to keep it clean and check that your stones are secure in their mountings. Clean your ring at home by soaking it in warm soapy water (mild dish soap works well). Use a soft-bristled toothbrush to brush away the loosened debris, focus on the underside of the diamond and the insides of the mounting. To protect against losing stones, regularly check that stones are secure in their mountings. "To check that a stone is secure, we recommend that you hold the ring close to your ear and tap the stone. If you hear a slight rattling (some compare it to the sound of a burnt-out lightbulb) your stone is loose," Doyle says. "Do not wear a ring with a loose stone. Bring it to your jeweler to have it secured." Doyle also recommends bringing your antique engagement ring to your jeweler every six months to have it checked and professionally cleaned.

What does "original condition" mean and why does it matter?

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. "A ring in its original condition has been 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. "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. The question becomes: How much can we repair, replace, or change before it becomes an entirely new piece altogether?"

"A practical example of this is when we're asked about diamond grading," she 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. The farther back a ring is dated, the more difficult it is 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."

Do antique engagement rings keep their value?

Antique engagement rings hold their value very well if kept in good condition. Rarity is an important factor in jewelry pricing since inevitably some pieces will be damaged or lost over the years. "The older a jewel becomes, the fewer pieces of that particular period or style will survive. The remaining pieces become rarer and will generally appreciate in price," Doyle says.

Jamie Kravitz contributed reporting to this article.

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