Your Guide to Antique Wedding Rings

April 26, 2012 in
Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

Vintage jewelry is many things — nostalgic, unique, artistic, sustainable. But for some, buying vintage wedding rings is a twisted and confusing process, especially over the Internet. Educating yourself and your significant other will help give you the confidence and peace of mind needed to make what can be a very daunting purchase.

Vintage jewelry has an enticing character and lore all its own; these heirlooms are some of the most finely crafted works of art in the jewelry world. To know what went into fabricating these pieces within a historical context is to appreciate their unique beauty on an entirely different level.

Vintage wedding jewelry can be broken down into a handful of different categories. Each decorative period has its own signature trends that help us date items and spot reproductions. Some of the more common periods include:

Victorian (1835-1890): Finding diamond engagement rings from this era is difficult but not impossible, though the terms “Victorian” and “sentiment” go hand in hand. At a traditional Victorian wedding, brides and grooms exchanged finely wrought wedding bands that were either completely plain or pressed with intricate eternity designs. Just about every rose gold or silver band was engraved with the initials and date of the wedding ceremony. Some helpful keywords include: antique, Victorian, 19th century, rose gold, acrostic. Common Diamond Cuts: Old Miner Cut (mine cut), Old European Cut, Rose Cut, and Antique Cushion Cut.

Edwardian and Belle Epoque: 1890-1910
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Edwardian/Belle Epoque (1890-1910): It’s the turn of the century. Technology is keeping pace with expanding consumer demands, and advances in platinum manufacture help this period become one of the most feminine and luxurious of all. Diamonds and exotic gemstones are set in delicate lacy mountings accented with natural pearls and, of course, platinum. Influence is drawn from both Art Nouveau and Art Deco aesthetics, and there is an inherent daintiness to these pieces that make them incredibly elegant.  Reproduction note: If the ring is not platinum, it is not from this time period. Keywords: antique, milgrain, platinum, Edwardian, belle epoch. Common Diamond Cuts: Old European Cut, Transitional Cut, Rose Cut.

Art Deco (1915-1935): World War I, the Roaring Twenties, and the Great Depression all embody the Art Deco period. Not only do we have the introduction of white gold, but this is the first era to truly embrace the engagement ring as we know it today. If there is one word you should take from Art Deco wedding jewelry, it would have to be filigree. The detailing of the 1920s and ’30s has become iconic and is nearly impossible to recreate with the same degree of crisp ingenuity today.  Keywords: Art Deco, filigree, 1920s, 1930s, white gold, 18k white gold, antique eternity band. Common Diamond Cuts: Round Brilliant, Round Transitional, Old European Cut.

Retro/Mid-Century (1935-1960): Most women nowadays have a certain attachment to retro and mid-century styling because their mother or grandmother’s rings were from this period.  Depression and World War II era jewelry was designed to make a big impact with few resources. Solitaire diamonds have modern and timeless accents; they’re set in illusion heads, giving round diamonds the illusion of being not only square, but larger in size. Wedding bands were custom made to match, with designs crafted in white gold, yellow gold, or both. Keywords: Retro, Mid Century, Solitaire. Common Diamond Cuts: Round Brilliant, Round Transitional Cut.

 

Estate (1960-Present Day): Antique dealers use this term loosely to describe jewelry that is post-1960. Styles vary from 1970s cluster rings to 1980s marquise solitaires, most being in yellow gold. Be careful! Sometimes dealers will use the word “estate” to mislead someone into buying a reproduction that looks like it is from the 1920s but is actually a five-year-old knock off.

A basic rule of thumb to follow – the lower the karat number, the less actual gold in the piece, and thus the harder it is. Men’s rings are often cast in 10K because the additional alloys make the ring more durable, since gold is a very soft metal.

There are many factors to consider when purchasing a diamond, and carat size is only one of them.  Cut, Color, Clarity, Carat, and Cost are five C’s that can be balanced based on your individual needs.  Vintage diamond engagement rings have an additional factor to add into the equation, and that is rarity.

A great alternative to a diamond is a sapphire, since it is a hard stone durable enough for everyday wear. Rubies and aquamarines are some other common choices, though with proper care, most gemstones will work well. Stones to avoid in wedding jewelry would be opals, pearls, or coral. A wide assortment of gemstone options are available for all ages of vintage jewelry.

Etsy has an incredible and expanding collection of vintage wedding jewelry from reputable sellers. If you are shopping locally, seek out antique jewelry stores or go into a mom-and-pop jewelry store and ask if they have an estate section. Keep in mind that just because someone carries a product in their shop doesn’t mean they are knowledgeable about it. Get to know who you are dealing with.

It’s also important to do your research! I once had a couple buy an “antique” ring from an antique jewelry store in my area, only to discover the ring was brand new from a big box store. Ask questions! If the dealer doesn’t seem confident in the age or authenticity of a piece, it is definitely a deal breaker.

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With the proper care, most vintage wedding jewelry is fit for everyday wear.  Some of these pieces have been around for well over 100 years, but it is important to remember that no piece of jewelry, old or new, is indestructible.  You should get your heirloom checked by a trusted jeweler once every six months. If you suspect one of your stones may be loose, get it checked as soon as you can. Clean your ring with mild soapy water (no detergent!) and a soft toothbrush, then pat dry. Also, when taking on and off your rings, it is important to take off from the sides of the ring and not by pressing on the top and bottom. Over time, this can loosen your center stone.

As for repairs, there are only a handful jewelers who will work confidently on vintage pieces, primarily because it takes a patient and highly skilled artisan to do so. I’ve had my share of horror stories over the years — jewelers who have cracked cameos in half during a seemingly simple tightening, chipped opals during a stone replacement…  Luckily, I have built good relationships with very experienced bench jewelers and am now quite confident that when I need a ring sized, all will go as planned.

First, it is important to ask the dealer you buy from, whether that be an Etsy seller or antique shop, what kind of services they offer. If they don’t offer any, try to find an antique jewelry shop in your area and go through them. Chances are, if they are a reputable establishment, they will have the necessary connections to very capable ring sizers and restorers.

Best of luck in all your vintage jewelry adventures!