Look to the past for your future diamond.
Photography: Laura Gordon1 of 12
Why shouldn't your big day's something old be your engagement ring? You'd be in good company, since more and more brides are leaning towards vintage engagement rings as opposed to modern iterations. The reason? These accessories are long lasting and one-of-a-kind, which is often the reason brides-to-be are drawn to them in the first place. "Most of our customers are very confident in their own style," says Elizabeth Doyle, cofounder of the New York City vintage jewelry purveyor Doyle & Doyle. "They don't want something they see on everyone else." If these diamonds' timeless beauty isn't enough to make you want your own, their rich history will. The very best part about vintage engagement rings is that they've been worn by many brides before you—and now it's your turn to add a chapter to its story.
How do you go about finding one of these unique rings? To help you on your search for the perfect vintage engagement ring, we tapped Doyle for her expert advice. Whether you're looking for a ring from a specific era, want something that symbolizes your love of history, or simply love the romance of tying your legacy to someone else's, this guide will help you find your own heirloom.
Ahead, Doyle breaks down everything you need to consider when shopping for a vintage ring. From what metals and gems to consider to information about resizing and budgeting, the pro maps out the steps you'll need to take to get your hands on a vintage engagement ring that you'll cherish forever.
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Don't just scan your Pinterest feed for photos of rings. Instead, plan a few shopping excursions and try on as many as you can—whether or not they are vintage—and begin to understand what look you prefer. What shape flatters your finger? Do you like the look of a skinny or wide band? What stone size works? "You would be surprised what looks good on your finger because everyone's hands are different and everyone's style is different," Doyle explains. "Sometimes we have a ring in the case and it's an amazing ring and people try it on and it's not right. But it can truly come to life on the right person."
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If you do have a type of ring in mind, the more modern it is, the more likely you are to come across it. But Doyle reminds vintage shoppers that antique rings are unique finds. "There are a lot of factors involved in what's available at any time," she says. "We can get just as many Deco rings as rings from the '40s and '50s."
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Brush Up on Your History
Doyle encourages vintage engagement ring shoppers to understand what they are getting into before they hone in on special piece. "We find that sometimes a shopper might have a sentimental attachment to a period, and that will be an overriding factor in how they shop for rings," she says. But they really need to be mindful of their lifestyle, how often and when they would want to wear the ring, and then be committed to caring for the one they purchase—which might mean saving it for special occasions only.
Take some Georgian rings, for example. "There is no opening behind the diamond in Georgian rings," she says. "Behind the diamond is foil that jewelers used to use to make the stone more reflective. So, you don't want to get the ring wet, as water can damage the foil and darken the stone." Edwardian rings, on the other hand, often feature delicate filigree. "You don't want to accidentally drop them and step on them," she adds. Victorian rings have more solid mountings, but are often framed with little diamonds that can be easy to lose.
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In addition to historical periods, Doyle recommends buyers understand the limitations of certain stones. "Generally opals and pearls, for example, are not recommended as engagement stones because they are soft and vulnerable to breakage," she says. "But they can be beautiful options if you are careful about how you will wear them."
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Photography: Katie Grant Photography6 of 12
Think About Cut
Diamonds are timeless, but the methods by which they were cut are not. "In the '30s, it changed," Doyle says, citing the evolution of mechanized tools that led to the more precise brilliant cuts we are accustomed to seeing today. Prior to that era, many stones were hand-cut using a few popular techniques. These include the Old Mine and more refined Old European method, which produced a diamond that has a high crown (which can make the stone appear to pop out of its mounting) and wider facets. "These cuts are less flashy, but many find them more charming," Doyle adds.
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"When it comes to shopping for a vintage ring, metal is a whole other thing," says Doyle, adding that platinum is the most sought-after material. "It's the whitest metal in its natural state, and it's very durable." But, she adds, gold and to some extent silver, even though they are softer, are making a huge comeback. "In Georgian and Victorian jewelry, you will often even find silver-topped gold," she says.
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Find a Perfect Fit
Doyle says she can typically resize any vintage engagement ring in the store, with a few exceptions. "We would not resize an eternity band, where diamonds go all around, as we wouldn't do anything to compromise the setting," she says. Another tricky ring to resize? "Rings featuring enamelwork," she says. "If you did resize it, you might have to restore the enamel."
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When it comes to buying a vintage diamond engagement ring, it should be less about the stone's 4Cs—color, cut, clarity, and carat weight—and more about your love for the overall piece. But that doesn't mean you should forgo certification. "I always encourage people to choose a ring that already has an EGL USA certificate from an independent lab," she says, adding that reputable dealers will also appraise it and confirm it matches the report. "Vintage rings are often one-of-a-kind, and it's hard to replace them. But you do always want to be sure if anything happens to it, you have the option to get a similar stone and quality."
Also, don't be surprised if the evaluation is estimated. Unless the stone is of remarkable value, many jewelers will not unmount it to analyze it, worrying they could damage the setting.
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"We can provide somebody with an engagement ring at any price point—even a couple hundred dollars," Doyle says. But vintage isn't always synonymous with budget. "The prices can go all the way up, and you can certainly come across antique rings that to the layperson may not seem expensive at all, but will be very expensive," she explains. While a diamond center stone can be a factor in that cost, when it comes to historical pieces, Doyle says colored stones can be just as collectible. And in the end, the age of the ring and the rarity of it will be the primary reason behind the price tag.
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Photography: Braedon Flynn11 of 12
Having Dior or Chanel stitched into an evening gown from another decade can make it invaluable, but the same label mania does not always carry over into jewelry. "Certain designers—or manufacturers—will add a premium to the price of the ring, but it really depends," Doyle says. "For most of our rings, it's more about the design and look than the maker." What she and her customers love most about finding a maker's mark, even if the maker may not be well-known, is that it can add to the story behind the piece. "With it, you can usually tell where it was made and when," she says. "You can get at least a little information."
Photography: Ryan Ray Photography12 of 12
Create a New Story
When it comes to such a symbolic object, it's no surprise Doyle often finds customers asking about the ring's background. "We often don't know," she explains. "Sometimes you will find a date on the ring, which may correspond to the original owner's wedding or anniversary date. Sometimes there are inscriptions, including names or initials." But she says unless it's a family ring that has been passed down through generations, it's impossible to patch together its existence for better or worse. Instead, she suggests to customers that they view the purchase as a continuum. "When you put the ring on, you can bring it into a whole new beautiful life," she says.