Vintage Engagement Rings For The Unconventional Bride

Photo: Courtesy of Doyle & Doyle.
One could argue the best love stories of all time have already been written — novels like Anna Karenina and Pride & Prejudice are prime examples. We’d say the same about engagement rings. Some of our favorite styles were commissioned well before the 21st century. (Just imagine the romantic histories that could be tied to each piece.) Of course, this is not to knock any contemporary designers who create that magic out of thin air. In fact, many of the modern design elements we're loving right now — like filigree metalwork, ouroboroses, and daisy clusters — actually find their origins in centuries prior.
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For this guide, we sought out vintage-jewelry aficionados Doyle & Doyle founder Elizabeth Doyle, The One I Love owner Mia Moross and designer Elizabeth Kranz, and Erica Weiner. With them, we're exploring six famous jewelry eras — Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and retro — and the best certified vintage engagement rings to shop from each. If you weren't a lover of heirloom baubles before reading this, something tells us you're about to have a newfound interest in Grandma's jewelry box.
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ILLUSTRATED BY MARY GALLOWAY.
The Georgian Era
The Years: Approximately 1714 to 1830

The Georgian period is named after four Hanover monarchs: George I, George II, George III (of Revolutionary War fame) and (you guessed it) George IV, who consecutively ruled England from 1714 to 1830.

"Georgian jewelry is primarily constructed of gold and silver and set with diamonds, pearls, and colored gemstones," says Doyle & Doyle's Elizabeth Doyle. Platinum hadn't even made its debut yet!

If you’re thinking about purchasing a ring dated to this period, it’s important to consider your lifestyle. "Rings were made to withstand the wear of the lifestyles of the time," says Doyle. "Before the Industrial Revolution enabled the mass production, the only ladies getting an engagement ring were most likely members of the aristocracy," adds Erica Weiner. "But, as any antique dealer worth their salt will tell you, they’re usually a little too fragile for everyday wear."

Living was considerably different to what we're accustomed to today. Think about it: Georgian-era women barely bathed. "Their hands rarely encountered moisture," says Doyle. "The closed-foil-backed settings of their rings could not get wet without risking damage, but this presented little challenge to them. The original owners of the surviving rings from this era would not have even used their hands to dress themselves. And, they certainly were not hopping on the subway to go to a CrossFit class." To that end: "If you have your heart set on a ring that was made to withstand a gentler lifestyle, make sure you are committed to caring for it," the gemologist advises.
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The Georgian Era
"These rings came from a time when artists were born into their craft and spent their entire lifetimes perfecting their trade," offer The One I Love owner Mia Moross and designer Elizabeth Kranz. "Gold and silver work, enameling, waxing, casting, stone cutting — all were done with love and precision into the candlelight hours to create one-of-a-kind rings."

Platt Boutique Jewelry Georgian Era Old Cut Diamond Ring, price upon request, available at Platt Boutique Jewelry.
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The Georgian Era
"Foiled-back settings were used to help reflect the subtle shimmer of candlelight, seeing as this was of course a time before electricity," Moross continues.
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The Georgian Era
"Another token these passionate people used to honor each another is called a 'Mourning Memento,'" says Kranz. "It's jewelry created to remember the passing of a loved one. Black or white enamel (sometimes accompanied with the deceased one's hair) were worn proudly to let others know that their hearts were still with the one that they had loved and lost." Heart melting has officially commenced.
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The Georgian Era
"Each component of Georgian rings held specific meaning, and every stone was used to symbolize an emotion — pearls would be used to symbolize tears, for example," Moross explains. "Engagement rings simply held a deeper meaning than they do today."
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The Georgian Era
"Any object that is worn regularly breaks down over time and will require repair or maintenance," says Weiner. "Since these rings have already been worn for a serious amount of time, they might require new prongs [or] shank replacements; the gems may need to be polished. Depending on the dealer, these repairs may already have been done when you buy your ring."

If not, be safe and have it inspected for "hairline cracks, solder repair marks, scratches, or chips to the gems. If you need to have the ring sized, make sure to ask if it is possible — some rings can only be sized up or down a little bit, and others cannot be sized at all."
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ILLUSTRATED BY MARY GALLOWAY.
The Victorian Era
The Years: Approximately 1830 to 1901

Reigning a then-record-setting 63 years, Queen Victoria ascended to the British throne in 1837, ruling until her death in 1901. It is for her that this era is named.

"Victorian fashion and jewelry design hinged almost entirely on the whims and preferences of Queen Victoria, and her engagement ring set the tone for a highly symbolic era of jewelry design," asserts Weiner.

By all accounts, Queen Victoria lived a fairytale-like love story unlike any monarch of her time, an era in which arranged marriage was the norm. For starters, she proposed to Prince Albert herself, and the couple wed in short order. Though Albert didn’t do the getting-down-on-one-knee bit, he did gift Victoria an emerald-studded serpent ring to mark their engagement. "With this adornment," Moross asserts, "The couple launched the world into a romantic-jewelry tailspin. Lovers were tripping over themselves to gift one another with tokens of their undying affection, and creativity was rampant."

"Pieces exchanged between lovers or husbands and wives often bore images associated with fidelity and eternity," says Weiner. While yellow gold was the period's metal of choice, hearts, snakes, and flowers, among other designs, were commonly used to convey one’s love and devotion.

"Although Victorian jewelry can be on the fussy side," Weiner admits, "there were some surprisingly refined and modern-looking jewelry produced during this period. Popular gems include diamonds, turquoise, sapphires, emeralds, garnets, pearls, and opals at the very end of the era."
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The Victorian Era
"Since this period is so long, there are many styles categorized as Victorian. We see bezel-set gems as well as prong-set gems, lots of rose gold and enamel, clusters, and even the occasional solitaire, too," Weiner explains.
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The Victorian Era
"In a time of the arranged marriage, Albert and Victoria gave everyone the refreshing hope of true and passionate love," elaborates Kranz. "They were famous for under-the-table gropes, stolen kisses, and never being seen without the other by their side."
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The Victorian Era
Birthstone engagement rings were also quite popular during the Victorian era. Remember Vic's emerald? Coincidentally (or not,) her birthday was May 24.
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The Victorian Era
"When Prince Albert died in 1861, Queen Victoria entered the customary year of mourning and never, ever came out of it," says Moross. "The heartbroken queen unknowingly created the trend of black jewelry that lasted until her death in 1901. Jet, onyx, and black diamonds were used in somber designs and carved into hauntingly romantic themes," explains Kranz.
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The Victorian Era
Perhaps inspired by the queen's ouroboros-themed ring, this diamond-and-ruby snake band can be dated to around 1830.
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The Victorian Era
"The end of the 19th century saw the onset of the Industrial Revolution and mass production," explains Doyle. "Simple jewelry set with seed pearls, colored gems, and small diamonds were constructed in lower karat gold so as to be affordable for all women. Artists, however, bemoaned mechanization and continued to promote traditional methods and handicrafts, looking to the Middle Ages and Renaissance for inspiration."
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ILLUSTRATED BY MARY GALLOWAY.
The Edwardian Era
The Years: Approximately 1901 to 1915

Following the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, her eldest son, Edward VII, rose to the throne for a period of time that coexisted with Art Nouveau.

According to Weiner, "Edwardian design was frilly as all hell." This is due, in large part, to the advent of platinum. "Platinum exploded onto the jewelry scene for its ability to create intricate, lace-work designs," details Moross. This elaborate metalwork — filigree — was sometimes more sought after than the actual gemstones set in the ring. The lust for platinum made designs like laurel wreaths, ribbon garlands, passementerie tassels, and petit point embroidery very popular among fashionable ladies of the time.

King Edward’s wife, Queen Alexandra, was also a style influencer. Her “preference for white jewels, primarily diamonds and ropes of pearls, spread to fashionable women of the time,” says Doyle. Though Edward was king, femininity ruled and "everyone wanted to celebrate the purity and elegance of it," adds Kranz. "Engagement rings were often a pastel of sorts; citrine and amethyst were very popular, and were surrounded by a halo of diamond or pearls set in filigree, filigree, and, oh, more filigree."
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The Edwardian Era
According to Doyle, "The development of the oxyacetylene torch in 1903 allowed designers to create jewelry completely out of platinum for the first time. Utilizing platinum’s strength, the jewels became delicate and lacy."
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The Edwardian Era
Moross explains that, "As travel became more accessible (the first automobile was born!) jewelry trends were influenced more and more by other cultures — namely India."
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The Edwardian Era
"The Edwardian period was about getting away from the heavier styles of the late Victorian period," claims Weiner. "You see a streamlining of shapes and more refined takes on classic styles such as the daisy cluster." In addition to pastel stones and pearls, diamonds and sapphires were also extremely popular.
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The Edwardian Era
"The wealthy were taking on an even more leisurely life than before," continues Moross. "Being decked out in the appropriate get-up was high on the aristocracy’s list. The jewelry was whimsical and light as opposed to some of the dramatic styles seen before."
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The Edwardian Era
Lacy filigree reigned supreme. "It was the ultimate expression of femininity and lightness," says Weiner.
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The Edwardian Era
"As the period came to an end," Doyle says, "Paul Poiret and other innovative couturiers debuted fashions that called for beaded sautoirs, pendant necklaces, and long, diamond-studded chains. The delicate, lacy look started to give way to geometric styles that looked forward to Art Deco on the horizon."
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ILLUSTRATED BY MARY GALLOWAY.
The Art Nouveau Era
The Years: Approximately 1890 to 1915

"Because this period overlaps with the end of the Victorian, the Edwardian, and the beginning of Art Deco era, you see a lot of rings described as Art Nouveau that stylistically belong with one of the other concurrent eras," begins Weiner. That said, this period for jewelry is remembered for its organic and asymmetrical shapes, decadent flora and fauna, multicolor gradient enamels, and use of the female face and figure. Art Nouveau rings were feminine, to be sure, but in a more sensual and less frilly way than was the Edwardian hallmark.

Late 19th century artists — like Louis Comfort Tiffany and René Lalique — sought to create "an entirely new language of design, ornament, and imagery," according to Doyle. "The middle class was emerging from poverty and gaining a voice, along with [a] knowledge of jewelry and craftsmanship," continues Kranz. "Heavily influenced by nature and the re-opening of trade from the East, Art Nouveau was a true pioneer in the world of self-expression."

Though it started out as an avant garde artistic movement, "Art Nouveau was ultimately embraced by the mainstream," says Doyle. "The ability to mass produce jewelry meant that whiplash curves and ladies with flowing hair soon decorated affordable medallions, lockets, and brooches. Women of all walks of life could also wear delicate, curvilinear-festoon necklaces and lavaliere pendants highlighted by colored gemstones, enamel, and pearl drops."
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The Art Nouveau Era
"While the Edwardian Era was happening with the romantic and leisurely elite (think jewel-bedecked people lounging around fanning themselves over wine and grapes)," say Moross and Kranz, "a more sensual and groundbreaking art was making itself known."
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The Art Nouveau Era
Art collector and dealer Siegfried Bing’s gallery and shop, L’Art Nouveau, which opened in Paris in 1895, is where the era finds its name. "In 1900, the first year of a new century, Bing’s installation at the Exposition Universelle in Paris introduced the new designs to the world," says Doyle. "As the movement spread, artists from Spain, Austria, America, and Russia added local folk art elements to create their own nationalist versions of Art Nouveau."
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The Art Nouveau Era
"Probably the most common jewelry technique from this time period is the use of enamel," furthers Moross. "People were wearing the equivalent to mini stained glass windows and color was everywhere."
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The Art Nouveau Era
"Japanese art was admired for its simplistic beauty and can be recognized as widely influencing this era, as well," she continues.
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The Art Nouveau Era
"Where women had been depicted mostly in a regal, Victorian way before, now they were being seen on pendants as naked goddesses —full of sensuality and curving shapes," offers Kranz.
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ILLUSTRATED BY MARY GALLOWAY.
The Art Deco Era
The Years: Approximately 1920 to 1935

Art Deco engagement rings are distinct and beautiful, and they often borrowed their geometric shapes and designs from the period’s most innovative architecture — NYC’s Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center, for starters.

Following the end of World War I, "artists strove to create a new vocabulary of design, displacing the naturalistic and historicist forms of the 19th century in favor of streamlined, linear shapes," offers Doyle. Think Gatsby.

Art Deco is known for white jewelry, in the form of platinum and diamonds. The trend began with the proliferation of platinum during the Edwardian years and increased exponentially in popularity. For this very reason, "yellow gold is rarely (if ever) seen on an Art Deco piece," confides Moross.

Since wedding bands were not yet standard accessories for women, engagement rings were set "taller, wider, and generally take up more real estate on the finger," Weiner describes. The overall theme: The louder the sparkle, the better. This pertained not only to the era's jewelry preferences, but also to the societal shifts happening at the same time. "The 1920s saw an influx of women leaving the constraints of the home, exploding onto the work scene, cutting their hair, ditching binding corsets, and baring skin above the ankle," Kranz continues. Gone were the delicate lace filigrees that defined Edwardians, instead, "calibre-cut rubies, sapphires, emeralds and mine-cut diamonds evoked the geometric and glamorous moods essential to this style."
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The Art Deco Era
"Cluster settings ruled the day with geometric openwork and engraving," Weiner details. During the Art Deco years, the solitaire also starting gaining in popularity.
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The Art Deco Era
"Jewelry was worn wherever on the body it could be clipped, pinned, or draped and with as many diamonds that could be arranged in a setting," say Kranz and Moross. "This was a time where our grandmothers were raising their voices loud and proud, and everyone had to stop and listen."
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The Art Deco Era
Large, scaling diamonds were often paired with colored accent stones like rubies, sapphires, and emeralds. For increased affordability, synthetic gems were often used in jewelry of this era — which is important to keep in mind when shopping and authenticating vintage.
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The Art Deco Era
"Inspired equally by industrial advancements and cultural discovery, Art Deco jewelry can take a variety of forms," interjects Doyle.
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The Art Deco Era
"The 1922 unearthing of Tutankhamun's tomb led to a fashion for Egyptian motifs," she persists. "Jewels decorated with pyramids, scarabs, and Egyptian figures were set with diamonds and a combination of colorful hardstones, including lapis lazuli, turquoise, and carnelian."

Additionally, the popularity of traditional Indian jewelry, beginning with Queen Alexandra in the Edwardian era, also set a trend for carved-gemstone jewelry in stylized floral shapes — Cartier’s Tutti Frutti collection in ruby, sapphire, and emerald, for example.
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The Art Deco Era
"Although the Jazz Age came to an abrupt end with the stock-market crash in 1929 and subsequent Depression, Art Deco’s streamlined geometry continued to impact jewelry designers throughout the 20th century," Doyle acknowledges.
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ILLUSTRATED BY MARY GALLOWAY.
The Retro Era
The Years: Approximately 1935 to 1950

The Great Depression was a devastating and dark period, and "the jewelry industry was forced to adapt to the changing marketplace, and designers softened the rigid symmetry of Art Deco," explains Doyle. "After platinum and other white metals were rationed for military use, jewelers reintroduced colored gold jewelry, once thought old-fashioned." The war also slowed the import of precious gemstones from Africa. Instead, "jewelers turned to less expensive, more readily available gems, such as topaz, citrine, and colored quartz, supplemented by synthetic rubies and sapphires." Some jewelry skipped these stones altogether.

But, this was also the period in which De Beers really hit its stride — its famous advertising campaign helped to "cement diamonds’ status as the prime engagement ring stone," affirms Weiner. "Because of this mass marketing, you’ll see more modest stones set in rings — because, presumably, there was a diamond for every budget."
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The Retro Era
"With the rise of the silver screen, larger-than-life jewelry was a sign of prosperity," says Kranz. "Gone were the layers of tiny diamonds and platinum. They were replaced by the brightest yellow gold and massive center stones."
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The Retro Era
"Ribbon motifs were very popular, and they were often set with a single emerald cut stone in the center. This time period also gave birth to costume jewelry; and the bolder the better," continues Moross.
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The Retro Era
Returning with vigor and sustaining its use in the post-WWII years, yellow gold was increasingly showcased side-by-side with white gold or platinum.
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The Retro Era
Besides diamonds, "aquamarine, topaz, tourmaline, citrine, and sapphire were the most common gemstones of this era and were flanked by sweeping, gold settings," says Moross.
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The Retro Era
"Like so much gem and jewelry lore, the origins of the so-called 'vena amoris' (the vein supposedly running from the ring finger to the heart) are nearly untraceable, and anatomically, it actually doesn’t exist," Weiner divulges. "Many accounts say that the belief originated in ancient Egypt, spread throughout the Greek and Roman empires, and persisted to present day." In any case, this is why we wear engagement rings on our fourth finger, and why we are currently swooning.
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