By Raphael Weil, GG
When it comes to jewellery, each era has its own style. While the origins of jewellery go back to prehistory, the earliest discovery of a modern piece made by humans is a necklace found in Monaco, crafted out of fish bones and dating back 25,000 years.
Since then, processes for designing and manufacturing fine jewellery have changed significantly. We have witnessed important changes on earth with the discovery of new continents, materials, gemstones, civilizations, and technologies.
Indeed, we lived important eras that have changed the world of jewellery—and, also remarkably, the world of engagement rings.
These days, jewellers have access to technologies that allow them to work better and faster than ever before. Work that once took months to complete now takes weeks, and work that once took weeks now takes days. Modern jewellers can design complicated pieces on computer screens in a matter of hours, determining the weight of the item’s jewels, the cost of its metal, and the size of the stones they should be using within a few clicks. These jewels can be crafted in just a few hours and literally printed, all by entering a computer-created design into a machine.
Conversely, some jewellers opt to become masters in handcrafting very fine pieces, custom created for exigent customers who desire something different from the rest of the world.
With this ring…
Let’s shift focus to an item of jewellery that has remained a bestseller since DeBeers’ 1947 ‘Diamond is Forever’ campaign: the diamond engagement ring—a piece comprised of a highly resilient centre stone, set in a gold or platinum setting to show the love of your life you mean business.
Of course, while DeBeers’ campaign popularized the idea of this particular piece of jewellery, the origin of the first engagement ring is much older than the company itself. According to the American Gem Society (AGS), anthropologists believe the tradition stems from “a Roman custom in which wives wore rings attached to small keys, indicating their husbands’ ownership.” AGS goes on to note Maximillian, Archduke of Austria, “commissioned the very first diamond engagement ring on record for his betrothed, Mary of Burgundy” in 1477. This medieval engagement ring started a trend we have continued to follow for centuries.
While diamonds are a girl’s best friend, however, they are far from the only stone to be loved and used in these rings. These days we see thousands of engagement ring types, suiting varying tastes and budgets and featuring a range of gemstones. Some of these styles stay on trend for more than a hundred years, while others are quickly forgotten.
Keeping it classic
Among the everlasting engagement ring styles are antique- or vintage-style pieces. These rings fall into one of two categories: casted (i.e. machine-manufactured) or handcrafted. In this article, we will focus on the latter. This variety is much more prestigious, as these pieces are nearly identical to their original counterparts and, thus, command higher prices. Indeed, when an antique-/vintage-style engagement ring is handcrafted, it is unique; no two pieces look the same, and each ring is made to host a selected centre stone that is almost always an original antique cut (e.g. old mine cuts, old European cuts).
Which rings can be classified as antique- or vintage-style? What makes them special? And, finally, which eras are still on trend in today’s market?
‘Antiques’ are objects manufactured in an earlier period and, according to several laws, are at least a century old.
Conversely, the term ‘vintage’ is primarily associated with wine and takes its origin in the old the French word ‘vendange’ (meaning, ‘the grape harvest during a season’). As a secondary definition, ‘vintage’ refers to a period of manufacture (e.g. in reference to a 1970s Cartier ring). The term should not be used to describe items less than 20 years old.
For engagement rings, pieces we call antique- or vintage-style are those with all the characteristics of those made decades or centuries earlier, but created recently. The popularity of these high-demand pieces is rooted in the craftsmanship, which employs all of the methods used by jewellers of the past. Indeed, these impeccable pieces look identical to their original counterparts and are custom-made, making the only limit the customer’s imagination.
These days, two time periods are notably trending: the Edwardian era (1901 to 1915), which is considered antique; and the art deco era (1915 to the late 1930s), which is considered both antique and vintage, if we follow the aforementioned definitions.
Named for England’s King Edward VII, the Edwardian era was a remarkably innovative time. This period represented femininity, elegance, progress, and sophistication—and jewels of this time were a mix of all these characteristics. Notably, women were expected to be feminine and well-dressed. Additionally, it is important to note the Edwardian era overlapped with the French Belle Epoque era (the late 1800s to 1915).
Between 1901 and 1915, the primary colour found in jewellery was white. This is why diamonds and pearls were commonly used in pieces from this era, along with white metals. Platinum, for example, was extremely popular for jewellery crafted in the early 1900s and remains a preferred choice today—especially in antique-style engagement rings.
The craftsmanship of Edwardian pieces was incredibly detailed, with floral, swirl, bow knot, and ribbon designs, accented with migraines and filigrees still used today for all types of jewellery, particularly in Edwardian-style engagement rings.
It was during this era when diamond engagement rings became on trend: old mine (antique cushion) and old European (antique round) cuts were the most popular choice for jewellery designers, along with antique marquise diamonds, which were commonly paired with sapphires to enhance the white of the diamond.
At the turn of the century, skilled jewellers found a way to make platinum on yellow gold rings. Most of the time, the head and the gallery of the rings were made in platinum and the shank in yellow gold, resulting in one piece comprised of two precious metals. Platinum, which is extremely resistant, had finally replaced silver, which had been a popular choice throughout the Victorian era.
Modern day Edwardian-style diamond engagement rings, much like their original counterparts, typically feature a large centre stone (ranging from 0.5 to four carats), which is often shouldered or haloed by smaller diamonds, sapphires, and, sometimes, rubies.
It is not uncommon to find a solitaire or three-stone Edwardian-style engagement ring. Indeed, these styles are extremely on trend, too. Women from the high society of the era loved elongated engagement rings, which stretched down the finger (known today as ‘navette’ style). And, while one might think diamonds were the only stone used to centre Edwardian engagement rings, blue and pink sapphires and rubies were also a popular choice.
Art deco era
The art deco period was named after the International des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts), which took place in Paris in 1925; however, the era truly began approximately 10 years before. Most believe it started in 1915, right as the Edwardian era came to an end. One thing that is certain is the style of the period peaked in popularity from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s.
But, many ask, didn’t the art deco era begin right after WWI when Europe was set free? In France, where the trend was born, a movement of euphoria and liberation emerged in the early 1920s, referred to as Les Années Folles (or ‘crazy years’). In fact, following the war, the people of France had a good time rediscovering arts, culture, and fashion, and this precipitated the metamorphose of the Belle Epoque (and Edwardian) times to the art deco years.
Like the Belle Epoque and Edwardian eras, the art deco period was a time of industrial revolution, progress, and innovation. It is the style of artistic expression, architecture, symmetry, and arts. As such, the deco era is one of the most popular jewellery styles of all times—of course: jewellery is art!
Early fine art deco jewellery was almost exclusively made of platinum. In the 1920s, however, white gold was invented to slowly replace the metal, which had become very high in price.
It is easy to distinguish art deco jewellery from Edwardian. Notably, the design of these later pieces is much more geometrical and symmetrical than those crafted in the Edwardian era, and incorporate a lot of ‘calibre cut’ stones, including French-cut diamonds, sapphires and synthetic sapphires, and emeralds.
The most popular centre stone of this era remains the old European-cut diamond, though you can find some old mine cuts, antique marquise, or Asscher-cut diamonds in deco-era engagement rings as well. Centre stones are often flanked by diamonds, sapphires, and emeralds. Additionally, both sapphires and emeralds became very popular as a centre stone choice in engagement rings of this era.
Moreover, filigree work was an important part of the deco era. Engagement rings from this period have the particularities to feature beautiful engravings along with these filigrees and often stood in place of side stones. While it is more common to see an art deco halo engagement ring (or even a ring with a stone in the centre and two or more on the side), it is not unusual to see beautiful, complicated engagement rings made between the 1920s and the 1930s with only one stone set in the centre.
Today, the finest art deco-style engagement rings are just like the original ones: they are handcrafted in platinum, feature the same type of stones, and possess all the characteristics of an old piece—the only difference is they were made in the modern age.
Both the Edwardian and the art deco eras have enjoyed resurgence in the past five years. Indeed, in today’s market, demand for single-stone, handcrafted Edwardian- and art deco-style engagement rings has increased significantly.
Likewise, art deco-style diamond engagement rings with sapphire halos have seen an increase in popularity and sales in recent years, as have three-stone Edwardian and art deco-style pieces. Today, these are mostly made in platinum, but one can also find them in yellow gold, matching the style of the early 1900s, and 18-karat yellow gold. These rings feature centre stones averaging between 0.5 and two carats.
Now more than ever, consumers desire something unique and different from the classic engagement ring; they want a part of history that can be personalized through customization.
Raphael Weil, GG, is the founder of World Wide Weil, a Manhattan-based jewellery firm, specializing in large antique and modern diamonds, as well as estate, antique, vintage, signed, and custom-made pieces and repairs. Born in France, Weil obtained diplomas in international trade, management, economy, and business development in Europe, before relocating to New York City to study gemmology at the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). At his firm, Weil offers loose diamonds, coloured stones, and custom jewellery, as well as full consulting services for jewellery professionals, including business development, marketing, diamond and gemstones grading, and appraisals. He can be reached via email at email@example.com or on Instagram @TheDiamondsGuy.