One of the aspects of vintage engagement rings that we find most endearing is that they are a precious reminder of the fashions from days gone by. Whilst the majority of clothing and accessories from the Victorian era no longer exists, leaving us with only sepia-tinged photographs to remember it by, well-made jewellery from the years in which Queen Victoria ruled over Great Britain endures. It is this extraordinary ability to evoke a certain period in time that we find irresistible.
Whilst some classic designs have remained popular through the decades, there are also lots of design quirks and flourishes that immediately identify a ring as belonging to a specific period of time. Here are some of our favourites.
Victorian engagement rings (1837-1901)
Queen Victoria was a passionate jewellery lover and was gifted some of her most treasured possessions by her husband, Prince Albert, who she adored. Perhaps her most significant piece of jewellery was a snake ring, designed by Albert and presented to her when their engagement was announced in 1839.
With an emerald head – the young Queen’s birthstone – and ruby eyes, she was among the first to wear a ring as a sign of commitment. In fact, Victoria was so fond of it is believed that when she was buried, she was wearing her beloved snake ring. She also had a fondness for sapphires and Albert bought her many gifts set with these regal blue stones, including a brooch that Queen Elizabeth II still wears today.
Perhaps our favourite designs from the reign of Victoria are the beautifully carved half hoop rings. Set with three gemstones to represent the past, the present and the future, they encapsulate the powerful love between Queen Victoria and her husband.
Edwardian engagement rings (1901-1914)
Historically, the Edwardian era derives its name from the years that Queen Victoria’s son, Edward, reigned as king (1901-1910). In terms of jewellery design, however, the era is usually extended to include the period of Victoria’s decline and the years after Edward passed away, until the onset of the First World War in 1914.
King Edward VII’s time on the throne might have been short, but the transition from female to male monarch brought about profound changes in Britain. A fashionable bon viveur who liked the finer things in life, he threw himself into his role as king and was a popular ruler.
Jewellery design took a more ethereal and feminine turn during the Edwardian era. Platinum mixed with yellow gold was the precious metal of choice, while the decorative technique known as millegrain added exquisitely delicate detail to rings in the form of borders of rows of tiny beads, painstakingly carved by hand.
Among the most popular styles of Edwardian engagement ring, and one of our absolute favourites, is the romantic daisy featuring a cluster of old cut diamonds, set to resemble a six-petalled flower. Thanks to their timeless femininity, Edwardian Daisy rings are still very much in demand now.
Art Deco engagement rings (1920-1935)
The first era in history not named after the ruling monarch at the time, the Art Deco age was one of the most significant in the history of jewellery design, which is reflected in the ongoing popularity of antique engagement rings from this era. The geometric proportions, contrasting patterns and angular shapes of the period created a modern, sleek aesthetic that was considered the epitome of sophistication.
Not all engagement rings from this era featured graphic patterns and angular lines, though. Toi et moi rings, which originated in France and translate as “you and me”, became very popular during the Art Deco era. Featuring two diamonds set side by side, symbolising two souls becoming one, this twisting design remains an absolute classic with a heartfelt message attached.
Mid-century engagement rings – “A Diamond is Forever”
Platinum was scarce after World War II ended in 1945 and for years afterwards engagement rings tended to be made predominantly in yellow gold. In 1947, De Beers unveiled its now-iconic “A Diamond is Forever” advertising campaign, which coincided with the opening of the jeweller’s African mines, and in 1953 Marilyn Monroe sang “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”, swathed in sparkling stones, in the movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Renowned for its sparkle, the modern round brilliant cut entered the scene in the early 1950s, and from this decade onwards, diamonds – more accessible than ever before – would remain the most popular gem for engagement rings. In terms of style, larger centre diamonds were most desirable, often set with smaller side stones, and if you didn’t have the means to buy a big diamond, illusion settings designed specifically to make the centre stone appear larger were the fashionably affordable choice.
1960s engagement rings
Classic engagement rings in the traditional style – a single diamond, with or without side stones – are quintessential 1960s, but square-shaped diamonds were also a stylish choice. Coloured gemstones were also firmly back in fashion once again thanks to style icons such as Jackie Onassis and Elizabeth Taylor – one of the greatest jewellery lovers of all time – flaunting their exquisite taste on their fingers. Demand for emeralds peaked when Onassis got engaged to John F. Kennedy with an elaborate emerald and diamond engagement ring.
1970s engagement rings
Angular baguette diamonds encapsulate the spirit of the 1970s, set into unusual designs that didn’t resemble a traditional engagement ring at all. Three-dimensional clusters of diamonds were preferred over classic solitaire diamond rings, but the princess cut diamond – today, the second most popular diamond shape – was also invented in the 1970s. With its pyramidal shape, with four bevelled sides, it brought a clean yet striking modernity to engagement rings from this era.