Art in all its forms is special because it’s immortal. That’s why I find there’s something deeply fascinating and romantic about antique jewellery from previous eras. A piece of jewellery can represent or celebrate many different life moments; ring designs, in particular, are often very personal and intimate. It’s even more special when it comes to vintage rings, as they come from the past and carry a unique story.
Naturally, styles have changed through the centuries, and I’ve come to learn a lot about period ring designs after so many years of passionate treasure-hunting. I know that navigating the vintage jewellery world can be tricky, so I’ve put together two guides dedicated to one of our favourite pieces of jewellery: rings! (Don’t forget to check Vol.1)
First things first!
WHEN IS A RING CONSIDERED VINTAGE?
When browsing through jewellery from the past, you’ll come across terms such as vintage, antique, estate, retro and vintage-inspired. Understanding the differences between each type can be challenging and confusing, as they’re often used loosely or incorrectly. Essentially, age is the main factor determining which of the above categories a ring (or any jewel) is classified as. Here’s a quick glossary to help you distinguish each type:
Antique: Put simply, any piece of jewellery over 100 years old is considered antique. Rings that old are very rare and precious, carrying a lot of history and exhibiting superior-level craftsmanship with intricate engravings. The five distinct eras characterising antique jewellery are Georgian, Victorian, Art Nouveau, Edwardian, and Art Deco.
Vintage: In jewellery trade terms, if a piece was made between 20 and 100 years ago, it’s classified as vintage. Also called retro, vintage jewellery from the 1930s to the 1950s is colourful and flamboyant, often inspired by Hollywood and other popular themes of the time.
Estate: Any jewellery that has been previously owned and therefore had time to age in some capacity is labelled estate. Even though many estate pieces on the market may feature hallmarks and be 50, 100, or even 150+ years old, age is not a determining factor when classifying estate jewellery.
Vintage-inspired: Era-inspired or vintage-style pieces appear to be from a different time but are no more than newly-made jewels that simply mimic old designs. Although beautiful, their value and quality don’t even come close to that of an original.
GEORGIAN RING DESIGNS (1714 to 1837)
Georgian jewellery is inspired by the Romanticism movement of the times and is characterised by a sense of abundance and elegance. Antique rings from this era are often designed with intricate details to evoke beauty and sentimentality. It was common for friends, family and lovers to exchange jewellery as gifts with engraved messages, locks of hair, and classical symbolism, all used to convey meaning and sentiment.
Gold was the favoured metal, and the shortage of diamonds pushed colourful gemstones into popularity, such as emeralds, rubies, sapphires, garnet, topaz, and black onyx. Coral, mother of pearl, river pearls, and shells were also frequently used as additional materials in rings and remained popular during the Victorian era that followed.
A passion for the classicism of the past was typical in the Georgian era, making cameo rings very popular.
The Age of Enlightenment (1650-1780) and Galileo’s intriguing discoveries about outer space the century before certainly sparked an interest in astrology. The Georgian society’s fascination with the skies and the secrets of the universe gave rise to spectacular celestial-themed jewellery. One of the most sought after ring designs of the era’s celestial trend was Bagues Au Firmament (French for ‘Ring of the Heavens’), a favourite of Queen Marie Antoinette herself. They were widely worn around 1778 to celebrate her first long-awaited pregnancy, while her second pregnancy was marked by ‘Bagues a L’enfantement’, which were similar but centred with a large diamond. These statement rings were a poetic depiction of the night sky and usually featured a sea of blue glass or enamel, flecked with paste gems or diamonds.
Undoubtedly, antique rings from the Georgian era are also fascinating for the hidden meanings they often bore. The concept of acrostic jewellery, or the language of gemstones, was attributed to Jean-Baptiste Mellerio, a favourite jewellery designer of Marie Antoinette and the 18th-century French court. Fun fact: Maison Mellerio, founded in 1613, is the world’s oldest jewellery house still active today. Brimming with symbolism, acrostic rings quickly became one of the most beloved pieces of jewellery, remaining popular during the reign of Queen Victoria.
These thoughtfully created ring designs were meant to communicate messages, with each gemstone representing a different letter. For example, a ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst, ruby, and diamond combination would spell out “regard”. Other popular phrases to spell out included “adore” and “dearest”, but the possibilities were truly endless. The fad swept Europe, with Napoleon commissioning Chaumet to create three acrostic bracelets for Empress Marie Louise to acknowledge their love.
First introduced in the Middle Ages, Poesy or Posy rings extended their popularity throughout the Georgian era. They featured a plain gold band engraved with old love sayings and were often worn as wedding rings.
Another popular ring trend in the Georgian era was the Giardinetti, which translates to ‘small garden’ in Italian. These ring designs reflected the delicate elegance of the Rococo period, depicting floral themes and intricate shapes such as blossoms, ribbons, and butterflies. They usually featured emeralds, rubies, diamonds and coloured paste gems.
The discovery of diamonds in Brazil in 1727 increased the supply dramatically, turning them into a must for the well-dressed of the day. Those who could afford “new” larger stones enjoyed more intricate designs made possible by advances in diamond cutting technology. Early brilliant-cuts were set in delicate mountings with split shanks and graceful openwork, like in the Georgian engagement rings below.
VICTORIAN RING DESIGNS (1837 to 1901)
After the end of the Georgian era, Queen Victoria reigned over The United Kingdom for nearly 64 years. Victorian times are often associated with romance and grandeur in art, literature, music, and jewellery. Fine metals like rich yellow gold, impressive gemstones, and ornate settings inspired by the monarch’s regal style are common features of Victorian antique rings.
Queen Victoria loved jewellery and wore it liberally and abundantly, often stacking her rings, bracelets, and necklaces. Thanks to the arrival of photography and new mass media spreading the styles, she became quite the trendsetter in her own country and abroad. She’s believed to have inspired the popularity of snakes, one of the main symbols associated with the era, after receiving a snake ring with emerald, her birthstone, from Prince Albert for their engagement.
Still at a time of social restraint, Victorian society also picked up on the sentimental symbolism from the previous Georgian era, expressing emotions that couldn’t always be shared aloud through jewellery. Popular symbolic motifs in Victorian ring designs included birds, insects, gryphons, flowers, clovers and horseshoes, crescent moon, stars, hearts, and hands.
1. Victorian gold pearl bird ring. Image courtesy of RubyLane
2. Victorian gold fede ring. Image courtesy of Antique Jewellery Company
3. Victorian gold horseshoe ring with buckle sides. Image courtesy of Antique Jewellery Company
4. Victorian rose gold and diamond ring. Image courtesy of Lang Antiques
In 1861, Victoria’s beloved Prince Albert died, plunging the Queen and the entire country into mourning. Although the official mourning period for the court was three months, Victoria remained in mourning for the rest of her life, once again influencing the dress and jewellery code. It wasn’t unusual for the entire nation to wear mourning rings or memorial rings (similar but less morbid than their Memento Mori predecessors ) whenever a royal family member died to show their allegiance to the crown. This period, however, saw a tremendous rise in their popularity. Intended to preserve the memory of a loved one, mourning rings featured miniature portraits, locks of hair displayed at the front/back of the band, carved initials, personalised inscriptions and cyphers or common phrases like “In Memoriam”.
Memorial ring made for Queen Victoria with Prince Albert’s microphotograph and the entwined initials V and A.
Image courtesy of Royal Collection Trust
During this era, other beloved ring designs were the less flashy Gypsy ring and the immortal signet ring, both initially worn mostly by men. Signet rings featured engraved details of ancient cities, sculptures, contemporary rulers, military heroes and popular authors. In contrast, the Gypsy ring, also known as the flush-mount setting, was usually a simple gold band embellished with diamonds or gems set into the ring’s structure.
EDWARDIAN RING DESIGNS (1901 to 1914)
The arts flourished during the period spanning the short reign of King Edward VII (1901-1910) and the peacetime years before the outbreak of World War I, also known as “Belle Epoque” in Europe and the Gilded Age in the USA. During this time, ring designs became much more sophisticated and refined, capturing the luxury-loving and carefree attitudes of the era (and the King). Flower-like themes were favoured, and pearls, amethyst, emerald, garnet, peridot, sapphire and opal featured prominently in colourful combinations.
In 1903, the invention of the oxyacetylene torch made it possible to reach the temperatures necessary to work with platinum and fully exploit its strength for jewellery making. The King’s newly-announced official jewellery supplier, Cartier, mostly started the ‘white on white’ trend. Usually made from platinum and diamonds — the more, the merrier — antique rings from the Edwardian era were sparkly and pretty, true works of art. Intricate techniques such as filigree and millegrain were often used to achieve an almost lace-like effect.
It was during this time that the famous filigree ring made its debut.
Edwardian Filigree White Gold and Diamond Ring. Image courtesy of Antique Jewelry Mall
Edwardian jewellery was characterised by a delicate elegance and a light, airy feeling, despite cradling the large diamonds available at the time. Fashionable cuts like the baguette, trapeze, and triangular cut became widely available while white gold began to appear. Ring stacking became quite popular, often with multiples worn on each finger. Cluster rings were also all the rage, characterised by a central diamond or gemstone encircled by a bouquet of colourful stones. Elongated, substantial rings paved with many gems and diamonds adorned the high society’s fingers from knuckle to knuckle.
Edwardian era ring designs also reflected the influence of the coexisting Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau movements through geometric styles and circular lines and swirls. Popular motifs and patterns included bows and ribbons, moon and stars, flowers, garlands, leaves, shamrocks, scrolls and hearts.
Edwardian engagement rings. Images courtesy of Lang Antiques
Four years after the death of Edward VII, the outbreak of World War I brought an abrupt end to the lighthearted Edwardian spirit. Life changed dramatically, with merry gatherings and formal occasions disappearing overnight, along with the jewellery they were used to flash at. Precious metals became scarce, and the newly-adopted platinum was declared a “vital war material” used solely for military needs. The party era was over.
ART NOUVEAU RING DESIGNS (1890 to 1915)
Free-flowing lines and natural themes characterise Art Nouveau antique jewellery, which manifested differently in various countries. Although Art Nouveau rings were crafted during the Edwardian Age too and are sometimes labelled as Edwardian, they’re distinguished by their own unique style and design trend. This fascinating artistic movement emphasised nature-inspired designs as a creative protest against the Industrial Revolution. It used the framework of the Arts & Crafts movement in combination with the emerging Japonisme, which advocated mixed metals, intense use of colour, and simple yet elegant interpretations of nature.
Yellow or white gold and platinum with moulded glass and brightly coloured enamels were widely used to create elaborate ring designs. Symmetry was not much of a concern. Insects like butterflies, scarabs and dragonflies became iconic themes, along with birds, plants, serpents and mythological creatures.
Roman and Greek motifs like nymphs, gods and goddesses also appeared in rings and pendants, starting the ‘cult of the female figure’.
Art Nouveau Opal and Gold Ring with nude nymphs. Image courtesy of 1stdibs
While the decorative use of the female face and figure was objectionable amongst Victorians, Art Nouveau jewellers did quite the job of combining the female form with natural elements. Inspired by the beauty and accomplishments of great opera singers and actresses, they created female fantasy creatures that soared with colour and sensuality. The use of the nude feminine figure became the trademark of one of the most influential Art Nouveau designers, René Lalique.
Pearls were very trendy in Art Nouveau antique rings. Colourful gemstones, including tourmaline, garnet, emerald, carnelian, synthetic and natural ruby, opal, moonstone and lapis lazuli, were also abundant. Small diamonds were often used as accents around central gemstones or were combined to create a “diamond flower” look.
Art Nouveau engagement rings. Images courtesy of Lang Antiques
ART DECO RING DESIGNS (1918 to 1935)
Some people mix Art Nouveau and Art Deco up, but there are actually some major differences between the two movements. Art Nouveau looks to nature for inspiration, while Art Deco mirrors the works of man and machine. Art Nouveau lines flow freely through organic beauty while Art Deco lines zig and zag, clashing cultures, colours, and complexities.
As the name suggests, Art Deco celebrated the decorative aspect of art. It emerged after the devastation of World War I, promoting a positive outlook on technology and modernity. This iconic period, the ‘Roaring 20s’, is widely remembered for its cocktails, flappers, glitter, jazz and Great Gatsby-esque lifestyle. It’s also known for its spectacular, bold jewellery. The promise of a bright future is reflected in the boldness of Art Deco ring designs. The period’s optimism inspired the opulence in many of its antique rings, characterised by a new geometric aesthetic that used sharp shapes, streamlined patterns, and striking colours.
Enamelling had become a fashionable technique in jewellery making since the Art Deco period. Plique-à-jour, the enamelling method that results in transparent designs with no backing, was the most popular style. Straying from the dominance of diamonds in previous eras, precious gemstones like rubies, sapphires, and emeralds rose in prominence. Jade, coral, ivory, and even dark materials like onyx also gained popularity.
Bold colours and intricate abstract designs exemplify the antique jewellery from this period. Yellow gold gave way to platinum and white gold as the base metals to make the other materials’ colours pop. Rings with large emeralds and step-cut gemstones surrounded by smaller, tightly packed diamonds were widespread. Cabochon cut coloured gemstones were also popular, as was filigree work.
Pavé rings were also typical of this era; their traditional design included diamonds and gemstones tightly packed and cut to fit perfectly together, with little or no metal showing.
Art Deco Platinum Curved Pavè Diamond-Shaped Cluster Ring. Image courtesy of Antique Jewellery Company
RETRO RING DESIGNS (1930-1950)
Officially passing into the vintage classification, Retro jewellery reflected the dramatic societal changes during and after World War II. Ring designs from this era combine the symmetrical Art Deco shapes and the fluid lines of the Edwardian and Art Nouveau periods. Retro vintage rings often display geometry combined with movement in unsuspecting ways, creating shapes of all kinds.
The ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’ had a massive influence on jewellery designs and styles of this era. The wealthy started to wear rings with large diamonds and brilliant gemstones. Glitzy cocktail jewels became the norm, as did patriotic motifs. Famous jewellery icons of the time include Ingrid Bergman, Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, and, of course, American socialite Wallis Simpson, who was showered in stunning jewels by King Edward VIII.
Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, and the 19.77-carat emerald engagement ring she was given by King Edward VIII just prior to his abdication. Created by Cartier, the ring was engraved with ‘We are ours now 27×36’, referencing his proposal on 27th October 1936. The Duchess eventually had it redesigned in 1958 to include diamonds in a yellow gold setting. In 1987, the ring sold at an auction for £1.3million.
Image courtesy of True Facet
The most featured motifs in Retro ring designs included flowers, flags, birds, hearts, ribbons, and felines. And I wouldn’t be doing justice to this era if I didn’t mention perhaps the most emblematic jewel of the Retro style: The Tank ring. Tank rings owe their name to the tanks of WWII, during which they appeared. They feature heavy, voluminous, asymmetrical forms loosely arranged together, just like in our stunning YazJewels Tank Ring below.
The war’s effect on the platinum supply made gold the metal of choice, which also became scarce and expensive. It was usually either placed over other metals or mixed with alloys to create a lower-content rose or green gold. Manufacturers turned to synthetic materials to fill the gaps, such as bakelite, catalin, and lucite. Precious gemstones also became rare since procuring them during the war was difficult. Hence, amethysts, aquamarines, tourmalines, citrines, peridots, and other colourful semi-precious stones became popular. They were cut in large rectangular or square shapes and placed in large settings to create the era’s beloved cocktail rings. Retro vintage rings were chunky and bold, but their precious content was generally low. Bombé (or boule) rings pavéd with coloured gemstones were particularly loved.
It was during this period that costume jewellery emerged in America. When the Jewish people fled Europe for the new world, they brought their jewellery skills but little capital. Although less valuable, costume jewellery from that era was still expertly crafted. High-end designers like Trifari and Miriam Haskell made beautiful and affordable costume jewellery for stars and the general public in those tough times.
The next few years would see the traditional Retro style continue to thrive and evolve with the cultural influences of the times. Rings remained big, bold and colourful, while classic shapes were combined with contemporary aesthetics, like in these gorgeous rings from the YazJewels collection:
With your newfound knowledge of different ring designs through the eras and antique jewellery styles, don’t forget to visit my shop and start your own collection of vintage rings.
Till next time, happy treasure hunting!