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Last month, Alice asked for some advice about shopping for engagement rings. Here’s some specific information about buying a vintage engagement ring. (My last post addressed Alice’s big-picture questions, like “What is a good value when it comes to an engagement ring?” and “How much should you spend on an engagement ring?” Next month, I’ll branch out beyond Alice’s question and write about buying new engagement rings, including newly mined stones and artisan engagement rings.) Beyond the content of this post, check out the comments—vintage rings are well-loved by many APW readers, so there’s bound to be some good advice in the comments.
To start, a vintage ring is a beautiful, ecologically sound, and cost-effective choice for an engagement ring. But it’s not the right choice for everyone. We do sell some amazing vintage engagement rings at TurtleLove.com, but this post shouldn’t sound like one big plug for vintage rings—I got into this field because I wanted to work towards changing the public (and private) discourse about engagement rings away from salary guidelines and toward making individual choices that are authentic and meaningful. So if you find the right ring for you somewhere that’s not TurtleLove.com, I am really truly thrilled for you. And, as I’ve said before, you don’t need an engagement ring to be engaged, and you don’t need a wedding ring to be married.
Alice, you’ve asked a lot of good questions: “How do I know it’s going to hold up to forty more years of use? Where’s the line between ‘so cheap it will fall apart’ and ‘at this point you’re just paying for status’? Where’s the line between ‘that stone is so tiny I can’t even see it’ and ‘you’re just showing off now’? I know one carat is a magical number for no apparent reason, so it’s good to look for stones that are a bit under that number. Are there any other tips like that?”
Durability. Alice, you ask how you’ll know a vintage ring is going to hold up to many more years of use. Vintage rings run the whole range from super-sturdy to super-fragile, just like modern rings. Of course, the light and flowery styles that are often associated with vintage rings and the “vintage look” are the more delicate ones. Also consider how you plan to wear your engagement ring. If you’re a gentle sort, or if you anticipate wearing your ring for special occasions only, you’ll have more options than if you’re a landscaper planning never to take the ring off. As far as your question about “the line between ‘so cheap it will fall apart’ and “at this point you’re just paying for status,’” I think durability is a matter of construction, and status is usually a measure of stone size, so you’re probably not going to find these two ideas in conflict with each other.
Wedding band choices. Many vintage engagement rings are really stand-alone pieces. The design is easier to appreciate when it’s not paired with another ring on the same hand. If you want to wear the wedding band and vintage engagement ring together, it’s a good idea to get them at the same time, and to make sure that the wedding band isn’t going to create a lot of wear on the engagement ring. I personally prefer to wear a vintage engagement ring on one hand and a wedding band on the other—it maintains the integrity of each ring, and it’s nice to have two rings instead of one big one!
Stone settings. When examining a ring, you’ll want to look at the setting of each stone (including side stones) to make sure it looks as though it’s held in place firmly. If the ring makes a noise when you shake it, it has loose stones. Also, you can gently probe each stone with a fingernail to make sure that it doesn’t move.
Sizing. As for ring size, you’ll want to look at rings that are no more than two (American) sizes larger or smaller than your ring size. Some rings can be sized more, and some less, but two sizes either way is a good range to avoid falling in love with a ring that just won’t work or that will be prohibitively expensive to size.
Stone size and quality. The diamonds in most vintage rings were cut during a time when the trade in diamonds was less efficient, and before the advent of the precision technology used today. So lots of the research that people do about the 4Cs (cut, color, clarity, carat weight) is not as useful in selecting a vintage ring as it is in selecting a stone for a new ring. In the case of a vintage ring, you’re most interested in the visual impact of the ring as a whole. You’ll generally find that vintage diamonds have a more subdued sparkle than modern-cut diamonds. (I’d say they’re more sophisticated, and less bling-y, but there’s A LOT of room for disagreement there.) Some vintage stones look way bigger than you’d expect based on the carat weight because the proportions of the stone emphasize diameter over depth. Also, unless the stone is of significant value (say more than $5,000), many jewelers won’t disassemble an intact vintage ring to evaluate the stone, which means that the cut, clarity and color are all estimated, and that a laboratory certificate won’t be available for the stone in a vintage ring. For confidence regarding the value of the vintage ring you’re considering, you can rely on an independent appraisal.
Appraisals. An appraisal is an independent assessment of the value of a piece of jewelry. An appraisal lists the materials a ring is made of, the size and characteristics of the stones, and the approximate date of the ring’s creation. An appraiser uses sophisticated magnification and gemological tools to evaluate and estimate stone weights and quality. Of course, it is most desirable to buy a ring at or below its appraised value. You can expect to pay $50 to $100 to have your vintage ring appraised (which makes sense for some rings, and not for others).
Return Policy. If you’re buying a ring online, check the return policy—it’s nice to know that you can return a ring if it’s not what you thought it would be when you have it in person. (However, don’t expect to be able to return a ring if it’s been resized for you, engraved, or otherwise modified.)
What other people think. Alice, your question “Where’s the line between ‘that stone is so tiny I can’t even see it’ and ‘you’re just showing off now’?” is really dependent on you and your environment. If it brings you joy, and it doesn’t make your interactions awkward, then it’s a great choice. If it brings you joy, but it’s awkward to wear a presumably very expensive ring to your job as a social worker, then it’s not a great choice (to wear to work, at least). And to round out that super wishy-washy answer, vintage rings are actually a really great way to side step this kind of concern because the retail value of the ring is hazier than with a contemporary ring, and because vintage rings have such unique feel to them.
So, I’m sure that the awesome APWers will have some really useful contributions in the comments, for which I am grateful in advance (even if you disagree with me)! If you have other questions you’d like answered, let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email at Adrianne [at] turtlelove [dot] com.