Rings have always symbolized eternity--their unending circle a physical embodiment of forever. Engagement rings are all that and more. Far more than a simply sentimental, romantic gesture, the engagement ring is probably the most important piece of jewelry one will ever own, often more valuable and elaborate than the actual wedding band that represents the legal commitment of marriage.
While diamonds are by far the most common gemstone associated with engagement rings, that certainly hasn’t always been the case. Betrothal rings first featured diamonds in the fifteenth century, though diamonds weren’t widely used for them until the seventeenth century, and even then, they were only worn by the elite and were often set just as they came from the ground. Modern standards for diamonds weren’t really established until the twentieth century, and the supply of diamonds is now adequate to adorn most every engagement ring in the world.
Earliest Engagement Rings
The English word ‘engagement’ has its roots in the French word ‘engager,’ meaning “to pledge,” but the term was not applied to an intended marriage until the mid eighteenth century. Earlier betrothal rings were as varied as the countries and traditions they stemmed from, and often represented an actual monetary value, with the promise of more at the wedding.
Some early rings also featured symbolic keys or seals that indicated access to a household and all it contained. Signet rings actually functioned as more than a symbol, allowing the wearer the authority to ‘sign’ for goods and services using the seal.
The question of which hand and even which finger the betrothal should be worn on varied according to culture and even generation. The Greek church insisted that the right hand be used for both betrothal and wedding rings, as did most European countries until the sixteenth century, but other cultures split the two rings between right and left hands.
Some religious significance is attributed to wearing the ring on the third finger, as those presiding over the ceremony would point to the fingers in order, saying “In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” ending on what we now know as the ‘ring’ finger. Other traditions held that a vein ran from the third finger on the left hand straight to the heart, and therefore the ring should be worn there. While simply untrue, the tradition holds to this day.
Georgian Engagement Rings
The Georgian period refers to the years between 1714 and 1830, or the reigns of George I through George IV. Engagement rings during this period featured butterflies, ribbon work, and flowers, as well as delicately shaped metal work including acorns, scrolls and wheat stalks in elaborate, openwork styles. Metals used during the Georgian period included 22k and 18k gold, as well as silver and pinchbeck, a gold imitation made with 83% copper and 17% zinc.
Settings and prongs for gems were generally made from silver, though sometimes silver plated over gold. Before 1750, all jewelry was created by hand, and rings of this period often appear speckled or pitted. After the 1750s, presses and machines began to do the hard work of hand hammering, and rolled metals appear more uniform and streamlined.
Large diamonds during the Georgian period were very popular with the nobility and royalty, though few of these pieces remain extant. Some rings featured small clusters of diamonds, but generally the diamonds were cut with old world rose or table cuts. Larger diamonds during this period were often set with a piece of reflective foil underneath the diamond to accentuate brilliance, but this foil was very fragile and was often damaged or worn away. Restorations are possible, but require a highly experienced jeweler.
Colored gemstones were also widely used in the Georgian period, including rubies, emeralds, sapphires, garnets, and topaz. Coral, mother of pearl, and shell were also frequently included in rings.
Victorian Engagement Rings
The Victorian era is defined by the reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901, and the styles were greatly influenced by her undying affection for her beloved husband, Albert. The period is generally divided into three distinct times, each with their own influences and styles.
Early Victorian Engagement Rings
Early Victorian engagement rings were notable for their bright colors and large size, and for bold styles and designs. Snake rings became extremely popular in the first years of Victoria’s marriage to Albert as he had given her a snake and emerald engagement ring. Rings often included multiple colorful gemstones, and engagement rings employing the bride’s birthstone were popular as well. Diamonds frequently appeared in small clusters, or framing other stones. The new “brilliant” cut diamond became popular as well. Popular motifs included natural themes, and in addition to snakes, rings featured butterflies, garlands, daisies, and doves.
Mid Victorian Engagement Rings
Styles during the Mid-Victorian period reflected the impact of Albert’s death in 1861, and design styles became less ornate. Silver became more popular during this period, and gold alloys now included 15k, 14k, 12k, and 9k. Rose gold, an alloy of gold and copper, became very popular as well. Popular motifs included hearts, bees, stars, shells, and geometrical shapes. Acrostic rings made of colored stones spelling out romantic messages were also favored, as well as “lover’s knots” and “Toi et Moi” rings with two larger stones set to represent the entwining of two hearts.
Due to a major diamond discovery in South Africa in 1867, diamonds became much more prevalent. Diamonds began to be featured as the central stone set up above the ring, allowing light to shine through from all directions. The Tiffany solitaire diamond was introduced in 1886 by Charles Louis Tiffany, and this instant classic remains one of the most popular engagement ring styles to this day.
Late Victorian Engagement Rings
Late Victorian rings featured the now prevalent diamond, in clusters, as solitaires, and in marquise cuts. Platinum was used more widely during this period, and there was a notable shift from handcrafted rings to mass production. Common motifs included lace-type filigree, oak leaves, and Egyptian designs. The use of pearls and light, airy designs presaged the upcoming Edwardian period.
Edwardian Engagement Rings
The Edwardian period coincided with the brief reign of King Edward VII from 1901 to 1910. Design during this era was sophisticated and refined, characterized by delicacy and elegance. The garland style became the hallmark of the period, and thanks to the invention of the oxyacetylene torch, solid platinum became the favored choice for settings.
Diamonds and other gemstones were set with ‘claw’ prongs and “knife edge” settings made diamonds appear to be suspended in the air. Milgrain and filigree work gave engagement rings an airy, lace-like appearance, and pierced openwork became popular as well. Styles included the ‘cluster ring’--a centrally set diamond encircled by a bouquet of pearls or colored gemstones.
Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau Engagement Rings
The Arts and Crafts Movement and Art Nouveau periods began in the late Victorian Era and lasted through the Edwardian Age, but few engagement rings remain from the period. Born out of a dissatisfaction with poorly designed, low quality, machine produced jewelry, the Arts and Crafts Movement favored hand-made pieces. The preferred metal was usually silver or other white metal, and few rings featured precious stones--artisans preferred lesser valued color stones and enamels. As a result, no definitive engagement ring style developed.
Art Nouveau jewelry featured signature ‘whiplash’ lines which did find their way into some engagement rings, but unusual materials like horn and plique a jour enamel were used as well, and were generally considered unsuitable for engagement rings. As a result, most engagement rings from this time period are generally classified as either Victorian or Edwardian.
Art Deco Engagement Rings
The Art Deco period began in France just before World War I, but flourished from the 1920s until the beginning of World War II. Jewelry design began to take it’s cues from abstract art and Modernist ideals, sometimes pairing severe geometric patterns and lines natural shapes and themes.
Platinum, white gold, and silver were the preferred metals of the day, and colorful gemstones included emeralds, jade, black onyx, and sapphires. Gem cutting innovations resulted in new shapes, including calibre-cuts for colored gemstones and the angular baguette-cut for diamonds. In addition to geometric shapes, design motifs included exotic Egyptian, African, and Oriental symbols and patterns.
For those attempting to sell an engagement ring
today, art deco designs are once again increasing in popularity and can bring higher resale prices than engagement rings designed in another antique style.
Retro Era Engagement Rings
The Retro era spans the years 1935-1950, and was deeply influenced by WWII. By the end of the 1930s, gold had re-emerged again as the metal of choice for engagement rings as platinum was being reserved for the war in Europe. Palladium was also used during the war years, though as restrictions on gold and platinum were lifted in September, 1944, they soon replaced palladium.
By 1947, the De Beers slogan, ‘a diamond is forever,’ had led to the diamond becoming the premier gemstone for engagement rings. Ring styles during this period featured both geometric designs and a sense of movement, with fine filigree work featured between hard, fixed lines, and bold, geometric shapes juxtaposed with volutes, fans and ribbons. Engagement rings often featured diamonds set in an ‘illusion setting’--a type of prong setting designed to make the diamond appear larger than it actually is by surrounding the diamond’s girdle with a ring of metal.