When Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton back in 2010 using the sapphire ring that once belonged to his mother Princess Diana, it not only kicked off a trend for colourful engagement rings (still going strong today), but it brought vintage rings to the attention of a new generation of would-be fiancés.
In the years since then, online searches for antique rings have continued to soar. "In today’s world, vintage jewels are exposed to huge audiences via social media, which has led to a growing appreciation for them," says Henry Bailey, Christie’s Head of Jewellery Department in London.
"Buyers across the luxury markets are also increasingly influenced by sustainability and wearing an antique ring saves on the production of new materials and resources. It’s also an opportunity to acquire unusual and well-made pieces with minimal carbon footprint."
Meanwhile, Hetty Stephens, a vintage jewellery expert and founder of Lighthouse Antiques, adores the emotional stories that come with choosing a pre-loved piece. "To me, it’s what makes it more romantic and special," she says.
While those of us without access to a royal vault full of heirlooms will need to shop around for the perfect ring, this can still be a joyous experience. Here, industry insiders reveal their tips for sourcing an antique engagement ring that will make you want to say, ‘I do’.
Where should you look?
Traditional antique jewellery markets like London’s Burlington Arcade and Hatton Garden remain great sources of inspiration. With plenty of sellers and makers in one place, you can from shop to shop gathering ideas as you go.
Auction houses are amazing places to unearth a vintage treasure. "We offer more than 40 sales a year, with a vast array of styles and eras under the same roof. There’s on-hand advice whenever you need it and you can try everything on," says Kate Flitcroft, a Senior Specialist at Bonhams' jewellery department. "You also get more bang for your buck. Unless you go for a hotly contested item, or something with a famous provenance which might push up its estimate, a ring bought at auction is typically half the price of what you would pay in a retail shop."
If you’re after a more bespoke experience, look to trusted independent antique dealers. "We can offer a really personalised service and often have more stock than we have on display or on social media, so can hunt down perfect options for you at every price point," says Hetty Stephens, who adds that Instagram can be a useful tool for checking out a seller’s wares. Bookmark these tried-and-true sellers’ accounts: @lighthouse.antiques, @zelle.antique.jewellery, @wildsmith.jewellery, @humpreybutlerltd, @isheyantiques and @d_franses.
How do you find something that suits your style?
"Try on as much as you can and see what speaks to you," advises Kate Flitcroft. If you’re going to an auction, check out everything online and in the catalogue first to help you narrow down the styles you like."
Be open minded. "Instagram offers endless window-shopping opportunities to help give you inspiration, but don’t be swayed by what you think you should buy, or any pre-conceptions of what an engagement ring should look like," says Henry Bailey.
What should you bear in mind whilst shopping?
Checking conditions is key. "Make sure the metal isn’t too worn and the stones aren’t chipped or scratched. Try giving the ring a gentle tap near your ear, too – a rattle means the stones are loose and the settings need adjusting," says Hetty Stephens.
If retaining value is important to you, "it’s worth checking that the whole ring is original or whether any adaptations have been made," suggests Henry Bailey. And make sure that any resizing can be done without losing hallmarks or marker's signatures from inside the ring band, as this can affect value, too.
"At the auction, it’s helpful to keep a rough budget in mind and don’t forget about buyer’s premiums, which are added on to every sale. That said, it can also pay to be flexible. Often, all that stands between you and your dream ring is one more bid," says Kate Flitcroft.
Remember that some antique rings won’t sit flush against a wedding band and might leave a gap on your finger. "If this is going to annoy you, you can always have a band made to fit – just ensure it’s the same metal weight, 18k gold for example, as your engagement ring so they won’t scratch each other," notes Hetty Stephens
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