No article of fine jewelry carries as much cultural weight as the ring. For couples, the exchange of wedding bands signifies that a knot has been tied. For authors, rings can also bind fictional wearers, except when they destroy them, as in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In these circumstances, one does not accept a ring, along with the responsibility it represents, lightly.

Not surprisingly, some of the most interesting antique and vintage rings are engagement rings and rings that are tokens of love. In the Victorian era, from 1837 to 1901, rings with the word "Mizpah" on them were worn by couples and lovers separated by war or travel. Usually these rings were simple bands of silver or gold, with "Mizpah" standing boldly in relief on the outside of the ring.

For engagement rings, diamonds or amethysts set in platinum or gold were common. Diamonds were often paired with pearls, rubies, emeralds, or sapphires. Sometimes a collection of stones was used, such as in the acrostic rings, in which the first letter in the name of each stone spelled out the word "dearest," (i.e., diamond, emerald, amethyst, ruby, emerald, sapphire, and topaz). Other rings from the period had secret, hinged compartments behind the stones.

During the same period, mourning and hair rings were quite fashionable, both holdovers from the Georgian period at the beginning of the 19th century. Some mourning rings consisted of the name of the deceased and date of their death in either gold or enamel. Others used hair from the deceased that had been woven into tight braids or coils and incorporated into a ring, usually under glass. In fact, hair jewelry and hair crafting was so popular in Victorian times that hair rings without the mourning connotation were also sold.

Cameo and intaglio rings were another Victorian favorite. Carved out of shell, coral, or stone, cameos and intaglios were often surrounded with small diamonds. Just as frequently they stood alone, either framed in gold or set into a mount, whose visible prongs would hold the piece at the top, bottom, and sides.

During the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts periods, platinum and precious stones fell out of favor. Instead, rings of gold set with amber, opals, garnets, moonstones, and pearls were embraced. In some pieces, copper, ivory, and tortoise shell was used to decorative effect. As for the rings themselves, they were often cast or hand-worked in naturalistic designs, incorporating leaves and other floral motifs.

Such rings must have appeared rather indulgent to the conservative, Edwardian sensibilities at the beginning of the 20th century. Filigree engagement rings of white gold, set wit...

The 1920s were a vibrant time for jewelry, as firms such as Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels became household names. Diamonds now dominated their ring settings, which were hidden beneath brilliant mountains of stones. Cut blue stones were often used as colorful accents between all that shimmering bling. In other rings, small diamonds would sometimes surround a large, faceted sapphire, all of which would be mounted on platinum. Then there were the lovely, decorative enamel rings, whose center stones were sometimes made of ordinary colored glass.

By the 1930s, Art Deco was having an enormous impact on jewelry. Designers such as Harry Winston and David Webb designed pieces for Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor. In Los Angeles, Paul Flato made pieces for Hollywood royalty. Examples of rings of this period include square-cut amethysts set in gold with diamonds at each corner, or large rectangular pieces of aquamarine or citrine mounted on gold or platinum.

After World War II, the Mid-century Modern aesthetic kicked in, as ring designers riffed on everything from the look of African masks to the Arts and Crafts movement from a half-century before. Some rings were like mini-sculptures or even abstract paintings, with swooping bands of silver caressing plaques bearing designs of polished wire and enamel.

Other types of vintage rings that have become favorites of collectors are those with coral, turquoise, lapis lazuli, or malachite stones made by the Hopi and other tribes of the American Southwest. For silver rings, look for the sterling pieces from Mexico stamped Taxco. Danish design firms such as Georg Jensen and Uwe Moltke brought a decidedly modernist sensibility to their rings, as did Norway’s J. Tostrup and Finland’s Lapponia.

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