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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

All About Jewels Dictionary

All About Jewels Dictionary

This incredible reference dictionary on jewelry, from Enchantedlearning.com, is both beautiful and comprehensive. S… [read review or visit site]

Morning Glory Antiques and Jewelry

Morning Glory Antiques and Jewelry

Jewelry collectors, feast your eyes on this internet gem! It's a goldmine of jewelry information featuring all styl… [read review or visit site]

Cathy Gordon's Jewelry Gallery

Cathy Gordon's Jewelry Gallery

With its vast galleries featuring clear images of jewelry and style, this site really covers it all! Divided up by … [read review or visit site]

Jewel History

Jewel History

Since March of 2007, readers of Lori Ettlinger Gross’s Jewel History blog have been treated to her weekly (someti… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

18ct/ 18k Gold Exceptional 1.50 Carat Diamond Three Stone Ring, 750Antique Old European Platinum Gold Engagement Ring Solitaire 1.07ct Approx WithFine Victorian 1.3/4ct Natural Cushion Cut Cinnamon Diamond Solitaire 18k Ring1 Carat Old Cushion Cut Diamond, 18ct/ 18k White Gold, 750 Fine Solitaire Ring18ct 18k Gold Georgian Green Garnet And Seed Pearl Cluster 750 Ring14ct/ 14k White Gold 1 Carat Diamond Fine Cluster Ring, 58518ct /18k Gold 17th Century Amethyst And Diamond Ring 75014ct 14k Gold Art Deco Design Ruby And Diamond 585 RingEstate 4.07ctw Natural Aquamarine And Diamond Ring In 14k White Gold 18ct/ 18k Rose Cut Diamond & Sapphire Exceptional Art Deco Cluster Ring, 750Unique Estate Si2 .50 Ct. 14k Yellow Gold Diamond Solitare Fashion Ring 1/2 N/r18ct 18k Gold Art Deco Sapphire And Diamond Cluster RingEstate $4200 14k Yellow Gold Natural Blue Sapphire, Green Emerald, Diamond Ring18ct/ 18k Yellow & White Gold Fine Art Deco Carved Jade Ring, 75018ct 18k Gold Victorian Chester 1800 Diamond,turquoise And Natural Pearl Ring18ct/ 18k Gold Fine Victorian Carnelian Pheasant Seal Ring, 750Fine Art Deco Design 1.63 Carat Diamond 14ct White Gold Solitaire Ring**estate 14k Yellow Gold Green Jade Ring 23x17mm 12.8 Grams Size 6.25 18ct/ 18k Gold Diamond & Sapphire Fine Art Deco Cluster Ring, 750Massive Job Lot Of Antique & Vintage Silver Jewellery. Rings Brooches Chains Etc**antique 22/24k Yellow Gold Green Jade Ring 5.1 Grams Size 8 Fine Victorian 1.1/4 Cabochon Sapphire Rose 9ct Gold Ring 9k 375Fine 18ct Gold 1871 Victorian Amethyst Seed Pearl And Diamond Ring 18k 750Estate $2400 14k Yellow Gold 2.50 Ct Natural Light Blue Aquamarine Diamond RingFine 18k Gold Sapphire & Diamond Ring, 1911Georgian Rose Gold Mourning Ring - 1810**estate Antique Platinum Wedding Set 60pts Diamonds Gh Vs2 7.1 Grams Size 8.75Antique 14k Gold 1930s Genuine Diamond .69 Tcw Approx Ring Sz 5Pretty18 Carat Gold & Platinum 3 Diamonds Inset Ring.1920s.size N.excellent CondStunning Victorian Design 9ct Gold Opal Trilogy Ring F0743Stunning Art Deco Five Stone 65 Point Diamond 18k Gold & Platinum Ring3.5 Carat Old Cut Corn Flower Blue Sapphire, 9ct/ 9k Gold Fine Victorian Ring Estate 9.71ctw Natural Tanzanite And Diamond Ring In 14k White Gold Antique 1940s $10,000 2ct Genuine Pink Diamond 14k White Gold Wedding RingEstate 2.08 Ct Vs1/g Natural Diamond Cocktail Anniversary 14k Yellow Gold RingTiffany & Co. Estate Natural Ceylon Blue Sapphire Asscher Diamond 18k Gold Ring9ct 9k Gold Large And Heavy Black Opal Doublet RingBud & Blossom Vintage 18k White Gold Platinum Old European .40ct Diamond Ring NrStunning 1/2 Carat Diamond Solitaire 18k Gold RingTed Muehling 18k Stackable Stack Pink White Yellow Gold Estate Rings 3 Sz 6 Ring18ct 18k Gold Victorian Natural Turquoise 750 RingDiamond 18ct/ 18k Gold, 750 Fine Art Deco Cluster Ring18ct/ 18k Gold Fine Victorian Style Heavy Knot Design/ Keepers Ring, 7509ct/ 9k White Gold 1 Carat Diamond Fine Art Deco Design Large Ring, 37515ct 15k Gold Victorian Garnet And Seed Pearl Chester 1895 RingStunning Antique Platinum Old Cut Genuine Diamond Art Deco Ladies Ring9ct Gold Victorian Turquoise And Seed Pearl 9k Ring 375Fine Sapphire And Diamond Art Deco Ring 14ct 14k 585Art Deco Vintage Old European Cut 1/2ctw Diamond 18k White Gold Filigree RingEstate 1ct Diamond Dinner Cocktail Fancy Cluster Ring 14k Yellow Gold Sz6.25 N.rSuperb C1920s Art Deco 9ct Gold Very Fiery Opal Set Cluster Ring, Stunning!!**estate 10k Yellow Gold Carved Coral Ring Of Women 3.2 Grams 21.6x12.6mm Vintage 24.00tcw Blue Grey Star Sapphire Diamond 1950s 14k Gold Unisex Mens RingEstate 14kt Yellow Gold Large Cabochon Natural Coral Solitaire Ring 6.9gr 18mm65 Point Old Rose Cut Diamond 18ct/ 18k Gold, 750 Art Deco Full Eternity Ring18ct/ 18k Gold Ruby & Natural Seed Pearl Fine Victorian Ring, 750Estate 4.40ctw Natural Tanzanite And Diamond Ring In 14k White Gold Gia Certified Giant Estate 5.9 Ct Natural Tanzanite & Genuine Diamond 14k Ring!!Estate .90ct Natural Vvs Diamond 14k Solid Rose Gold Ring Antique C. 1880 Victorian 14k Yellow Gold Angelskin Coral .48 Ct Diamond Ring!