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    

Egl 6.44ct Asccher Emerald Platinum Engagement Ring $153,255 Nr18ct/ 18k White Gold 1.1/4ct Diamond Solitaire Art Deco Ring, 75018ct/18k Gold 80 Point Diamond & 6.5ct Sapphire Art Deco Large Cluster Ring, 750Vintage 1950s Platinum 5.15ct Vs-si/g-h Diamond Cluster Cocktail Ring Size 6.5Vintage Platinum 4.60ctw Vs1/f Diamond & Pink Tourmaline Cocktail Ring Size 6.518ct/ 18k Gold 1/2ct Old Mined Rose Cut Diamond Solitaire Art Deco Ring, 750Georgian Rosey Gold Memento Mori Ring- Painted Skeleton Miniature And Hair BackAntique Diamond 21.20ct Opal 18k Yellow Gold Cocktail Ring 10.7 Grams NrAntique 14k Gold 21 X 7mm Natural Jadeite Jade Solitaire Cocktail Ring Size 6Gia F Color 1.70ct Cushion Diamond 14k White Gold Halo Engagement Ring NrEstate Blue 20.15 Aquamarine Diamond 18k Gold Cocktail Ring 14.2 Grams NrGia 13.80 Ct Flawless Natural Aquamarine Diamond 14k White Gold Estate Ring Gem18ct/ 18k Gold 1ct Diamond Art Deco Design Full Eternity Ring, 750Fine Early 17th Century Ruby 15ct Gold Cluster Ring 15k 62518k Gold Arthur King School Fine Translucent Jade Diamond Signed Freeform RingEstate .58ctw F-vs1 Brilliant Cut Genuine Diamond Platinum Engagement Ring 5.6g18ct/ 18k Gold 80 Point Diamond Five Stone Art Deco Design Ring, 750Fine 3.1/2ct Alexandrite 18ct Gold Art Deco Ring 18k 750Superb Art Deco C1920 Solid 18ct Gold, Natural Diamond Set Daisy Cluster RingFine Art Deco Design 18ct Gold Sapphire Seed Pearl Full Eternity Ring 18k 75018ct Gold 90 Point Diamond & 2ct Sapphire Art Deco Design Heavy Cluster Ring,750Estate Diamond 18k Yellow Gold Wave Eternity Band Ring NrSuperb C1915 Deco 18ct Gold & Plat Diamond & Ceylon Sapphire Daisy Cluster Ring 18ct Gold 18k White Gold 78 Point Cinnamon Diamond Art Deco Design Ring, 75018ct/18k Gold Diamond & Emerald Five Stone Art Deco Ring, 7509ct/ 9k Rose Gold & Silver 17th Century Crystal Ring, 375, 925Fine Novelty Antique 9ct Gold Safety Pin Ring 9k 375Antique Victorian 18ct Gold Peridot & Ruby Ring Size Q Us 8Gia Certified 9.48 Mm Natural Silver Akoya Pearl Diamond Platinum Estate Ring18k Gold 1.5ct Diamond & 1.3/4ct Sapphire Large Art Deco Design Cluster Ring,750Antique Estate 14k Yellow Gold Diamond Cluster Halo Etched Engagement RingFinest Gia 9.90ct Natural No Heat Sapphire Diamond 18k Estate Ring Weve OfferedStunning Color Natural Emerald 2.40ctw Diamond Vintage 1960s Ballerina RingFine Victorian Emerald Diamond Marquise 18ct Gold Ring 18k 750Estate 0.17ct Diamond 18k Gold Brushed Finish Band Ring 5.6 Grams NrL14ct/ 14k Gold Huge 15ct Alexandrite Heavy Ring, 585Estate Diamond 5.02ct Green Emerald 14k Yellow Gold Ring 8.8 Grams NrAntique Diamond 14k White Gold Flower Ring NrEstate Diamond 14k Rose Gold Band Ring NrVintage Ruby Diamond Halo Ring 14k Two-tone Retro Art Deco Estate Antique *antique Edwardian 18ct Gold Marquise Rose Cut Diamond & Sapphire Ring C1903*Finest Antique Edwardian 9ct Gold Glimmering Moonstone Cabochon Ring14ct/ 14k Rose Gold Opal & Ganet Art Deco Ring, 585Ladies Antique Victorian 10k Solid Gold Chrysoprase Intaglio Ring Size 5 Bmm NrAntique Heavy Platinum 6.61ctw Diamond/opal Cocktail Ring W/ 1.0ct Ctr. Size 5.5Fine Large Art Deco Design Sapphire Diamond 18ct Gold Ring 18k 750Estate 0.45ct Diamond 14k White Gold Filigree Band Ring 10.3 Grams NrOrnate 14 K Gold .25 Ct European Cushion Cut Diamond Ring~2.5g~size 9~art DecoEstate 7.92ctw Natural Opal And Diamond Ring In 14k Rose Gold Estate 0.50ct Diamond Platinum Engagement Band Ring NrMovado Diamond Pink Sapphire 18k White Gold Band Ring 5.5 Grams NrVintage Diamond Pearl 18k White Gold Bypass Ring NrVintage Large Heart Shape Jade Stone Solid 9ct Gold Ring Size S Us 9Cartier Maillon Panthere Ideal Diamond Solid 18k White Gold Link Wide Band Ring14ct/ 14k Gold Lapis Lazuli Art Deco Ring, 585Victorian 18k Yellow Gold And European Cut Diamond Ring - Size 6 3/4 Beautiful 1.25 Ctw Fancy Yellow & White Diamonds Ring 10k Size 7 No ReserveFine Large 8ct Sapphire 18ct Gold Ring 18k 750Estate Diamond 3.10ct Sapphire 18k White Gold Engagement Ring 9.8 Grams NrEstate 3.30 Carats Natural Emerald & Diamond 14k Solid White Gold Ring