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]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Gia Diamond 9.37ct Natural Yellow Sapphire Platinum Ring 8.2 Grams Nr $17,800Exceptional Baguette Cut Diamond & Cabochon Sapphire Heavy Platinum Ring, 950Antique Deco 6.15ct Diamond Platinum Eternity Band Ring 14.6 Grams NrAntique Diamond Ruby 18k White Gold Filigree Ring NrEstate 3.42ct Diamond Platinum Dome Cluster Cocktail Ring 12.0 Grams Nr $18,650Fine 1ct 3 Stone Diamond 18ct Gold Ring 18k 7850Antique Georgian 15ct Gold Citrine Agate Seal Ring - Flower!Egl 6.48ct Cushion Diamond 18k Gold Engagement Ring $30,750.00 15.2 Grams NrCartier 18k Yellow Gold Love Ring Charm Pendant NrEstate Diamond 2.81ct Ruby 18k White Gold Ring NrAntique Mabe Pearl 14k Yellow Gold Ring Nr18ct/ 18k Gold 1ct Baguette Cut & Round Diamond Heavy Ring, 750Fine Baguette Round Cut 1.57ct Diamond Heavy 18ct Solid Gold Cluster Ring 18ct Gold & Enamel Mourning Pearl Georgian Ring 1830Dazzling 1.05 Ct. Diamond & 14k White Gold 3 Stone Ring~wedding Band~engagementFine 9ct / 9k 375 Gold Heavy Belcher Chain Bracelet With A Bolt Ring Clasp 18ct/ 18k Gold Diamond & Citrine Large Art Deco Ring, Boxed, 75018ct/ 18k Gold Diamond & Rock Crystal Art Deco Design Ring, Grf, 750Estate Diamond 10.25ct Turquoise 14k Yellow Gold Ring 11.9 Grams NrAntique 14k Gold 14ct Gold Natural Jade Art Deco Ring Size P Signed W.kEstate 4.14ct Fancy Yellow Diamond 18k Gold Wide Wave Band Ring 17.7 Grams NrEstate 2.75ct Fancy Brown Diamond 18k Yellow Gold Engagement Ring NrFine 18ct Gold Victorian Diamond Daisy Cluster Ring 18k 750Estate 2.75ct Diamond 14k White Gold Spiral Ring 13.1 Grams NrVintage Estate Designer Signed Rare Natural 18.0ct Pink Tourmaline 18k Gold RingHeavy 18k Gold Fine Diamond 1.70ctw Spectacular Jabel Cluster Cocktail Ring Sz 8Fine Georgian 18ct Gold Gem Set Ring 18k 75018ct/ 18k Gold Diamond & Sapphire Art Deco Cluster Ring, 750Antique, Victorian, 14kt Rose Gold, Opal, Diamond, & Ruby Ladies RingUnique Ladies 14k Victorian Labordorite Moon Face Ring Wear Not Scrap18ct/18k Gold Diamond & Ruby Art Deco Design Ring,750**estate 14k Yellow Gold Large Coral Ring 21.6x16.6mm 8.1 Grams Size 5.2518ct/18k Gold Diamond & Sapphire Five Stone Art Deco Ring, Csfs, 750Estate 3.00ct Diamond 14k Yellow Gold Cluster Ring 13.5 Grams NrAntique Vintage Nouveau 18k Gold Platinum English Diamond Engagement Ring! S 10Estate Solid 14k Yellow Gold Band Ring 3.6 Grams Size 4.5 No Reserve Auction!Gia Natalie K 1.26ct Diamond 18k White Gold Engagement Ring 6.9 Grams Nr18ct/ 18k Gold Diamond & Sapphire Victorian Cluster Ring, 750Nice Old Chinese Carved Jade & Gold Ring Marked 10k Apple GeenEstate Diamond Sapphire Crystal 18k Gold Cocktail Ring 16.6 Grams NrFine Large Heavy Designer Solid Silver Ring N Thames 925Natural Australian Opal 14k Gold Natural Seed Pearl Antique Victorian Era Ring 14k Solid Gold Mens Vintage .60ct Tw 20 Genuine Natural Diamond Ring Sz 10.5Vintage Old Pawn Southwestern Native American Sterling Silver 925 Rings Lot Of 9Roberto Coin Large Granada Diamond 18k Gold Ruby 12" Wide Eternity Band Ring14k Tanzanite Diamond Ring Levian 14k Yellow Gold Size 7 Fine Jewelry GenuineAntique Victorian 10k Gold Bohemian Rose Cut Garnet Stone Ring Large Sz 8+ $9.99Antique 18ct / 18k Gold 3 Stone Diamond Gypsy RingSuper Antique Sparkling Saphiret RingEstate 10k Yellow Gold 6.3 Mm Saltwater Cultured Pearl And Diamond RingMikimoto 950 Silver 7mm Akoya Pearl Solitaire W/ Accents Designer Ring Silver Finland Concave Ring GorgeousSterling Silver Scrap Or Wear Bracelets Rings Gemstone Necklace 58gVintage 18ct Gold & Platinum Diamond Solitaire Engagement Ring 0.1 Carat Size L10k Solid Gold Mens Heavy Vintage Genuine Natural Diamond Ring Sz 10.25 Awesome14k White Gold Diamond-.35 Tcw Solitaire Band Engagement Ring-size 8.25Antique 18ct / 18k Gold & Platinum 3 Stone Diamond RingStunning Old Vintage 1930s Silver & Blue Butterfly Wing Panel Band Ring (b7)Antique Diamond White Yellow 14k 10k Gold Masonic Freemason Ring Masons 10gr.Vintage Solid Silver & 9ct Gold Marcasite Gemstones Ring Size M