and found book on vintage costume jewelry. I bought the book because the jewelry was so beautiful. I started buying vintage costume pieces at first and then eventually gold-filled, then gold, silver - everything from the Victorian era on up. It was a really natural progression to buying estate and antique diamond engagement rings.
LB: Tell us more about your diamond and precious gemstone antique ring collection.
MW: It’s so much fun! The collection is really amazing, and always changing. I buy Georgian, Victorian, Art Nouveau, Edwardian, Art Deco.
LB: Do you have a favorite era?
MW: Well, yes. But it’s a span. I’m partial to Victorian, Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau and Art Deco. I found some fabulous silver and moonstone Arts and Crafts pieces...
LB: Side question, If you found a gorgeous Arts and Crafts piece with a moonstone that was badly in need of polishing would you polish it or not risk it and leave it alone?
MW: I would polish it. I have an excellent lapidary in San Francisco who takes care of the polishing for my antique ring collection.
LB: Are there any eras or types of jewelry that people should avoid?
MW: Victorian rings with seed pearls or tiny turquoise cabochons. But that is only because they could fall out. I LOVE old mine cut diamonds from the Victorian era. I buy as many as I can. Also, with antique rings the shank [the band of the ring] can be thin. (LB ADVICE: Marilyn is right. It’s a good idea to have a jeweler that is familiar with antiques check your ring and possibly re-tip worn out prongs or shanks.) If you find a ring that is 14K or 18K white gold you might want to rhodium plate it to bring the whiteness back to the metal.
LB: What advice would you give someone looking for an antique to use as an engagement ring?
MW: It’s nice to have the secure feeling that what you are getting is good quality - so if you’re not in the jewelry business it can be really hard to know what you are looking at. You don’t have the trained eye.
LB: So hire Little Bird!
MW: Well yeah!
LB: But seriously, most people don’t know to check and see if [the person you are shopping for] has a metal allergy, and so many antique rings are platinum on the top but they have been re-shanked with white gold so they are stamped one way but there are other metals in there.
MW: So many people are allergic to the zinc that is alloyed into white gold. Also, with antiques sometimes the marking isn’t there at all.
LB: Where are the best places to look for antique jewelry?
MW: The thing that is important is that you see a selection, you compare, you have the choice right in front of you. Without seeing the diamond, you are depriving yourself in some way of understanding what you are really getting. You have no way of figuring out what your preferences are. You want to see five or six or ten rings, as many as you can. But you also want to try them on, see it on your hand and really get a feel for the ring.
LB: Yeah, and it doesn’t work to just pay more and hope you get a better diamond. You have to be drawn towards one diamond or another.
MW: Absolutely. You can have a lot of diamonds with the exact same color or clarity and they are going to face up SO differently. (Note: Marilyn is talking about the unique characteristics each diamond displays when viewed from the top) One might have different fluorescence, or a different cut… that changes the life of a diamond, the thing that draws you in and makes it exciting. You can’t really see that on the internet.
The internet is good for research. You can get a sense of the styles that a store carries. But then you should go into the brick and mortar store. If you can familiarize yourself with how the rings look in person you will have a much better chance of finding the ideal ring for your beloved.
Also, it is often the case with antiques that the website can’t give you the exact specifics of the diamond because they would have to remove it from the setting to weigh/measure it and that’s simply not practical to do with an antique piece.
LB: Why is it acceptable for antique or estate rings to not list the exact carat weight, color & clarity of the diamond? Or to not have the diamonds certified by a gemological lab like GIA?
MW: Certification costs quite a bit of money. It is going to add to the cost of the ring. And removing the diamond and then putting it back can be very problematic and damaging to the ring. Most jewelers who sell antique rings can take a look and tell you the basic range of carat weight, color and clarity. You really can’t be 100% certain of the characteristics of an antique diamond that is set into a ring unless you have it unset. So you need to speak with an expert you trust and then go with what looks good to you.
LB: Yeah, I guess it can be a chicken and egg thing. Whatever the ring is, that is how the diamond was cut, that is how the ring came out… You wouldn’t take a classic car and compare it to a prius. It is apples and oranges.
MW: And remember, back in the Victorian era when they cut these diamonds, they didn’t have electricity! All the rose cuts and old mine cuts were done by hand with no electricity.
LB: How do consumers gauge value with antique pieces?
MW: You can compare prices of 14k, 18k and platinum. You pay less for 18k gold than platinum and less for 14k than 18k. You can look at the carat weight of the diamonds, you have to also ask the store the color and clarity of the the center diamond as well as any surrounding or accent diamonds. The intricacy of the setting is also a factor, as well as the condition of the ring. You are looking for a combination of your emotional response to the ring as well as your analytical assessment of the quality for the price.
LB: So once someone finds something they like, how do they deal with certification issues, statements of value? Antique ring appraisals? Insurance?
MW: Jewelry stores usually work with an appraiser, so you can get it insured for appraisal value. Some stores will let you bring in an independent appraiser so there is no bias. That will allow you to insure your ring.
LB: Any other advice for people looking for a special ring?
MW: Yes, steer away from soft stones. For engagement rings you want diamond, ruby or sapphire. Nothing softer than that. Amethyst, Aquamarine, Emerald, Garnet, Opal...all of these gems are much softer and can be easily damaged if worn every day.
LB: Yeah, you just know that you are going to get attached to that emerald and get your heart broken when you realize you’ve chipped it.
MW: If you want green, get a green sapphire. Don’t get anything below a 9. (On the Mohs hardness scale) Not for everyday wear.
LB: What are some of the special care considerations around antiques?
MW: Prevention! On a yearly basis have a jeweler check the prongs, bezels, and shanks to make sure your prongs are holding the diamond securely and the ring is structurally sound.
LB: Marilyn, thanks again for a lovely and incredibly informative interview. We can’t wait to see all the incredible rings you find in the years to come!
As the founders of Little Bird - Diamond & Engagement Ring Expertise, we can state with confidence that the world of antique engagement rings is complicated - even to us. So it is no surprise that finding the perfect ring, perfect diamond, perfect style, and best metal seems almost impossible to the non-expert.
We understand if you want an antique ring and nothing else will do. We understand if you have a strong vision of your future ring, or maybe not. Whatever the challenge, Little Bird is always here to help you find the ideal antique engagement ring or help reincarnate an antique ring design by custom-creating a new ring from scratch. We will coach you through whatever stage of the journey you’re in.
You can also head on over to the Little Bird TOOL BOX where you can peruse libraries of images curated by Little Bird engagement ring consultants in order to help bolster your visual vocabulary.
Warmest wishes and good luck on your search!
The Little Birds