Historians and anthropologists believe the tradition of the engagement ring originated from an ancient Roman custom in which wives wore rings attached to small keys. However in 1477, Archduke Maximillian of Austria commissioned the very first diamond engagement ring on record for his love, Mary of Burgundy. It was the first recorded event of a formal agreement for marriage. Since that event it truly captured the worlds attention. Typically the engagement ring is worn on the left hand ring finger (in the western world). The left hand ring finger was popularized by Henry Swinburne, who wrote A Treatise of Spousals, Matrimonial Contracts and suggested that there is a vein that goes directly from that finger to the heart.
Throughout the middle ages, renaissance, reformation, and enlightenment period the popularity only grew. Then in 1866 during the Victorian era diamonds were discovered in South Africa making them more available and the popularity continued to grow. During this time period silver and gold were the most prevalent metals. Platinum has a very high melting point and technology wasn’t developed until the late 19th century to be able to easily work with it. Hand engraved warm toned golds were very popular. The type of diamond cuts evolved as well. (to learn more about this evolution please see our other blog posts about rose cut, old mine, and old European cut diamonds. These first brilliants were anything but symmetrical and were quite crudely cut. Natural pearls were also prized in the 19th century.
As we close the 19th century, jewelry and diamonds begin to take on a more polished and uniform look with more advanced technology.
1890S ENGAGEMENT RINGS
A note on overlapping design eras. While there are clear date distinctions. For example the Victorian era ends in 1901 with the onset of the Edwardian era, which then ends in 1910. When we date a ring as circa 1900 it can fall either under Victorian or Edwardian depending the on the design style. Especially during the years of transition there was a lot of design overlap.
ANTIQUE 1890S ENGAGEMENT RINGS
The late Victorian and early Edwardian era brings with it glittering diamonds and new masterful jewelry design. The cluster setting shown here was popular in decades past but begins to take on a more delicate look with finer prongs and more brilliant diamonds like old mine or even old European which begin to be popular during this time.
ANTIQUE 1890S MARQUISE DIAMOND ENGAGEMENT RING
The chubby proportions and faceting of this antique marquise cut diamond are typical of the time period and quite different from marquise diamonds of the 20th century.
Two toned engagement rings are quite popular during this time. Often seen with a platinum mounting and a gold band. Typical because diamonds of this time period were often warmer in color and the coolness of platinum offset the warmth of the stone.
1900S ENGAGEMENT RINGS
It was at the beginning of the Edwardian era that yellow gold and silver began to take a back seat to a "new" metal called platinum. Platinum has a high melting point which limited its use in jewelry until the invention of the oxyhydrogen torch. With this innovation in the late 1800s platinum mania swept through Europe and Russia. And following suit in the early 1900s, popularity of platinum reached the United States and captivated the American public.
Old European becomes the diamond cut of choice while old miners continue to be popular as they also evolve to have more precise faceting and symmetry.
Art Nouveau was a design movement that spanned from 1890 to 1910. Jewelry from this time period took inspiration from the natural world featuring sinuous lines and botanical motifs.
1900S VINTAGE ENGAGEMENT RINGS
As jewelry making technology advances we begin to enter the height of jewelry craftsmanship which peaks during the forthcoming Art Deco period. The Edwardian era saw a surge in popularity of elaborate and feminine settings featuring delicate filigree and metal lace work all hand crafted by lifelong master jewelers.
1910S ENGAGEMENT RINGS
Diamond cutting advances with the ability to cut perfectly round shapes and ultra glittery cuts. The old European diamond surges to the forefront of popularity. This beauty inspired the forthcoming transition cut and finally the modern round brilliant diamond. While the old Euro (as its fondly called) can be found even a few decades before it wasn't until the early 20th century that it became ubiquitous as new technology also became ever-present.
1910 EDWARDIAN ENGAGEMENT RING
Since old European cut diamonds were hand faceted without uniform parameters, these stones are truly one-of-a-kind. These big, bold and round diamonds are set in crisp platinum settings and exceedingly desirable during this day.
1910S ART DECO ASSCHER CUT DIAMOND ENGAGEMENT RING
Another fabulous cut to make itself known during the early 20th century was the innovative and brand new Asscher diamond. The Asscher cut was created in 1902 by Joseph Isaac Asscher and was the first diamond cut to be patented. The cut is similar to an emerald cut in the square shape but with cropped corners and modified faceting which creates a more brilliant look.
The Asscher cut was extremely popular, particularly in Art Deco jewelry designs. It reached its peak popularity in the 1920s, which is one of the reasons many modern brides see Asscher-cut diamonds as “antique” or “vintage.”
1910S ENGAGEMENT RINGS
As we near the 1920s the Art Deco design movement begins to inspire everything from jewelry to architecture of the day. Rings from this time period begin to exhibit more sleek shapes as design begins to move away from the traditional elegance of the past.
1920S ENGAGEMENT RINGS
Probably the most popular vintage era, the Art Deco period spans 1920-1935. Something to note only rings that display Art Deco design motifs are deemed Art Deco. However regardless if jewelry from this period is Art Deco or 1920s period, it is stunning!
Engagement Rings from this time period feature clean modern lines. Solitaires in a variety of prong and mounting styles are popular.
The target setting is one of the most recognizable Deco styles of the period.
The distinguishing features of the Art Deco style are simple and clean shapes. Often made from expensive materials like platinum, diamonds and other precious gems like emeralds and sapphires these stones are set in geometric or stylized forms. Though Art Deco objects were rarely mass produced, the characteristic features of the style reflected admiration for the modernity of the machine and for the inherent design qualities of machine made objects (e.g., relative simplicity, symmetry and unvaried repetition of elements).
1930S ENGAGEMENT RINGS
The 1930s is a continuation of the Deco design movement. Jewelry taking a huge influence from the streamline skyscrapers of the day, most famously the Chrysler Building in New York. There's a heaviness to jewelry during this time featuring weighty settings and solid prongs.
Diamonds begin to take on new proportions like the marquise cut diamond above. The old European cut diamond continues to be the most popular diamond for an engagement ring however the transition cut begins to take shape as well. These cuts, also sometimes called early modern cuts, are precursors to the modern round brilliant. These diamonds were some of the first to have standardize proportions.
1940S & 1950S ENGAGEMENT RINGS
In the 1940s you can see the transition from Art Deco high design sensibility to Mid Century Modern which spanned roughly from 1950 to 1965 but some argue earlier. Mid Century engagement rings offer little ornamentation with uncluttered and ultra clean lines taking the streamlined ideology of the Deco movement but pairing it down to the most simple forms. Form follows function is the ideology of the day.