Put a Ring on It: Engagement Rings Through the Ages

February 2011 JCK cover
February 2011

The most revealing thing we discovered when we surveyed the reigning engagement ring styles of the past 150 years? How many would be coveted—and considered marketable—today.


Fox and Bond Victorian rose cut cluster ringVictorian

The discovery of diamonds in South Africa in 1867 floods the market with rose-, old mine–, and old European–cut stones. Snake motifs—popularized by Queen Victoria herself—are de rigueur, as are colored gemstones such as turquoise, opal, sapphire, ruby, garnet, and amethyst. In 1886, Tiffany & Co. introduces its famous Tiffany setting, which features the diamond perched high above the finger with six unobtrusive V-shape prongs securing it in place. The setting effectively makes the gem, not the metalwork, the star of the show.

Victorian rose-cut diamond cluster ring in 14k gold; $1,835; foxandbond.com


Edwardian 2 ct old Euro diamond ringEdwardian & Art Nouveau

Advances in metal fabrication allow for the use of platinum in jewelry. Because of the metal’s strength, jewelers can produce more intricate, detailed pieces that are also structurally sound. Designs that emphasize light, airy openwork incorporate milgraining and filigree, floral and nature motifs, and bows. In 1902, the Royal Asscher Diamond Co. invents the Asscher cut, but it won’t gain popularity until the 1920s, when Art Deco takes off.

Edwardian ring with 2.01 ct. old European–cut round brilliant diamond and 0.12 ct. t.w. single-cut diamond accents in platinum; $16,375; wilsonsestatejewelry.com


1920s Jewels by Grace amethyst and diamond ring1920s

The Art Deco design movement begins, inspiring engagement rings with sleek motifs and clean, crisp lines. Elements of Egyptian revival emerge in the wake of the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. Calibré-cut sapphires, rubies, emeralds, and other colored gemstone accents supply splashes of color to the old European–cut and emerald-cut diamond rings of the day. For the first time, ­baguette-cut diamonds appeal to consumers
seeking a modern aesthetic.

Ring with 2.25 ct. old European–cut diamond center and calibré-cut amethysts in platinum; price on request; jewelsbygrace.com


1930s Art Deco ring in platinum1930s

The second decade of Art Deco style is marked by engagement ring designs featuring multistone settings in graphic geometric configurations. During the Great Depression, proportions scale down and carat weights decrease. The Chrysler Building’s glittering spire and other architectural inspirations are highly influential. Hollywood stars such as Gloria Swanson, Myrna Loy, and Carole Lombard are photographed wearing jewels in films, becoming the first celebrities to dictate trends to consumers.

Art Deco ring with a 2 ct. diamond center stone in platinum; $19,950; providentjewelry.com


1940s Old European diamond cut ring1940s

During World War II, platinum is requisitioned for military use, so yellow gold becomes the metal of choice for engagement rings in the early and mid-1940s. ­Transitional-cut diamonds begin to outpace the older diamond cuts. Marcel Tolkowsky emigrates from Belgium to the United States in 1940, and his round brilliant diamond-cutting specifications become the gold standard for American jewelers.

Ring with 0.75 ct. old European–cut diamond in tricolor 14k gold dome mount; $3,200; wilsonsestatejewelry.com


1950s pear shape Golconda diamnd with baguettes1950s

The postwar years are a time of great economic growth that leads to a rise in the upper middle class, which ushers in demand for more glamorous, diamond-centric bridal rings. Emerald-cut diamonds are fashionable, thanks in part to two celebrity engagements: Grace Kelly’s 12 ct. Cartier design from Prince Rainier III of Monaco (1956) and Elizabeth Taylor’s 29.4 ct. ring from Mike Todd (1957). Tapered baguettes officially make their entrance and stick around for a while.

Ring with 3 ct. pear-shape Golconda diamond and tapered baguettes in platinum; $348,500; rauantiques.com


1960s 2 ct diamond solitaire ring1960s

No single style characteristic defines the decade’s engagement rings, but one popular look pairs colored gemstones alongside diamonds, like the opal-and-ruby engagement ring Roman Polanski gives to Sharon Tate. Mia Farrow receives a 9 ct. pear-shape diamond-and-platinum engagement ring by William Ruser from Frank Sinatra. And who could forget the gargantuan 68 ct. pear-shape Cartier diamond Richard Burton gives to Liz Taylor in 1969?

2.06 ct. diamond solitaire ring in 18k white and yellow gold; $73,762; Baume French Gallery on 1stdibs


1980s Ross Simons yellow gold estate ring1970s

Mall jewelry stores fuel demand for smaller marquise, pear, and round diamond solitaires, while the highest end of the market is dominated by glamazon rings from the likes of Harry Winston, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Cartier. Tricia Nixon’s wedding makes the cover of Life magazine; her ring features a sapphire center flanked by two diamond side stones.

Estate ring with 0.55 ct. round brilliant diamond in 18k yellow gold; $995; ross-simons.com


1980s Ross Simons sapphire diamond estate ring1980s

Brides go for the gold. Princess Diana’s oval blue sapphire rimmed in diamonds from crown jeweler Garrard is an easy look for Main Street and mall jewelers to replicate, which they do. Brides are still enchanted by pear shapes and marquise cuts, but the settings are chunkier and bolder.

Estate ring with 1.17 ct. cushion-cut sapphire and 1 ct. t.w. round brilliant diamonds in 18k white and yellow gold; $7,195; ross-simons.com


1990s Scott Kay crown setting ring1990s

Platinum, platinum, platinum. Thanks in part to an aggressive marketing campaign by the bridal designer Scott Kay, the luxurious white metal has a resurgence and rises in value. Three-stone rings—to represent a couple’s past, present, and future—have a moment.

Crown Setting ring with knife-edge shank and bezel-set surprise diamonds in platinum; price on request; scottkay.com


2000s Tiffany Lucida diamond ring and band2000s

Tiffany & Co. debuts its Lucida diamond, a patented cut that’s a square shape with slightly nipped corners, just in time for millennium proposals. It’s the house’s first engagement ring debut since the Tiffany setting, and its square silhouette triggers increased demand for princess-cut stones at all ends of the market.

Lucida diamond engagement ring and diamond band in platinum; price on request; tiffany.com

 2010s French set halo engagement mounting


By 2010, halo engagement rings are the new normal. Small or pavé-set stones encircling a modest central diamond create the appearance of a larger solitaire look for less. This message resonates—and spawns a million iterations. Concurrently, Kate Middleton’s engagement ring, which belonged to the late Princess Diana, sparks a mini trend of blue sapphire centers and accents.

French-set halo engagement mounting with diamonds in 18k white gold; $1,990 (without center stone); ritani.com


2019 Diamond Nexus simulant Barcelona halo ring2019

As millennial and Gen Z consumers set the agenda, diamond provenance and socially responsible mining practices top their priority lists. Lab-created diamond manufacturers position their products to capitalize on the mindset. Vintage-inspired styles (popular since the mid-2000s), actual antique rings, and rustic diamonds are also hot sellers.

Barcelona halo engagement ring with oval Nexus Diamond and round Nexus Diamond accents in 14k rose gold; $1,924; diamondnexus.com 

(Lucida: Tiffany & Co.)

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