Queen Victoria wore a double snake ring. Kate Middleton wears Princess Diana's sapphire. Beyonce and Jay Z have matching ring-finger tattoos. When it comes to engagement rings, there are at least as many ways to interpret the quintessential symbol for love as there are couples. If you're in the market, remember the story attached to your ring is as precious as the stones and metal — and make sure it's one you'll cherish.
"We have different stories attached to all the objects we are surrounded with in our lives," says metalsmith Steven Donnelly. "In a lot of ways, the objects that surround us are ways we define ourselves. So the stories connected to something as important as an engagement ring are something people want to tell."
When it comes to engagement rings and wedding bands, there are three basic types: new, estate/antique and custom pieces. Wellington & Company owner Tom Whisnant says his third-generation French Quarter business handles all three. Buyers who choose antique (older than 80 years) pieces often like the vintage feel and sense of history the rings convey.
"Antique pieces are generally a little more delicate in the finish work," Whisnant says. "The filigree is a little more delicate because it's hand-finished. That's a big attraction for people."
The most popular antique rings are geometric, art deco rings from the 1920s and 1930s and delicate, filigreed Edwardian rings from 1905 to 1920.
"You get a better value with estate pieces," says Whisnant, who scours estate sales for antique finds. If the antique ring of your dreams was sized for the diminutive women of yesteryear, the shop can modify it to fit. "We have lasers and everything to do sizing with," Whisnant says. "We can pretty much size any piece."
For customers looking to recreate an antique ring from a photograph or memory, the sky is the limit.
"We do a lot of custom work that has that vintage feel," Whisnant says. "We've had people bring in everything from a fuzzy cellphone picture to a photo of a yellow diamond necklace, and we can literally make it look exactly the same."
To give new pieces a sense of age, jewelers finish the rings with hand-engraving. Hand-detailing is a practice employed by Donnelly when he wishes to give jewelry a special feel. A metalsmith since 1995, Donnelly once worked with a budget-conscious couple who spent only $80 for two sterling silver engagement bands. Donnelly spent hours hammering marks into the silver.
"I made the surface shimmer with all these super-fine hammer marks," he says. "I would have charged a client a couple hundred bucks for the labor, but this was a friend of mine so I did it as a gift and a blessing on their engagement. So you can alter an object and make it precious in terms of meaning, not in terms of material.
"That type of preciousness of meaning comes from the fact that the object has been humanized by the care of someone who loves the material and works on the material. It's a terribly romantic idea."
Donnelly also creates custom rings for nontraditionalists who want to participate in the creation of the ring and the story behind it. He can rework heirloom pieces or create unique pieces based on a symbol or concept.
"[Clients] want an object that has originated from an art or symbolism route and they want to work with an artist in developing an idea," Donnelly says. "People want to participate in a real personal meaning in the piece."
For example, a client of Indian descent asked Donnelly to incorporate her grandmother's birthstone, a ruby, into her engagement ring. Donnelly researched Indian folk tales, symbolism and meaning associated with rubies.
"I found that in India, there's a tradition of setting the ruby so the stone itself is in direct contact with the skin," Donnelly says. "It's almost the idea that the ruby has been set into your body, because the red is a strong metaphor for the flame of your soul or the fire in your heart, a life vitality sort of idea."
In designing the ring, Donnelly manipulated the metal so the stone appeared nestled in the gold, an illustration of the bride's family history and lineage. Clients who approach him with concepts for custom work generally do so about a year prior to their weddings, and the rings cost $500 to $3,000 or more, depending on the materials used.
For couples who want the traditional experience of picking out a ring from a jewelry shop, Diane Brown recommends a visit to Tiffany & Co., where she is vice president. The famed jewelry store pioneered the Tiffany setting — a six-prong setting that highlights a diamond's brilliance.
"[Company founder] Charles Lewis Tiffany introduced the Tiffany setting to the world in 1886," Brown says. "Today it's not only our most popular engagement ring setting, it is also known around the world as the Tiffany setting. It was the first setting that lifted the diamond off the band and allowed light to shine through the diamond and facets."
There are 10 other traditional Tiffany engagement ring styles, as well as fancy diamonds and colored stones. Brown advises people to go with whatever ring suits their fancy and their budget.
"People ask what the most popular size is — it is really to match the personal style of the person wearing it," she says. "You might have a woman who is petite but comfortable wearing a large ring, and then you could have someone who doesn't want a traditional ring and wants a diamond band."
Brown says Tiffany rings start at $1,000. When a client comes into the store, the sales representative will pours him or her a glass of Champagne and asks about the ring's recipient.
"The first thing we want to know is, tell us about your girlfriend," she says. "How did you meet? What is her name? What does she do? And as soon as you propose, please bring her here. It's an honor and a serious responsibility to assist with an engagement ring."
Brown says many clients get engaged in the store. She advises brides to patronize jewelers they trust and have fun selecting the ring.
"You found the person you want to spend the rest of your life with. The hard part is behind you," she says. "Selecting the diamond should be the fun part. You're going to look at your hand every day for the rest of your life, so you want something that makes you smile and symbolizes the meaning behind it."