This is a dilemma I've witnessed in many of my friends recently who know they want an engagement ring that is more than a conventional diamond solitaire, with the weight and character that only an antique ring can bring. It will most likely be a one-off, with a lot more carats for your money than if you were buying a new diamond engagement ring.
But most importantly, searching for a vintage ring allows you to be experimental, try on different styles and then commit to 'the one' after hands-on research (literally) - and this 'one' will be truly unique, a one-off. You can afford to flirt with, and then commit to, the unconventional design, without having to know what you want beforehand. This is a similar feeling to commissioning a bespoke engagement ring, providing you have complete trust in your jewellery designer and have done your research to know your general aesthetic parameters.
My best friend Stephanie recently found this vintage 1960s beauty: a domed structure of 16 tapered baguette diamonds, light and airy but strong, graphic and bold. After much praise over on Instagram, I thought I'd post some more photos here to show it in all its glory.
Being the creative powerhouse and hugely talented woman that she is (see her incredible paintings here), she is sure about what she likes and doesn't like, but being sure about the kind of ring you like doesn't always mean being specific, in aesthetic terms; in other words there would have been hundreds of designs that she would or could like, but finding 'the one' would always be a case of 'I'll know it when I see it.'
A mixture of instant love, instinct and the fact that it fit her perfectly meant that she bought it that same day, from a fantastic antiques jewellery dealer in London's Grays Antiques. And so, like Stephanie, this is what you should look for when buying a vintage engagement ring: have a strong gut feeling about the piece, so much so that you would be gutted if you came back and it had gone. That it is well made, from a reputable dealer - look for worn settings and wobbly stones. That the design isn't generic (you might as well be getting a new one), but has unusual details that you haven't seen before. But mostly, that it makes your heart sing and you can't stop staring at it...which is kind of how you should feel about your fiancé, too.
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