Don’t be dumb–buy vintage Bling!

Second-hand Rose lives happily ever after …

Susan Caba
Resale Evangelista 

‘Tis the season of sparkle–as in the sparkle of diamonds glinting on the fingers of the newly engaged. It’s nearly Christmas and men (mostly) are preparing to pop the question–you know, that question. The answer may be a foregone conclusion. Nonetheless, a diamond (or other gemstone) engagement ring is still the symbol of a sealed decision to marry.

A one-karat diamond, set in platinum and surrounded by more diamonds. It sold for $3,900.
A  one-karat diamond, set in platinum and surrounded by more diamonds. It sold for $3,900.

Before I even get started, let me say this: I know it’s romantic to have your fiancé pull that little velvet box out as a surprise. But personally? The idea of someone selecting a piece of jewelry that I’m likely to wear every day kind of horrifies me. What if you hate it–either you say so, and start things off with a little acid indigestion on his part, or you live with it, sort of smoldering. Okay, maybe I’m a little more picky than most.

Besides, I think you (either you–he, or you–she) should opt for a vintage or estate ring. Since they’re one-of-a-kind and probably non-returnable, it’s best to shop together.

Why Vintage? 

  • Older diamonds cost about 30 percent less than a similar new diamond.
  • Pre-owned settings cost one-third to one-half the cost of the same setting, new.
  • Vintage or estate rings are more likely to be hand-crafted by a jeweler, rather than mass-produced. The have the “human touch.” The quality of workmanship is better and the styles are unique.
  • Stores that sell pre-owned or vintage jewelry are less likely to charge a 300 percent mark-up.

Sapphires and diamonds fit for a princess

Some people would never buy a second-hand ring just because it’s second-hand–they want their ring to embody the hopes and dreams of their happy future, with no lingering fumes from a failed marriage.

This vintage platinum, diamond and sapphire ring sold for $10,000. Prince Charles paid $65,000 for Diana's engagement ring.
This vintage platinum, diamond and sapphire ring sold for $10,000. Prince Charles paid $65,000 for Diana’s engagement ring.

Guess what?  Kate Middleton happily accepted a vintage ring from her fiancé, Prince William. You know the one–the 18-karat oval sapphire surrounded by 14 diamonds that Prince Charles gave to Princess Diana in 1981. The ring was new when Charles gave it to Diana, a sign of their “til-death-do-us-part” promise. We know how that turned out. A new ring is no guarantee of marital bliss.

True value of vintage is workmanship and style

I’m sure some actress somewhere is sporting a new 16-karat rock. Granted, it’s probably a very high quality stone in terms of cut, color and clarity. But how much artistry does it take to plunk a big stone on your finger? (You can get a big stone in a vintage ring–though the largest I came across was about 3 karats.)

In years gone by, the design of a ring wasn’t judged on the size of the stone. The beauty of many estate rings is the artful use of smaller diamonds, their impact enhanced by elaborate settings. The settings are more likely to be handmade, rather than mass-produced. Their superior craftsmanship and singular designs–often with scrolls, ribbons, hearts and other embellishments–would require a rock star’s income if you tried to reproduce them today. I like that human touch.

More bling! for your bucks

The most obvious advantage to buying vintage is the potential for saving money. A ring’s cost has two components, the stone and the setting. You’ll save on both by buying resale instead of retail.

Scotsman Coin and Jewelry, is a well-respected St. Louis business that buys and sells coins and jewelry. The store has loads of rings, new, vintage, estate and pre-owned. It’s not as romantic as going to Tiffany’s–but you’ll have more money to spend on the honeymoon.  I stopped in to comparison shop.

Big cocktail rings are back in style. This gold, amythst and diamond ring sold for $625.
Cocktail rings are back. This gold, amethyst and diamond ring sold for $625.

I picked out an 18-karat white gold ring made in the 1930s or 40s. The main stone was a 2.2-karat, European-cut solitaire, with lots of little diamonds on either side. Think Greta Garbo.  A  new diamond of the same size and quality as the one in the vintage ring would cost between $14,000 and $15,000. The setting would cost extra.

The Greta Garbo ring was $10,500. A similar new ring was $10,500, too. But the  diamond was a lot smaller.

There was a difference in the diamonds–not in their quality, but in the way they were cut. Round solitaires are faceted with a series of Vs cut into the back of the stone. The older European-cut diamonds have wider Vs that aren’t cut as deeply as those in contemporary brilliant-cut solitaires. Depending on other qualities of the diamond, the deeper cuts might give the stone more sparkle. In this particular comparison, I didn’t see a significant difference.

Savings on settings means more dollars for gems

Settings on vintage rings are stunning--and a third the price of new settings.
 Settings on vintage rings are one-third the cost of new settings.

I’m a sparkle girl. I want good quality gold (and as much as possible!) but I’d rather spend money on diamonds and rubies than on the setting that holds them.

Just a few years ago, if you spent $3,000 on an engagement ring, the setting accounted for about $500 of the price; the rest was the cost of the stones. Now the cost is more likely to be evenly split between setting and stone. That $500 setting would cost in the range of $1,200.

I looked at a pre-owned ring in an elaborate setting of tiny diamonds. The wholesale cost of that setting when new is $2,500. This ring (without the diamond) was priced at just $1,000. A new platinum setting similar to one at Scotsman that was priced at $960  would cost more than $1,500.

Vintage? Estate? Pre-owned?

Definitions of antique, vintage, retro and estate vary by jeweler. Here’s a rough guide:

  • New rings consist of a stone and setting that have never been sold or worn.
  • Retro or vintage rings date between about 1940 and 1980.
  • Antique rings are pre-1940. They include Art Nouveau and Art Deco (about 1900-1935) and Victorian and Edwardian (1830s-1910).
  • Pre-owned rings could have come on the market as late as last year. These are probably the most likely to have come from a divorce. But think positively–maybe the couple just decided to upgrade.

The good thing about buying a contemporary pre-owned ring is that the settings and stones are often sold separately. Put in another stone and the ring is uniquely yours, right? And if you’re still squeamish about the ring’s previous life, I recommend  a smudging ceremony with burnt sage to chase away any negative karma.

Where to buy vintage baubles?

I’m tactile–I like to touch a ring, weigh it in my hand, judge the gleam of its stones with my own eyes. I would never buy expensive jewelry at a pawn shop–I don’t know enough about judging quality. Some high-end department stores carry estate jewelry, but you won’t save much money. Therefore, I do my jewel-drooling either at brick-and-mortar jewelry stores or reputable resale stores, like Scotsman’s, with a certified gemologist on hand.

Auctions, either on-line or in person, are another option. One site I like is EraGem because it has an actual store in the Seattle area, and provides extensive descriptions of each piece of jewelry, including the weight of the metal and the quality of stones. Scots runs online auctions; again, my confidence comes in their willingness to provide certification of a gemstone’s quality based on standards established by the Gemological Institute of America.

And folks? Vintage jewelry comes in all varieties, not just rings. You don’t have to be engaged to put on the glitz.

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