Style Guide

Twelve Ideas for Alternative Engagement Rings

Love is a Many-Splendoured Thing

by Lea Felicitas Döding


he foundation for our contemporary notion of the classic engagement ring was laid in 1886, when Charles Lewis Tiffany of Tiffany & Co. designed a six prong setting to raise a brilliant cut diamond above a narrow band. It was only in 1947, however, that De Beers launched its iconic campaign A Diamond is Forever, deeply embedding the link between an everlasting diamond and an everlasting bond of love in our shared cultural knowledge.

Historically, however, many different ring types served as engagement rings, each carrying unique sentimental notions – ideal for modern couples looking for an individual take on the engagement ring, one which will suit their relationship and shared values.

The Cluster Ring: Fit for a Princess 

A Victorian Petrol-Coloured Sapphire and Diamond Cluster Ring, c. 1890

The cluster ring – a central gemstone surrounded by a halo of diamonds – is one of the classic designs of jewellery history. 

It was Lady Diana Spencer, about to become Princess of Wales, who elevated the cluster ring to a widely acceptable type of engagement ring when she chose hers from court jewellers Garrard & Co. in 1981. While her ring featured a blue sapphire, vintage cluster rings come in almost all the colours of the rainbow: from yellow and pink sapphires to emeralds, rubies, amethysts and even all-diamond versions. 

Along with the vintage cluster ring's timeless appeal, it is the individual choice of centre gemstone that allows it to be a unique expression of love

The “Toi-et-Moi” Ring: You and I

Antique Belle Époque rings, a diamond and Colombian emerald “Toi-et-moi” ring to the left, c. 1910

The “Toi-et-moi” ring – sometimes also referred to as “Vous-et-moi” – features two equally large gemstones symbolic of the lovers. Famously, Napoleon gifted Joséphine such a ring as an engagement ring in 1796, set with a diamond and blue sapphire. This type of ring was subsequently adapted to changing fashions, and many Edwardian, Déco and vintage “Toi-et-moi” rings exist as well. Another notable example is Jackie Kennedy’s engagement ring, set with a diamond and emerald. 

As in these rings, the focus is equally divided among two gemstones which are often of a different kind, this type of ring is a perfectly symbolic choice for those whose relationship is founded on equality at no cost to the individuality of the lovers.

The Trilogy: Together Forever

An Edwardian Diamond and Platinum Trilogy Ring, c. 1910

Antique three-stone rings are often referred to as trilogy rings. When worn as an engagement ring, many consider the number to be significant, with the gemstones symbolising a shared past, present and future. 

While many antique trilogy rings are diamond-set, there are also examples set with a central coloured gemstone. If you would like to add further meaning to this jewelled promise of a shared future, the significance of the gemstones in Victorian gem lore can add depth: for instance, sapphire for fidelity or ruby for passion.

The Déco Diamond: Chic and Durable

Three Art Déco Diamond Plaque Rings, c. 1925-30

In the 1920s and 1930s, diamond jewellery was all the rage, and many refined rings have survived from this era. Their sophisticated craftsmanship, the timeless designs and the use of platinum make these rings ideal engagement rings for our time. 

The symbolism of the diamond as a stone of eternity adds to the message of the ring. Additionally, diamonds were commonly set in millegrained bezel settings during that time, so that they do not pull threads and are perfectly suitable for everyday wear.

The Sapphire: Truth and Fidelity

An Edwardian Sapphire and Diamond Ring, c. 1910

Historically, sapphires were seen as stones who would protect their wearer from falsity and temptation, and as such were often worn by bishops. 

In the Victorian era, associations of truth and fidelity arose from this historic notion. In 1913, the mineralogist George Frederick Kunz summed up its cultural significance: ‘The sapphire – the gem of autumn, the blue of the autumn sky – is a symbol of truth, sincerity, and constancy [...] it typifies calm and tried affection’. 

Their durability, beauty and cultural meaning make sapphires an ideal choice for couples who recognise themselves in this description.

The Ruby: Passionate Love

In the Victorian era, the ruby was closely associated with love and passion. ‘Ruby is passion’, wrote British painter Edward Burne-Jones in a letter. ‘Generally, it seen as a symbol of the most passionate, ardent love’, the German ladies magazine Bazar informed its readers in 1886.

Three Vintage Ruby and Diamond Cluster Rings, Second Half of the 20th Century

A ruby ring is a beautifully symbolic choice for those who uphold passionate love as a key value of their relationship.

The Fede Ring: Love and Loyalty

A rare collection of antique fede rings from the 17th to 19th centuries

Derived from the Italian phrase mani in fede – hands clasped in faith – a fede ring is fashioned in the likeness of clasped hands, one of the oldest and universally understood gestures of human connection. 

The design is derived from the ancient custom to seal contracts, vows of loyalty or betrothals with a handshake. Fede rings existed as early as in ancient Rome, but rose to popularity once again in the Middle Ages, persisting well into the Georgian and Victorian eras, their details ever-adapting to regions of origin and changing fashions. 

The promise made with a fede ring is unique to each couple; it can serve as a unisex wedding band as well as an engagement ring.

The Serpent: Everlasting Love

A Diamond and Rose Gold Snake Ring, c. 1900

In the late 18th century, enlightenment thinking emancipated the snake from its Christian association with the temptation of Eve. Instead, one looked back to antiquity and to the significance of the ouroboros, a snake biting its own tail: an ancient symbol of eternity. Soon, the association with eternity was applied to everlasting love, and many sentimental jewels were fashioned in the likeness of a snake. In fact, this romantic reading of the snake was so widely accepted that Queen Victoria’s engagement ring was a serpent.

The most suitable examples of antique snake rings will be those dating to the late 19th or early 20th century; earlier Georgian examples will be too delicate for everyday wear. Some consist of a single serpent coiled around the finger, whilst others depict two snakes entwined.

The Heart Ring: Our Hearts Beat as One

An Edwardian Heart-Shaped Diamond Ring with a Ruby Surround, c. 1910

The heart ring first emerged in the 18th century and depicts either one or two hearts. While its inherent meaning is obvious, it was often supplemented by a crown or ribboned bow, the first being symbolic of loyalty and the latter being related to the lover’s knot.

Even though Georgian rings are not suitable for everyday wear due to their age and more fragile nature, the fashion for heart rings was revived in the late Victorian era, and the rings of that time are generally more sturdy. 

Keep in mind, however, that not all rings of this type may be suitable for everyday wear, as some feature closed settings or seed pearl surrounds. When choosing a heart ring, look for compact designs with open settings, able to withstand careful everyday wear.

Lover’s Knots and Bows: Nothing Can Separate Us

A Retro Bow Ring with Diamonds and Rubies, ca. 1950

If you are about to ‘tie the knot’, you may consider this ring type with centuries of history. 

The lover’s knot is a traditional motif which serves as the visualization of the indissoluble bond between lovers. Many historic examples prove this point; the Earl of Northampton, for instance, is said to have owned such a ring in the early 17th century, described as ‘a golde ring sett with fifteene diamondes in a true-lover’s knotte’. It bore the Latin inscription nec astu, nec ense – neither cunning nor sword should be able to sever the bond. 

In the Victorian era, the motif was revived to great popularity, and many Victorian lover’s knot rings are still perfectly wearable today. A more playful twist on the motif can be found in rings designed as ribbon bows.

The Band Ring: An Everyday Companion

Four Golden Band Rings, ca. 1840-1900

Discreet, timeless and exceedingly wearable, the band ring is not only limited to wedding bands but makes for a perfect unisex engagement ring. 

The great popularity of gem-set band rings during the late Victorian era and then again during the second half of the twentieth century allows for a wide range of antique and vintage options. Often, the gemstones are flush-set, meaning they are practical for everyday wear and do not pull threads.

The Acrostic Ring: I Adore You, Dearest

Three Victorian gold rings, on top, one Regard ring, mid-19th century

For those who do not shy away from vibrant colours, an acrostic piece may be the engagement ring of choice. 

Acrostic jewellery emerged in the late 18th century and remained popular throughout the Victorian era. By way of the initial letters of the gemstones, the wearer’s name or secret messages of love could be spelled, the most popular being ADORE (amethyst, diamond, opal, ruby, emerald), REGARD (ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst, ruby, diamond) and DEAREST (diamond, emerald, amethyst, ruby, emerald, sapphire, topaz). 

With the cultural knowledge about acrostic jewellery having disappeared from the mainstream today, such rings now constitute an intimate secret message shared between the lovers.

Lea Felicitas Döding

As an art historian, I am primarily interested in the material culture of jewellery. Who would have worn a piece, when and why? What was the cultural significance of certain gemstones and jewellery designs? These are the questions I attempt to solve for the Hofer Magazine, and which often lead me into the depths of jewellery history.

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