As a jeweler dealing in and repairing vintage jewelry, I see a wide variety of quality come through our doors. While we only sell pieces that we can stand behind, I have worked with plenty of clients who bought a ring without fully examining its construction and are left holding the bag in terms of keeping up with its repairs. It’s always such a bummer to see an otherwise beautiful ring that just can’t withstand the wear that the client wanted. It’s like a buying a used car — without being careful, you can end up with a lemon.
That said, vintage jewelry shopping can be such a fun way to add some interest to your collection, and if you have your heart set on a vintage engagement ring it’s wise to visit a booth or shop with knowledge in hand. With that in mind, I decided to put together my top tips for buying a vintage engagement ring.
While Alx&Co. does sell some of our jewelry online, we shy away from offering our vintage rings online for a few good reasons. One, it’s very difficult to closely examine a piece just through pictures, especially if those pictures were taken by someone trying to sell the item. They may only photograph the “good sides” to avoid showing inclusions or breaks, or the perspective of the photo may just skew the size of the ring and make it seem larger or smaller than it really is. Plus, especially with diamond engagement rings, color matters and as we all know from Instagram filters, it’s very easy to change a stone’s cast from yellowish to blue. There is a lot to be said for looking the seller in the eye, trying on the ring, and asking the tough questions up front; emails can mask a lot. I am a firm believer in using technology to make one’s life easier and do a lot of shopping online, but buying a vintage ring online is just something I wouldn’t recommend to most people.
This is another reason I encourage people to see a ring in person first — you can’t try on a picture! Rings sit differently on different hands, and one person’s delicate, dainty ring is another’s hunk of metal. Especially when people are just starting out their search I encourage them to try on many different styles, even ones they don’t think they will like. You really never know until you try it, and I can’t tell you how many times a client has told me they ended up buying something they never would have expected to have liked.
Even if a ring is vintage (and therefore “worn”), it should still be in decent shape when you buy it. How a ring “wears” and endures damage over the years is a really good indicator of its underlying construction. It’s like examining the walls of an Old Town house: the walls may have settled over the years, but as long as they aren’t actively cracking the foundation is probably fine. Jewelers may try to mask structural cracks and fissures by superficially repairing the ring’s head so that it looks good on top, the angle to which most buyers will be drawn. Don’t fall for that trap.
Look under the head, examine the shoulders (especially where it connects to the head), and make sure that the bottom of the shank is secure, uncracked, and not too thin. A loop is especially helpful here as some really bad structural features may only be visible when magnified. Just because you can’t see it with the naked eye doesn’t mean it won’t bite you in the end!
One of the most common issues I see from our repair clients is a ring they’ve purchased needs to be sized up or down, and they underestimated how difficult the process will be for that ring. It’s frustrating from a jeweler’s perspective because I know that the seller allowed that person to make a purchase without fully understanding or caring about their needs, and now the client will need to spend (sometimes hundreds) more to rebuild an entire shank or reshape a head so that the ring can fit on her finger. What seemed like a good deal is now an expensive repair. Things to keep in mind here are:
This can be tough when you are at a big market with lots of vendors to browse, but it’s really important to know from whom you’re buying. We at Alx&Co. work with a handful of dealers whom we know we can trust, and we tend to shy away from anyone too “sales-y” in their approach. You can find some amazing rings at great prices from individual vendors, but the less you know about the person selling a piece to you the more carefully you should examine the product. Have they gone down on the ring’s price four times since you asked to look at it? Ask yourself why they’re so anxious to get it out of their case and onto your finger. It’s probably not because they are feeling particularly generous that day; remember, this is a business for them, and moving inventory is the name of the game. Don’t let the pressure sale sweep you off your feet.
In the end, buying a vintage ring can be a much smoother process if you’re careful, but having a great jeweler in your back pocket who you can trust to resize or repair a piece is really the bow that holds it all together. We’re lucky to have such amazing resources here at Alexandria & Company; a truly great jeweler who isn’t overconfident in his or her skills is definitely a rarity. We also have a beautiful collection of vintage engagement rings, so feel free to stop by and browse on your own…we love visitors!
Alexandria & Company is an Old Town-based workshop and design studio specializing in creating and restoring fine jewelry and silver hollowware. They are the in-the-know jewelers of Alexandria and have been serving clients out of their small workshop for decades. Tucked in their historic building on South Royal Street, the team at Alx&Co. brings a personalized, modern approach to their craft – this is not your average stodgy jeweler or antique shop. Visit them during their walk-in hours or online to view their collection of handmade fine jewelry or to drop off a repair project; or, if you’re feeling creative, make an appointment to talk about that custom design project you’ve been imagining.
121-B South Royal Street
Alexandria, Virginia 22314
Design Studio Walk-In Hours (all jewelry services): Wednesday – Saturday 12-6pm
Silver Workshop Walk-In Hours (all silver repair and restoration services): Wednesday or Friday 12-6pm, or by appointment
Appointments encouraged for custom design.