There are few things that I get more delightful compliments on than my engagement ring. Unlike the readymade diamond adaptations that warrant a Sweet Home Alabama-esque fantasy of commandeering an entire Tiffany & Co., it’s actually a bit outré. A slim band that faintly resembles a small golden claw machine grasps a twinkling hunk of electric blue topaz. It’s not unlike an eternal ring pop or a piece of cartoon treasure.
My husband and I set it into motion out on a snow day in the East Village after finding Larry Mattos, a friendly, no-nonsense jeweler who quickly sent over a package of rough stones for us to peruse at our leisure, on the internet. We chose the one that looked most like sour candy in a size so large that it eventually turned into my engagement ring, my husband’s wedding bolo, and still had leftover chips to set in our wedding bands.
Traditionally considered “costume jewelry,” topaz scores an impressive 9 on the hardness scale, barely under a diamond’s 10, and ever-so-slightly higher than the level 8 sapphires that sit on the fingers of Princess Kate and Gwyneth Paltrow. And my atypical bauble is far from alone. Everyone from art-minded couples to royalty (Prince Harry reportedly flanked Meghan Markle’s ring with diamonds from Princess Diana’s collection) are finding their own alternatives to off-the-rack options, whether custom-made or centuries old.
IF YOU WANT TO GO DOWN THE BESPOKE ROUTE…
“Custom jewelry is all about people expressing their individuality in a way that’s deeply personal and creative,” says Parsley Steinweiss, third-generation director of Julius Cohen, New York’s storied fine jewelry atelier and family-run company that thrives on its client relationships. “My grandfather always said that jewelry is a happy business, and this is especially true when working with couples that are getting engaged!” Parsley enthuses, noting that bespoke jewels create “real collaboration” between the client and the maker, with individual tastes and personalities translated into fine materials and meaningful designs.
While couples often have a family heirloom they’re hoping to give new life, others need a bit more guidance. “Some people know very closely what they want, some have absolutely no idea—it’s all good and part of the process. We have a house design library of thousands of jewelry pieces we’ve made to refer to as we work out design ideas,” says Parsley. Another rising trend she’s helping to facilitate? Non-traditional colored stones.
And whether it’s an in-person studio visit or remote videochat meeting, each step in the process of brainstorming, rendering, and crafting requires just a few weeks to produce a one-of-a-kind masterpiece that can strengthen a bond. “I think couples designing their own wedding rings is often a symbolic way for them to feel connected on a deeper level to what the ring represents, their love and commitment for each other,” she shares. And for those that prefer a made-to-order band but need a bit of inspiration, Parsley shares four timeless options to get the wheels turning.
1. 18 Kt Gold and Multicolor Diamond Band
“A unique sparkler! This ring features a lovely, light palette of natural color diamonds ranging from peach to yellow to light cognac.”
2. 18 Kt Gold and Diamond Bird Ring
“Love birds mate for life! This perennial favorite is a classic Julius Cohen design made in all birthstones.”
“A favorite for artisans or active ladies who work with their hands and don’t have time to get hung up on prongs. Good for the girl on the go! The simple setting highlights the deep presence of the old mine cut diamond (.50 Cts) in this hammer set, flush mount 18 kt gold ring.”
4. 18 Kt Gold and Diamond Leaf Band
“This beautiful and unique diamond band celebrates a classic Julius Cohen leaf motif for a gorgeous wedding ring that also can be made in 18 karat rose gold, white gold, and platinum.”
IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR SOMETHING VINTAGE…
“Now more than ever, people simply don’t want what everyone else has,” says Texas-born James Michael Vela, founder of Vela NYC’s buzzy new antique jewelry collection. “In the age of knock-offs, there is something truly mesmerizing about having an original. And with Georgian and Victorian jewels becoming more rare to come by today, in many cases, there is literally only one of each exact piece out there.” Plus, when a design has already stood strong for a century, what could better represent an eternal flame? “Each [ring] has survived centuries, has a story to tell, and sometimes is perfectly imperfect,” he adds.
The idea of recycling already-perfect pieces of jewelry is equally appealing. “There’s a whole world out there when it comes to sustainable jewelry,” says James. “There is such a strong emotional connection that people have with their jewelry, substituting the run-of-the-mill wedding jewels for an unconventional ring of yesteryear is compelling–it’s wearable history.” Vela has already been scouted by Moda Operandi, which is currently featuring them in their “New Names to Know” fine jewelry trunk show. Below, five vintage rings for those who want to reconsider tradition.
“This 1940s Art Deco era wedding band has a heart-warming history with an inscription inside that reads ‘M.J.L. to J.W.S. 10-5-40’. I’m a huge fan of inscriptions of initials and dates, which gives pieces like this a personal touch and the feeling of instantly acquiring an heirloom.”
Victorian Coral and Diamond Ring
“This Victorian-era ring is such an eye-catcher! The eighteen rose cut diamonds surrounding the five coral cabochons complement each other so well. Made around the 1880s, the design and construction of this ring truly stands the test of time and would make a unique engagement ring for the bride who admires one-of-a-kind treasures.”
Victorian Patterned Cigar Band
“Made during the late 1800s, this Victorian ‘cigar band’ has a wider-than-usual design with a surrounding embossed pattern that is perfect for someone who prefers that not-so-obvious wedding band look.”
Victorian Turquoise Bypass Ring
“Perhaps the perfect ‘something blue’ for the big day. This Victorian ring has fifteen turquoise cabochons, that with time, now vary in hue. A ring with so much character that would be a great fit for today’s bride, despite being made around 1870.”
Victorian Pearl and Diamond Gypsy Ring
“This Victorian ring has the most charming combination of stones: a rose cut diamond flanked by four pearls. It’s fully hallmarked, which is always a plus to hone in on its origins. For instance, this band was made in London in 1898. I love being able to put an exact date and location to a piece of jewelry; these details make owning an antique ring even more meaningful.”