Engagement & Weddings

An Antique Jewelry Dealer’s Guide to Vintage Diamond Engagement Rings

Who’s to say what’s from the past must remain there?

By |

Photography by Vincenzo Dimino

Is the love of jewelry buried deep in the genes, as inheritable as red hair or blue eyes? Does an affinity for natural diamonds dwell in your DNA? Consider, if you will, the case of Jared Klusner—a fifth generation jewelry aficionado whose family was in the business in Odessa way back in 1887, and whose father and grandfather owned jewelry stores in Manhattan. The scion of this dynasty is currently the founder of Erstwhile, a site that specializes in antique jewelry, especially vintage engagement rings, which means that many—most! —feature wonderful natural diamonds.

Klusner once tried to shake off this legacy. Though he worked in his family’s shop when he was a young guy, he left it behind and decided to train as a massage therapist. Alas, it turned out that the jewelry business was more lucrative than a therapeutic laying on of hands.

So, he went back to dealing and, almost on a lark, designed a website and put a few vintage things up for sale. It was 2008, those ancient days before Instagram! –and Klusner, who is also a fine art painter, amused himself by taking old photos and cute clever props and employing them as beautiful backdrops for his jewelry. The very first day the website launched, he sold a turquoise chain for $200. He was hooked. Now the site features nearly 200 vintage engagement rings—from dreamy Edwardian confections, with layers of diamonds as delicious as wedding cakes, to Victorian three-stone affairs–a Columbian emerald flanked by two mine-cut diamonds, anyone?

Vintage Engagement Ring Shopping Tips

“There wasn’t any business plan, it was just by feel,” he tells me. “But the vintage engagement rings started selling right away.” Now, on his frequent buying trips—to antique jewelry shows in the US, to obscure sellers in far-flung capitals of the world–he searches out really special examples. In addition to building up his vintage jewelry stock, he also manufactured rings that reference antique pieces but are actually brand new—because maybe a one-of-a-kind ring that someone had coveted has sold, or maybe a couple is superstitious about an engagement ring that symbolized another love, long ago. Still, he tells me, “Most people do like the romance and the history.”

Whether you opt for a vintage engagement ring or a new one, “Ninety percent of the diamonds we feature are old cut stones,” he says. Not that these are so easy to find: “Until a few years ago, people were cutting up older diamonds.”  

So, Jared, what is selling now? “Yellow gold!” he responds–which is challenging because art deco rings, probably the most popular style at the moment, were more often than not rendered in platinum. And gold, he points out, degrades a lot faster than platinum, which means that Erstwhile must undertake a fair amount of restoration work.

Read More: The 10 Best Art Deco Style Diamond Engagement Rings

What else are people looking for?  “Elongated cushion cut diamonds—or any cushion cut, for that matter.” Today’s clients also favor low profile rings that can be stacked, rather than the super high dazzlers that would have blinded a suitor of Jean Harlow or Mae West.

Erstwhile stresses that you need to choose a diamond engagement ring that suits your lifestyle. A vintage engagement ring can be far more delicate than a new edition, and though the company will fix prongs, replace stones, and make sure your special purchase is in tip-top shape before selling it to you, “You never really know how it will fare day to day,” Klusner confesses. This is why the company pledges to service your treasure for up to six months after purchase. (Word of warning from Lynnie—Do NOT buy a Georgian engagement ring or any ring with a closed, foiled back behind the stones. In the first case, anything more than 150 years old is rarely suitable for the daily grind.  In the second, suffice it to say, it rains sometimes, or you plunge your hand in the sink without thinking. A drop of water seeping into a closed-back ring can be ruinous and take it from me—replacing the foil in a 200-year-old ring is no trip to the Bahamas.)

Though many of Erstwhile’s sales are made directly from the internet—and yes, there is a lively Instagram now—the company also maintains a showroom in New York, because if you are going to wear this thing ‘til the end of your days, maybe better to see it in person first?      

This may be an extravagant acquisition—for many people an engagement ring remains the single most expensive of jewelry they will ever buy—but that doesn’t mean it has to be a mindless, politically incorrect brain-dead purchase. “Our ethos is that we are as eco-friendly as we can possibly be,” Klusner insists. “The least harsh thing we can do for our planet is to recycle what we have. There are enough diamonds in the world to last forever!”