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The Emergence of Vintage Inspired Jewelry in the 21ST Century

written by JC Blackburn

It’s no secret that the engagement ring market has been dominated by white gold and platinum for quite some time now. A sizable market niche within that white metal world is the vintage inspired engagement ring.

Vintage inspired engagement rings have become so popular in the last 20 years that they have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight, and sought after by exuberant brides all over the United States, and the world.

I think I have a unique perspective on the development of this market because I started in the antique jewelry business in the 90’s selling jewelry from the Georgian period to the Retro 40’s and every period in between.

Even then, whenever I had an original platinum engagement ring from the Edwardian or Art Deco period with a decent old cut stone in the center, it would be one of the first things to sell out of my inventory.

 I was working for my father at the time, along with my brothers Carl and Fletcher. We were travelling salespeople while Dad did the buying; mostly from estate auctions and sales in Florida and neighboring states, but also from his travels throughout Europe and South America.

 We divided up the country and went on our merry way every month with a freshly stocked bag of original antique pieces and did quite well.

 We worked diligently in this manner until two significant things happened. One, the original antique jewelry, especially anything coming from the Art Deco or Edwardian period began drying up. There was much less available and the pieces that did come in were priced astronomically. They would get bid up at auctions fast and dealers that had them started asking crazy prices, not a good situation if you’re working as a wholesaler, where there needs to be a nice margin left for the retailer. It was a simple equation of supply and demand. The second thing that happened was my father was getting into his retirement age and decided it was time to slow down.

My brothers and I stayed in the estate jewelry business, independent of each other, for a little while until one day we were all having dinner, discussing the current state-of-affairs of the antique jewelry market and how to keep supplying our customers with the quality jewelry they had come to expect from us when, I don’t remember who, blurted “why don’t we just make it?”

That one sentence led us on a quest to recreate the beautifully crafted, antique jewelry we had known so well through 2 generations of an antique and estate jewelry family business.

While we would have loved to have made our jewelry here in the U.S., it became clear that to accomplish the exorbitant amount of hand finishing work at a price we could wholesale to the stores, it meant we would have to look internationally.

After some reconnaissance work in Eastern Europe, South America and South-East Asia, we finally decided on Thailand as a place, we felt, we could accomplish our goals.

Thailand is a hub for gemstone cutting and has a robust infrastructure for manufacturing quality jewelry. Thailand has a rich history of goldsmithing, gemstone cutting and a long roster of jewelry craftsmen with experience in doing handwork. From hand pave’ to hand engraving and millegraining. With some training and retooling, we felt we could make it work.

Both my brothers, Carl and Fletcher opened separate factories in Bangkok, each with their own niche of vintage inspired jewelry styles, while I committed to being the “road warrior”. With a lot of hard work and dedication, it eventually paid off and before long, I was supplying my loyal customers with detailed, hand worked jewelry, primarily from the Art Deco and Edwardian periods, but also delving into Art Nouveau and even some Retro 40’s style pieces.

As expected, the demand for original, platinum engagement rings continued to rise but there weren’t enough rings in the market to make them accessible to the general public and definitely not in specific center sizes.

There was a need to accommodate different size diamonds for all different types of budgets. By this time, we had already spent years creating, perfecting, modifying designs to get them exactly how we wanted them. We made them in standard center sizes and proportionally correct for the pertaining diamond center size, a job much easier said than done, especially when CAD hadn’t become a mainstream tool yet.  

I think the trend towards platinum and white gold engagement rings around the year 2000 came from several things going on at that time. Yellow gold had dominated the jewelry market, in general, since the 1960’s, when there was a major cultural shift in the United States and around the world. Jewelry design, in general, took a more colorful route. The change was a reflection of people gravitating to freedom of self-expression, nature and away from the industrial era which sort of defined the Art Deco and Retro 40’s and 50’s style.

But as always, art imitates life. As the decades passed and we moved into the 1980’s, we saw styles getting chunkier, more ostentatious, no doubt a mirror for the ultra-consumerism and materialism of that era.

The 1980’s and 90’s were an era of newly erected Trump skyscrapers, gold colored Versace logos, Wall Street corporate raiders wearing yellow gold Rolexes and rappers wearing massive yellow gold chains to the point of being overplayed. It all became too much for the market to bear and the fashion world decided enough was enough. Yellow had reached a breaking point. When Carrie Bradshaw vehemently rejected Aidan’s engagement ring on Sex and the City in 2001, calling it “ghetto gold”, it seemed to drive a final coffin nail into the yellow metal for engagement rings.

While yellow gold jewelry still sold well, especially for fun, daily jewelry, the designs became more under stated and brides-to-be started looking for white metal for their long-term commitment jewelry like engagement rings.

A new era of dainty, delicate, vintage inspired engagement rings in platinum and white gold emerged. Beginning with original Art Deco and Edwardian rings and transitioning to vintage “inspired” jewelry. Women wanted something unique with a lot of detail and handwork. A ring they could look down and marvel at the intricacy, beauty and micro attention to detail. The vintage and vintage inspired movement had begun and there was no looking back.

Vintage style jewelry in white gold and platinum at the turn of the 21st century became so popular, iconic  brands like Tiffany and Cartier began tapping into their archived design books and released new/old designs to meet the new vintage inspired renaissance. Tiffany, with their lacy, open work earrings and pendants focused on Edwardian styles. Cartier did a whole series of Art Deco style large pendants with geometric lines, black onyx and colored stones and even used black rope, similar to the black ribbon style Deco jewelry of the 20’s and 30’s. Soon, vintage style engagement rings followed from both houses.

What I’ve always loved about vintage and vintage inspired engagement rings is their timeless beauty, their attention to detail and their uniqueness. A woman who buys vintage inspired won’t have to worry about her ring becoming out of trend or “dated”. There is a sense of longevity when worn, the feeling and hope that a marriage will continue on as long as the style of the ring, for a generation, or several. 

It is common knowledge that diamond margins have dropped considerably. With online sellers nipping at the heels of brick-and-mortar retailers with turn and burn prices, offering a unique, hand finished, quality vintage inspired ring allows the retailers to add value to the sale and increase the overall margin per unit.

While most large chain stores and online sellers may offer white gold and some vintage looks, I’ve yet to see them really focus on high quality vintage inspired jewelry. This is an opportunity for independent retailers to separate themselves from the rest, and offer a unique shopping experience, which brings both higher margins and loyal customers.