History on Your Hand: Choosing Estate Rings

Does your jewelry collection include items that were not purchased new and especially for you? If so, you own estate jewelry. While the term estate may conjure images of sprawling mansions, or large bank accounts, when it comes to jewelry, it simply means, “previously-owned.” 

Of course, like so many other terms we use (think sanitation engineer), we gravitate towards terminology that makes us feel better. When someone compliments the beautiful sapphire ring on your hand, would you rather say, “Thank you, it’s pre-owned,” or “Thank you, it’s estate jewelry?” Older jewelry may also include a rich history or a special story.  Wearing a ring handed down from a grandmother, aunt or other special relative turns an ordinary ring into a conversation piece.

Choosing an Estate Ring

Estate pieces, particularly those that are over 50 years old, often have higher quality and workmanship than their modern counterparts. Increases in the cost of precious metals and advances in mass-production of jewelry have caused a decline in the quality of modern jewelry pieces. This is true of both fine and costume jewelry.

When choosing a ring someone claims is an older estate piece, consider these indicators: 

  • Gold slag – mass-produced rings often have extra gold that looks like it wasn’t removed from the mold (usually found in the under gallery of the ring). You won’t find this on older rings.
  • Number of prongs – Estate rings often have more prongs that are thicker and/or found in greater numbers. Six and eight prong-rings are more common in older pieces. Wider prongs or uniquely shaped prongs can also be indicators of an older ring
  • Markings – unless it’s a designer piece, an older ring will likely have simple karat markings that are worn down and less than sharp. Some will not be marked at all. A ring made in Europe may have special markings with assay marks, which can indicate the year it was made.
  • Special Touches – Look for signs of hand-made jewelry, like side engraving that winds down the band, or special etching or dual texturing on the setting. These are harder to mass-produce.
  • Gold Color – The alloy used (mix of metals) to make gold or silver has changed through the years, causing color variation. In comparison to a modern ring, antique white gold rings may look yellow, rose gold will be a lighter pink and yellow gold may have a slight rose overtone.
  • Lack of polish/small flaws – A perfectly bright and shiny ring with no scratches may simply be freshly polished, but it likely indicates a newer, never worn ring.

Quality concerns for estate rings:

  • Worn or Missing Prongs – A ring that has been around 50 or more years will have wear to the prongs. You may need to have the prongs rebuilt on an older ring to ensure the stones are safe
  • Worn Stones – Many older rings have stones that are abraded (worn on the edges of the facets), or chipped. This is particularly true for softer stones such as blue Zircon. This may or may not affect how it looks but it does impact the value of the ring.
  • Wear to the Band – Older rings tend to thin out on the bottom of the band due to repeated wear. You may need to have gold added.
  • Missing Stones – When considering a ring with many small stones, inspect each stone carefully. Small missing stones can be hard to spot.
  • Synthetic stones – Most modern gemstones have been made synthetically for the last 100 years so old doesn’t always mean genuine. Request a guarantee of authenticity and/or have the stones tested by a gemologist. Note that many lab-created stones look just like their natural counterparts. Multiple tests may be required to tell the difference.

While none of these factors can guarantee the age of a ring, they are good initial indicators. Avoid buying pieces that cannot be returned. Find a jeweler you can trust to verify and appraise your jewelry purchases. We recommend local shops over chain stores and those that do their repairs in-house rather than sending them out. Have estate purchases inspected and repaired before wearing if needed. Your jeweler can also give an old ring a nice bright polish for you.