How to Buy an Antique Engagement Ring (in London)

Immediately after, with my leaf!

Immediately after, with my leaf!

We’re engaged! Yay!

Pleased as I am with my engagement leaf, we chose a ring together. This is a statement about our relationship in terms of equality in big decisions, but also the most practical option. There is nothing to stop a couple from deciding to buy the ring together in 2014. This way, I got exactly what I wanted (which also happened to be the least expensive option). Of course, if you’re a more traditionally-minded partner you may wish to surprise them with an antique ring. More power to you, as long as you know that’s what they want! 

This article will help you to buy an antique engagement ring in London, and beyond. It will also tell you about why you don’t want to buy from the regular shops, and why alternatives like laboratory stones can be great.

I always knew I wanted an antique ring, in part because of my consignment-only experiment and subsequent lifestyle changes (currently on a no-new-clothes until Spring kick after gorging in the US on our holidays). It makes me uncomfortable to think of such an important purchase, and one that symbolises my relationship and love, as having an unethical background.

Blood diamonds are real. The impacts of the mining industry are widespread and nasty both in human and ecological terms. Worst of all, nearly all jewellery can be certified ‘non-conflict’ under the industry standard Kimberley Process. This is because the definition of ‘conflict diamond’ is too narrow by far; the only ones that are included are those that fund internationally-recognised rebel groups like Kony’s LRA. Human rights abuses do not typically fall under the category, and this allows most mainstream jewellers to sell ‘ethical’ diamonds without recognising the violence and exploitation at their origins. (Don’t believe me? In 2011 the advocacy group that helped start the Kimberley Process quit the group, citing exactly this problem.)

The decision was taken together, and early on; we would buy an antique (second-hand) ring, or we would have one made with a laboratory stone. Yes, it’s true that second-hand rings might also have unethical origins, especially since they were made in the age of imperialism. But by buying an antique ring, you mess with the thing that matters most to diamond sellers and companies…their wallets. You decrease demand for new diamonds, and don’t buy into the cheap and easy ‘ethical’ stances they take.

First off, we looked online. There are a lot of lab-based purveyors of engagement rings, and even companies that strives for ethical practices like Brilliant Earth. Unfortunately, their beautiful rings are simply not in our price range.

So beautiful! But holy shit the price!!!!

So beautiful! But holy shit the price!!!! Courtesy of Brilliant Earth

Etsy has beautiful rings, and many are made from diamond alternatives like Herkimer Diamonds. A lot of them have a great handmade feel to them, but looked a little…rough…for our standards. We wanted to incorporate trees or leaves into the ring when we first started looking, but found that harder than we’d thought.

Herkimer Diamond engagement rings, courtesy of Etsy

Herkimer Diamond engagement rings, courtesy of Etsy

I’m lucky enough to be living in London, where there is a thriving antiques trade. The ancientness of the city makes it easy to find things in flea markets, but there are also dedicated shops. Hatton Garden is well-known around the world for its diamond and jewellery trade, but it was unclear whether this meant a second-hand ring was possible. Several blog posts on dodgy sites from years ago suggested that you could get an antique ring in Hatton Garden for around £450.

We went on a Saturday before my night shift at the bar, not expecting to buy anything.

It was so easy. Maybe I’m just an atypically decisive and frugal bride, but we literally went to two shops. Up the road, past the glimmering bespoke jewellers and the inflated price tags ‘cut in half’ by SALE signs is Greville Street. There are several shops specialising in second-hand jewellery, but by far the most magical is Andrew R. Ullmann, Ltd.

It just fits the part perfectly. Family owned and operated, full of antiques that are not simply engagement sets. Prices ranging from a few hundred pounds to many thousands. We went through and found some beautiful rings, and the daughter of the owner helped us out by telling us the details of each. They had so many Art Deco, Old Mine, Mid-Century, and even older rings from the 1800s! They have unique things like antique Russian wedding bands, and a huge selection of beads.

We looked at a few, and tried a few on. The one I ended up picking is an Art Deco (1920s-1930s) daisy, with older cut diamonds. It might be indelicate to broadcast on the internet, but even with the resizing my antique engagement ring cost only £280 ($472)!

Ullmann box.

Ullmann box.

We asked them to resize it, and within two days we had my ring. After we left the shop we went for craft beers.

So how does one buy an antique engagement ring in London?

Step 1: Decide you want an ethical ring. Decide your budget. 
Step 2: Decide the ethical ring you want is an antique one. 
Step 3: Check out online sources as your budget permits. Many of the Etsy shops that sell antique engagement rings are based in London, and you could arrange for a meeting. 
Step 3: Go to Hatton Garden and look for second-hand jewellers. 
Step 4: Try on some rings. 
Step 5: Get the ring re-sized as necessary. 
Step 6: Get nice beers to celebrate! 

I realise that my wedding choices are not going to be the same for everyone else, but I want to provide a necessary counterpoint to the silliness that is all over the internet and in your face as soon as you get engaged. Practicality, frugality, and easy-goingness are virtues. Not all brides want to be a princess. Not everyone wants to spend 20K on the wedding. Do your thing, and be who you are. It’s just a day.

Tell me what you think! Did you have an antique engagement ring? What do you think of buying the ring as a couple? Is it acceptable to propose without a ring?

I’ll be writing more about the wedding process here!

The Last of My Naked Left Hand

The last...

The last…

My left hand is my buddy. I may not write with it, but it’s always been the stronger one. The brute that forces stuck taps off the lines at work. It’s marked with angel’s kisses, the roadmap to left and right I used as a child in my ballet classes. It wears the bracelets that mark me as a traveller.

It has two giant, aching flaps of skin on the tip of the thumb, a casualty of food and cocktails.

And today, it’s not naked anymore.

1920s antique ring, with old mine cut diamonds.

1920s antique ring, with old mine cut diamonds.

I’m engaged. For real and for true. With a ring and all. On last Saturday we walked along the glittering streets of Hatton Garden, the jewellery district of London.

The stores were all too big, too shiny, with too big of a price tag on their rings. I never wanted a brand-new engagement ring. Antiques suit me more. They’re more frugal (usually). They are high quality. They’re more likely to be ethical, and if not, then the reuse of the jewellery passes the buck to someone further up the line.

My ring is Art Deco, with older cuts on the seven small diamonds. It was made in the 1920s or 1930s, which is a time period with which I connect greatly. It’s unique, and it reflects the fact that my fiance made me a ring from a flower for his proposal (which he eventually scrapped, and went for a single aspen leaf instead). We chose the ring together in a family-owned and operated antique shop, and paid less than our individual monthly rent. It’s a symbol of our commitment, but also of the pragmatism that characterises our relationship.

Such a glamorous lady, just before the proposal.

Such a glamorous lady, just before the proposal.

engagement 004


Immediately after, with my leaf!

Immediately after, with my leaf!

engagement 116

It’s on!

engagement 115

With the light.

Now, my left hand will never be naked again. I’ve been wearing the ring since yesterday at sunset, when Russ got home. I can’t stop looking at it, twirling it in the sunlight to watch is shine. I love the design even more now. It feels just right on my hand. So happy for this new, if short, period of our lives together. So happy to be a fiancee.