There's something intrinsically magical about an heirloom engagement ring. From its one-of-a-kind appearance to its rich history to its sentimental value, it can be really special to propose with an heirloom ring. But when it comes to proposing with a family ring, there's a lot to keep in mind. From talking to your significant other to asking permission from your family to potentially resetting the stone, here's everything you need to know about heirloom engagement ring etiquette.
It's always good to get a read on how your girlfriend feels about vintage rings, and if at all possible, the one you're planning to put on her finger. Find a covert way to get a read on her. If the ring's in your family, maybe show her a picture of your grandma wearing it, point out the ring and gauge her response. Alternatively, make up a story about a buddy proposing with an heirloom ring and see how she reacts ("Awww, how sweet" vs. "Why didn't he just buy her a new ring?" might give you some indication of how she feels about vintage rings).
In some cases, your family (or your soon-to-be fiancée's family) will offer you the ring when they see an engagement coming. In other cases, you might have to ask on your own. When it comes time to talk passing down wedding rings, make it a face-to-face conversation. Never go into it expecting they'll hand over the ring. It's a major decision, and even if it's been brought up theoretically, it's a different story when it comes time to actually give the ring away. Explain how much your significant other means to you, and why you have your heart set on giving them this ring.
If you get the green light, this is also the time to discuss expectations. For example, would they be OK with you resetting or modifying the ring? It's important to get their stance on this upfront. Your grandma/mother/aunt might be thrilled to let you do whatever you’d like with it, or she could have her heart set on seeing the same ring on your finger (and could see that as a condition of accepting the ring at all).
While talking to your family, make sure to ask all about the ring. Listen to all the stories behind the ring. They're certainly something you'll want to pass along to your fiancée, and perhaps your own children eventually. Keep the history of the ring alive by soaking it all up. Chances are whoever is giving it to you will be more than happy to talk about the special piece of jewelry.
Have the ring professionally cleaned and check to make sure all the stones are secure (if any are loose, take it to the jewelery to get them secured). Get the ring appraised and insured.
If both the ring and the metal are important, but the design is up to you, work with a jeweler to create a style you love that includes all the elements of the original ring. You could add accent stones or choose a more modern setting to create something unique that still honors the tradition. Do you have free rein to do whatever you’d like with the piece? Swap out the type of metal, add details, or pare it down to a classic solitaire that flaunts the stone in question.
If you won't rock the proverbial boat by resetting the ring, "look first for designs and designers that resonate with your style," suggests ring designer Heidi Gibson. "Of course, look for positive reviews, while word-of-mouth references are ideal." Designers can work with you to create a one-of-a-kind style or allow you to select from existing designs that flatter the stones you have to work with.
Often a designer won't be able to preserve the ring's original setting. "If you are trying to keep the rest of the setting intact, ask your jeweler if this is a possibility before they attempt to remove the stones," says Gibson. "You should generally consider that the rest of the piece will be scrap material for trade-in value only. The stones themselves will not lose actual or figurative value when reset."
If the original setting has value—and especially if the ring has more value in its current form than it would after a redesign—you have another reason to hit pause on resetting your ring. "I always prefer to see people save and preserve their valuable family heirlooms," says Elizabeth Doyle, co-owner of New York City jeweler Doyle & Doyle. "It may be nice to pass on to a child at some point, or it could be reset with a diamond at some future date."
At the end of the day, Gibson says, you should be happy with what you wear each day. "While I do believe in preserving sentimental value, there's also something to say for having and wearing a ring that you love. After all, it's your finger," Gibson says. "Resetting an heirloom ring is an amazing way to extend family tradition: to save money—because the center stone is generally the most expensive part of a ring—and to define your own style."
In some cases, the ring will fit its new owner perfectly. In others, it will need to be resized. The good news, however, is that ring resizing is a straightforward, affordable process. The bad news is that it's typically not possible to resize rings more than two sizes up or down without compromising the integrity of the ring. This isn't an issue if you're having the ring completely redesigned or reset, but it is a roadblock if you're hoping to keep the ring exactly as is but the fit is way off. (Learn more in our complete guide to ring resizing.)
If your fiancée will be expected to wear the ring as is, there are still ways to make it her own. Set up a consultation with a jeweler to see if there are any options that could help bring the ring into modern times while still preserving the design. While the changes to the ring (beyond having it resized, which you should do no matter what so you don’t lose it!) may be few and far between, you could get creative with your wedding band to add some of your personality. Mix metals, design a band that fits snugly against the ring, or curate a stunning stack of rings that both shows off the heirloom and includes the contemporary styles you love.
If you love the look of an heirloom ring but don't actually have one in your family, there are plenty of gorgeous replicas that channel the past with exquisite vintage style. Here are 88 absolutely stunning vintage-inspired engagement rings to check out.
Every day, people get engaged using heirloom rings. Hear are a few touching stories about much much the inherited jewelry means to the brides who wear it and the grooms who gave it.
"I've known for years that I was going to give my fiancée the pear-shaped diamond set in an old gold setting that my mother had given me from her mother. As [I was] an only child, my mother had no daughters to share her mother's ring with, so she entrusted it to me in hopes that I would give it to the love of my life. Coincidentally, long before she was aware of the existence of my grandmother's ring, my fiancée had told me that she loved pear-shaped diamonds. At that point I almost knew it was fate, and I set about having the diamond reset complete with a halo in a white gold band. I would have loved to have given it to her in the original yellow gold setting, but it had become very worn, and my mother now wears it on a chain to remember my grandmother. My wife was thrilled with the ring and even more so when she learned of its origins. It truly couldn't have worked out better!"
— Caleb Ellis, from Riverdale, New York
"My (now) husband Nick proposed with my grandmother’s engagement ring. He had it reset to be bit more modern but the look and feel, and certainly the diamonds, are the same! My father gave Nick the ring and then Nick brought it all the way to Paris to propose at the Eiffel Tower. I love my ring; I don’t wear a wedding band because I haven’t found one yet that I think doesn’t interfere. I love that the ring looks different from others and that it has sentimental value. It’s also a gold setting which is a bit unusual these days."
— Lucy Arnold, from New York City
"My husband proposed on a bit of a whim, with no ring at all! We were on vacation in Bermuda and the feeling just came over him. Of course I said yes. When we got home, my Nana gave us the marquise diamond in my engagement ring. It was originally in her engagement ring, which she wore every day before her husband passed. I had it reset in white gold. Once it was complete, my husband surprised me with a re-proposal along the waterfront in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. My wedding band is also made up of heirloom diamonds from my great-grandmother. My Nana had reset the diamonds into another ring previously, but had them extracted and gave them to me. I had them placed in this white-gold prong setting which matches my engagement ring. I love having these family heirlooms with me, and I'm lucky that everyone was supportive of me modifying to match my own style. I hope someday I can pass them along to my daughter and she can make them her own."
— Brittany Carambio, from Washington, D.C.
"My soon-to-be fiancé, Ryan, and I met on Bumble about a year and a half ago. We're both Korean adoptees (and were not aware [of that] at the time that we met). Fast forward to now, and we have no doubts about getting married and obviously adopting a Korean child of our own! As far as a ring goes, we'll be using an heirloom that belonged to his adoptive father's mother. It's smaller, princess cut, and we are taking it to be reset at the jeweler that my adoptive parents have frequented for the last 25 years. For us, it was a way of bringing our families together in one ring. The current metal is gold and we'll be changing it to white gold, and potentially having a few smaller diamonds embedded. We want to keep it simple. We both feel pretty fortunate to have found one another and to have this beautiful family ring that is now becoming part of our new family."
— Jenna Irish, from Washington, D.C.
"I was lucky enough to receive my pear-shaped heirloom ring from my mother-in-law who had passed away. At first, my husband was against me resetting it, but as it was so small and since the band was unable to be made larger he finally agreed. We used diamonds from from my father-in-law's knuckle buster ring to create a halo around the pear diamond and even had enough for an eternity band. It feels very special to have a piece of them with us on a daily basis."
— Jacqueline Goldman, from Hollywood, Florida
"My engagement ring is from the early 1930s and belonged to my great-grandmother Beatrice. She lost her wedding band, but my mom inherited her engagement ring when she passed away. My mom lovingly referred to the ring as “Bea,” my great grandmother’s nickname, and wore it on special occasions such as graduations and weddings. I did not know until recently, but my mom wore Bea's ring during her own wedding as her 'something old.' The ring is simple and timeless. I've always thought it was beautiful, but what is so special to me is that it reminds me of my great-grandmother…She was a fearless teenager at heart, and I think of her every time I see the ring on my hand."
— Kelly Marron, from Richmond, Virginia
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