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  • Writer's pictureAntiques in Oxford

The joy of vintage and antique cocktail rings

More is more when it comes to eye-catching cocktail rings, so jazz up your jewellery collection this party season with some vintage bling. The tinkle of glasses, the pop of a cork, the sparkle of Champagne and the gleam of a gemstone ring glittering on an elegant hand… If you wear vintage jewellery you too can channel this glamorous vibe – reminiscent of the decadent parties described in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, set in the Jazz Age when cocktail rings first emerged.

What is a cocktail ring?

A cocktail ring – or ‘dress’ ring – is generally understood to be an exuberantly large, ostentatious ring, often set with a colourful precious stone in a complex design or surrounded by diamonds. Defining a cocktail ring exactly can be a bit tricky. It’s a prominent feature ring, not for everyday wear, but for a glamorous evening out. It’s a fabulous statement piece of jewellery, almost a conversation piece. While it doesn’t necessarily need to be expensive, it always has to have that ‘wow’ factor. A cocktail ring is a ring that you would wear out to enjoy yourself – a showstopper piece. Antique cocktail rings are simply the best – some of them are unbelievably beautiful and they really do make you gasp.

When did cocktail rings become fashionable?

Cocktail rings first appeared in America in the 1920s during Prohibition, when cocktails disguised alcohol and made low-quality bootlegged concoctions drinkable. Anti-Prohibition parties were magnets for the upper-class. They were associated with socialising and illicit drinking.

The trend for luxurious cocktail rings spread throughout Europe, too. During this era, women gained many rights and freedoms. In several countries, women got the right to vote, and with these newfound rights came a new attitude. Hair got shorter, as did dresses, and women began to frequent cocktail parties, accompanied or alone. They could smoke, drink and have as good a time as any man could. Because of all of these factors, women wanted to show they were self-sufficient, and what better way to do so than to sport a huge, lavish ring?

In the Victorian and Georgian eras, the fashion was for large necklaces and hairpieces rather than rings. Cocktail rings really became popular in the Art Deco period. Diamonds had been discovered in South Africa and platinum was affordable. This combination ensured that large stones could be set in a sufficiently dense material to accommodate them,’ she explains.

When it comes to cocktail rings, bigger is always better. ‘The brighter the ring, the more interesting the wearer was perceived to be,’ says Matt Reeves. ‘Cocktail rings continued to grow in popularity and reached their peak in the 1950s. A great economy and more conspicuous consumerism meant that people were buying houses, cars and household appliances, and alongside these materials came the necessity to entertain. So, cocktail parties had a resurgence and so did the rings. If anything, the rings were more colourful and extravagant during this period, with larger stones

Are cocktail rings fashionable now?

Cocktail rings are still being made today and, according to the likes of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, they’re in fashion once again. The Goldsmiths’ Centre (the UK’s leading charity for the professional training of goldsmiths) recently hosted a Zoom panel discussion entitled: ‘Cocktail Rings – Go Big or Go Home!’ to celebrate ‘these glorious, glittering giants of the jewellery world.’

As with so many collecting genres, it’s the story behind each piece that appeals. It is fun to wonder where a ring has been and who has worn it in the past.

Some rings have hallmarks, which let you date them exactly, but a lot of the older pieces weren’t stamped. Without the date stamp, it’s hard to be exact and there’s some guesswork, but you can look for clues. Often, you can tell the age from the style – for example, Art Deco pieces are instantly recognisable – or you can test the gold or consult a gemmologist if necessary. Cocktail rings from the Art Deco era used lots of diamonds and pearls. The designs are so striking with exquisite lines and angles – they’re exceptional pieces of art.

How much do vintage cocktail rings cost?

You can find cheap vintage cocktail rings that are plated but, at the other end of the scale, you can spend thousands and thousands on antique Art Deco emerald and diamond cocktail rings in good condition.

Age can affect value, but quality and quantity of the gemstones and precious metals is what really impacts the price. When buying a vintage cocktail ring, always buy from a reputable dealer and ask if pieces are solid (as opposed to plated) and if they’re genuinely vintage. There are a lot of replicas around. When you search online, lots of new jewellery is listed as ‘vintage’ and some cocktail rings may look old, but they’re sometimes ‘vintage inspired’ rather than the real deal. It is always worth asking for the best price a dealer can do – sometimes they will have a bit of leeway and you might be able to haggle.

How to care for vintage cocktail rings

Caring for cocktail rings is similar to looking after any fine jewellery, although there are some differences to be aware of. You may need to check prongs more frequently with a large cocktail ring, as they may get knocked around a bit when worn.

How to clean vintage cocktail rings

Some gemstones should not be immersed in water or cleaning fluids or exposed to heat or ultrasonic cleaning. Antique pieces often need to be treated extra gently. If you aren’t sure about how fragile your rings are, a soft, dry cloth is the way to go. If a ring is sturdy with diamonds, sapphires or rubies, use a gentle toothbrush and warm water with a mild soap and a dash of vinegar for degreasing, followed by a good rinse (being careful not to potentially lose any loose stones down the sink!) Then use a hairdryer.

Where to keep vintage cocktail rings

Storage of cocktail rings should be protective, so they aren’t coming into direct contact with other jewellery. Fragile and softer stones can be easily damaged when jumbled up with other pieces. Ideally, vintage cocktail rings should not be exposed to extreme heat or moisture and they should be kept out of direct sunlight, as some stones will actually change colour when exposed to prolonged sunlight.

How to choose a vintage cocktail ring

Sizeable, sparkly and attention-grabbing – what’s the most important feature to look for when choosing a cocktail ring? You must choose a ring that reflects your style. As Elizabeth Taylor said: ‘Jewellery has the power to be the one little thing that makes you feel unique.’ Vintage bling can certainly make you feel special. Wear one during the day if it makes you happy!

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