As everybody knows Barneys is a fashion mecca. The specialty store is filled with clothes, shoes, bags and jewelry from the greatest designers on the planet. All of it set in a cool atmosphere of chic. Sarah Jessica Parker spoke for many of us, when she told Vanity Fair years ago, “If you are a nice person and you work hard, you get to go shopping at Barneys. It’s the decadent reward.” What you may not know about Barneys is that among the gorgeous contemporary jewelry designers on display, you can find one of the best antique engagement ring selections anywhere.
Surprised? Me too. Well, I discovered it’s relatively new. Just over a year ago, jewelry expert Stephanie Windsor who curates the antique collection Stephanie Windsor Antiques for the Barneys flagship stores was asked to add engagement rings to the assortment. In order to learn about the buying experience and collection, Stephanie and one of her clients on the hunt for an engagement ring allowed me to sit in on the process (photographed above). I went back a second time to interview Stephanie about the antique engagement rings at Barneys. Following is an excerpt from our conversation.
First, I am so curious, how does someone who wants an antique engagement ring find your selection or begin the process of working with you at Barneys?
Well, honestly, most people just chance on to it and they are pretty excited. We have discovered that people who want an antique ring from Barneys have usually been to all the traditional sources. They are looking for something different. Really, it’s the same reason they are shopping at Barneys for anything.
All the sales associates in the fine jewelry department are very educated about the antique pieces I bring. They also know they can call on me for any extra information they might need or if a client wants to see more options. Since I live in Manhattan, I work directly with clients at the New York stores to find the right ring. We sit in the private VIP room located within the jewelry salon. People feel comfortable shopping here because it’s more of a familiar atmosphere than a traditional jewelry store.
All types of clients come in. The man who you sat down with had been to the jewelry department with his girlfriend when she fell in love with an antique sapphire ring. He came back to buy it as just a present for her and it had sold. During the process of looking for another ring, he realized he wanted to get an engagement ring. Nothing in the assortment on display was quite what he wanted. That’s when the sales associate called me in to start working with them.
All your rings are stunning, but the group you showed him really blew me away. I would love to review the aspects of the rings you explained during the get together. One uniting factor seems to be that all of your antique rings are made of platinum.
It’s true. Around the turn of the twentieth century, jewelers figured out how to work with the metal and they fully embraced it. Everything went platinum and it is easy to understand why. Platinum looks clean and crisp compared to the silver topped gold settings that existed in jewelry previously.
Plus, the strength of the metal allowed jewelers to make these fantastical creations. They did a lot of piercing or openwork on the designs that added dimension. There is also filigree that creates points of interest all over the metal. Hand engraving adds a lyrical element to the surface. Small diamonds often appear all over the platinum rings because the strength of the metal allows for that kind of detail.
Another amazing feature of platinum is that it does not patina much over time. Platinum does not blacken like silver or white gold for that matter. It ages beautifully. I believe the metal warms in hue, but the rings here that are almost 100 years old still look crisp.
Most of the rings in the collection are from around 1900 to the 1940s. There might be a gold element here or there but platinum was the absolute king of metals during this extended period that is the timeframe of the collection here.
Tell me about the diamonds in your antique rings. You were taking such care to review the 4Cs and everything a gem certificate means with your client.
The diamond shapes are usually Old Mine and Old European which are predecessors to the modern day round brilliant-cut diamond. I also have some Asscher cuts. What I prefer about the old shapes is they were cut by hand. There was no laser technology. This gives each stone some personality. There is an incredible chunkiness to the old diamond shapes. There is a warmth and depth to the stones. They are not the bright lights of the new stones and I prefer that.
In the twenties and thirties, they didn’t have the technology to go as deep in the diamond mines as they do today. A lot of the stones in rings from those periods are D colorless—the best—on down through the alphabet. I do talk to people about how a touch of the right color in a white diamond can add warmth to a stone. In other words, its not always about the perfection of the 4Cs in antique diamonds. It can also be the character found in a variety of diamond grades. It is a matter of taste.
Recently, I sold a K color VS1 that had so much personality to a man who was an art collector – super savvy and sophisticated. To him it was like acquiring a work of art. He looked at the diamond in the same way and saw its beauty and individuality.
Everyone looks at gems differently. I do have certificates from the best gem labs for all the diamonds that weigh 1-carat or more so people know exactly what they are getting. The only stones that may not have a certificate are the bezel-set diamonds. To remove diamonds from the mounting would damage the antique design. I have an independent gemologist give a best guess to review gems in those cases.
Another amazing part of your presentation to the client included loose gems and vintage mountings without center stones.
Buying an engagement ring is a very personal experience. You really get to know a client. He was very good at explaining his girlfriend’s style. Since antique rings are all one-of-a kind I do like to have back up options of unmounted rings and some beautiful old stones that could be set in them. I have an amazing jeweler that can mount the gems or if a client wants to build a ring from the ground up based on the antique elements we reviewed that is also an option.
What should people expect in terms of prices for the antique rings at Barneys?
I resource rings from all over the world to make sure that every piece comes with a full dossier from the gem certificates to the history to a competitive price for the market. There are rings in the collection for $4,000 on up to $90,000. The average is around $10,000.
There is a lot of talk nowadays about the popularity of alternative engagement rings, but everything you have described makes me feel antique rings are a wonderful alternative choice for a bride.
It’s true in so many ways. We live in a world that’s so disposable. Here you have something that’s so renewable. It is the green thing to do. You are acquiring something beautiful that has already been loved for almost 100-years.
For more information on engagement rings at Barneys call 212-826-8900 and ask for the fine jewelry department.