Breaking with Tradition in Bridal rings, a trend or the new norm?

Over the past five to ten years, whenever I write about engagement rings —I often refer to alternative as the new norm. And, these days we can almost take out the word new and just say that women desiring an engagement ring that breaks with traditional is the norm.

This, in no way means that these rings are conventional—they are still very much in keeping with the modern woman’s desire for customization, creativity, jewelry that bespeaks her life and personal style and that evokes the sentimentality or the meaning of what her marriage vows and relationship mean to her and her husband-to-be.

Cathy Waterman wide Lolve band

The idea of being part of the status quo is no longer appealing. The contemporary woman has learned that bigger is not always better; being different is much more satisfying. And this spills over to every part of the wedding ceremony and reception.

Megan Thorne’s rose cut sapphire with vintage inspired sapphire and diamond surround

Whether getting married in a Tuscan villa in vintage Venetian lace, or on a beach in a flowing lilac slip dress, more and more women are vowing to display their individuality, from the wedding destination to the flowers, dresses, jewelry and for our purposes, their engagement rings.

If we go way back into the history of jewelry and nuptials—we can find a diversity of styles that acted as everything from promise to betrothal to engagement and wedding bands. But if we do that –my obsession with rings and their symbolism might turn this from an article into the length of an entire book.

So let’s just say there are rings from antiquity that the modern bride might choose to get hitched in today as well as current inspirations based on the character of old mine and rose cuts and colored gemstones as well as some of the detailed styling such as chasing, engraving, piercing work and millegrain.

Just Jules emerald and diamond Art Deco inspired ring

It is also interesting to note that throughout the early to mid 20th century, style icons and Hollywood royalty alike chose rings that were not considered traditional engagement rings.

Although to be completely fair, some of those selected by the celebrities of Hollywood’s heyday were chosen before 1947 N.W. Ayer & Son copywriter Frances Gerety coined the phrase “A Diamond Is Forever” for DeBeers—a slogan that was burned into the collective conscious of brides-t0-be for many years to come.But back to the celebrities who opted for ‘alternative’ bridal rings:

Photo courtesy of The Smithsonian Natural History Museum.

In the 1930’s-40’s sapphires had become fashionable again. (They had not witnessed popularity since  the 17th through 19th centuries)  But back in style, these vivid blue gemstones were worn by some of Hollywood’s most glamorous leading ladies as engagement rings.  It was also during this period that Cabochon-cut and star sapphires surged as movie-goers admired the stone’s beauty on film, as worn by icons of the day. Some of the celebrities who owned sapphire engagement rings included Mary Pickford, known to audiences as “America’s Sweetheart” Her husband at the time, Douglas Fairbanks acquired the most exceptional of all star sapphires for her, The Star of Bombay, which the well-known jeweler of the time, Trabert & Hoeffer (which later became Trabert & Hoeffer-Mauboussin) had set into a platinum ring. The stone features a six-point star. The three crossed lines of the star sapphire represent faith, hope and destiny, sometimes associated with three angels who offer protection to those who wear the stone. Upon her death, Pickford bequeathed the Star of Bombay, which she had owned for almost 60 years, to the Smithsonian, where it resides today.

Joan Crawford wearing one of her mega watt sapphire rings. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Joan Crawford was renowned for her love of the gemstone—so much so that the press dubbed her suite of sapphires “Joan Blue.” After Crawford’s first marriage to Douglas Fairbanks Jr.—whose father had lavished Mary Pickford with some of the finest sapphires in the world—ended in divorce, she became engaged to actor and frequent co-star Franchot Tone. Her favorite jeweler, Raymond Yard created an engagement ring featuring a 70-carat star sapphire. She already owned a 72-carat emerald-cut sapphire ring, and would often wear them together..

William Powell’s bought his second wife, actress Carole Lombard, a star sapphire ring when they married in 1931. Though they stayed together for just twenty-six months, the pair remained friends and continued to star in movies together, including My Man Godfrey in 1936, in which Lombard wears the ring. Another avid collector of sapphires and an actress who knew her own mind was Jean Harlow. There was a story doing the rounds in Hollywood that when leading man William Powell first proposed to Jean Harlow in 1936, he offered her a beautiful, but traditional, diamond ring; Harlow accepted the proposal but refused the ring. The platinum-blonde bombshell supposedly felt a large star sapphire would better suit her personal style. Powell purchased a large sapphire. Newspapers and gossip columns talked about her showing it off on set of the comedy Libeled Lady, never taking it off, and speculated about whether she and Powell were really engaged. Harlow was still wearing the ring on the set of her final film, Saratoga in 1937, when she was taken seriously ill, and died with Powell at her side.

The Duchess of Cambridge wearing the sapphire engagement ring, originally worn by Princess Diana. Princess Diana wearing the sapphire and diamond ring and a close up of he ring

Fast-forward to 1981, Lady Diana Spencer was 19 years old when she became engaged to The Prince of Wales. Diana brought the fiery blue stone, set in an antique style with a halo of diamonds, back as the engagement ring to own, and continued to wear it even after her divorce from Prince Charles.In 1997. global designers set about creating similar rings for international brides-to-be of every income.   After Diana’s tragic death, her sons were allowed to select mementos from her jewelry collection. Twelve-year-old Harry picked out the sapphire ring, and William chose his mother’s yellow gold Cartier watch. When William announced his intention to wed Kate Middleton, the brothers swapped mementos. Asked in a television interview about his marriage proposal, William told the journalist that he had been carrying the ring around for weeks and “literally would not let it go.”

He continued,  It’s my mother’s engagement ring so I thought it was quite nice… she’s not going to be around to share in any of the fun and excitement of it all—this was my way of keeping her close to it all… it’s a sapphire with some diamonds…I am sure everyone recognizes it from previous times.” As Kate Middleton lifted her hand to show the ring to the cameras, a media blitz was created around the world; jewelry store phones began to ring off the hook and designers started creating the next wave of sapphire rings.

And speaking of rings and royalty, let’s talk about another famed gemstone. In England in 1922, when Princess Mary appeared in public wearing an emerald engagement ring, the price of emeralds soared—sealing the gem’s status as a favorite among the stylish in society, long before the term ‘alternative bridal rings’ was coined.


The Duchess of Windsor’s emerald and diamond Cartier engagemnt ring. Photo courtesy of ©Cartier

Over a decade later, her brother, Edward Prince of Wales abdicated his throne for Wallis Simpson and proposed to her with a Cartier designed emerald engagement ring, which she eventually updated to meet the changing times but kept the original shank with the sentimental inscription, “We Are Ours Now, 27.x36.”

The Duchess of Windsor wearing her Cartier emerald engagement ring. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Jackie Kennedy’s Van Cleef & Arpels’ emerald and diamond updated engagement ring. Photo courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels

Then in the 1950s, another style icon received an emerald engagement ring. Jacqueline Bouvier was proposed to by John F. Kennedy with a Van Cleef & Arpels 2.79-carat cut emerald mounted next to a 2.84-carat diamond, accented with tapered baguettes. In 1962, Jackie Kennedy had the ring reset with additional diamonds to reflect more modern times, just as The Duchess of Windsor did before her.



Jackie Kennedy on her wedding day. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Not all of Hollywood royalty received ‘rocks’—at least not the first time around. Two icons of the decade, Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe received engagement rings from their first husbands, that were eternity bands. Although she sang her heart out about diamonds, in real life Marilyn Monroe was more subtle than her character ‘Lorelei Lee’ in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes when she was with baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. Their wedding ceremony took place at City Hall in San Francisco with a handful of guests. Monroe wore a platinum baguette-cut diamond eternity band served as both engagement ring and wedding band.

Marilyn Monroe wearing her baguette cut diamond eternity band

Audrey Hepburn was in a relationship with actor and director Mel Ferrer when she won her well-deserved Oscar for Roman Holiday. While she wore lavish jewels in the film, in which she played a European princess, both Hepburn and Ferrer’s personal tastes were on the more classically refined side. While vacationing in Switzerland, Ferrer presented her with an engagement ring—an eternity band of baguette-cut diamonds from the House of Gübelin of Zurich. Hepburn received two wedding bands that she could wear with the diamond eternity band: they had a faceted texture, one was in white gold and the other in rose gold.

Erika Winter’s modern 18K gold eternity bands

In the mid-1950s, when Hollywood’s fairytale princess, Grace Kelly, found her prince, Rainier III, she became Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco. After meeting the prince, Kelly broke off her engagement to French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont. Rainier visited her at her home in Philadelphia that Christmas, and he was introduced to her entire family. Their engagement was announced a few days later. Prince Rainier originally proposed with a ruby and diamond eternity band—the colors of Monaco

Grace Kelly admiring her eternity band from Prince Rainier. Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

But when he noticed that the American tradition lent itself towards bigger, flashier rings, he took no time in upgrading and commissioned a Cartier 10.47-carat emerald-cut diamond. Kelly also wore the ring in the 1956 film High Society (the musical version of The Philadelphia Story) The ring turned out to be a perfect fit for the part of a newly engaged socialite and appears often in the film, on Kelly’a finger and alongside Crosby and co-stars Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holm. There were even a few lines written into the script about it. “That’s quite a rock Sam,” says ‘C. K. Dexter Haven’ (played by Bing Crosby), to his ex-wife and socialite ‘Tracy Samantha Lord’ (Grace Kelly) in the 1956 film High Society. He then turns to her fiancé, George Kittredge’ and asks: “Did you mine it yourself George?”

The Cartier diamond engagement ring Prince Rainier gave Grace Kelly. Photo courtesy of ©Cartier

While the rings of our readers might not have bit parts in film or display the carat weight of nobiiliity—they are designed to befit a variety of brides-to-be.

Here are some modern styles that we chose for their various aesthetics, quality and design sensibilities, and their use of new versions of old cut stones and vibrant colored gemstones.

Polly Wales multi-sapphire and gemstone shield ring in 18K gold