Rings often come to us as inheritance or as gifts, sometimes without any indication of their value. In January 2019, a discovered Nathaniel Marchant cameo ring which went under the hammer in North Yorkshire for £39,000 having been thought to be worth only £150-200.
Of course, thousands of rings are sold every day across the world and only a small minority turn out to be ‘sleepers’ (as they’re known). Nevertheless, as items often appreciated by their owners more for their sentimental value than as an asset, expensive rings often go unvalued and un-appraised.
Real Diamonds? Ring Materials and the Market
In recent decades the jewellery market has been one of the most reliable, partly thanks to the inherent value of its materials. The finest jewels are dug up at a steady rate these days, and few new mines are opened, producing a steady but limited supply of gems for rings – this keeps prices high. The stable value of gemstones has led to a buoyant market for jewellery – particularly for rings, where a stone is often the main feature. In fact, at the top of the market, jewellery sales often feature unset gems by themselves, sold with the intention of being set in a ring or other jewellery.
There is no universal scale of grading for gemstones, and different attributes are valued for different stones. For example, for an emerald to be an emerald it must have a darker tone (otherwise it is known as green beryl) while white diamonds are graded on a colour scale from D to Z.
Translucent stones are generally judged on carat weight, colour, brilliance and cut. The importance of cut is generally a question of taste, but the cut will also affect the brilliance, as will ‘inclusions’. To the untrained eye, gems are difficult to judge and can be distorted by the mounting of the gem and its condition. Sometimes it can even be difficult to separate costume jewellery from the real stuff!
Telling for sure the metal a ring is made from is usually easier for the untrained eye than the stone. The vast majority of western jewellery is made from gold, silver, or platinum. You’ll probably know that gold comes in different standards (usually 9 carat, 14 carat or 18 carat) depending on how much alloy it contains; telling how pure gold is without markings is difficult without a trained eye, however. Silver tarnishes over time and is much less resistant to scratching than platinum, so those are often discernible too for all but the best condition silver rings.
Ring Designs & Marks
When it comes to prices, stones tend to set the bar, but there are trends to consider too. Rings featuring large diamonds, rubies, emeralds or sapphires will of course always carry a value – but fashion for coloured precious stones as well as a number of semi-precious stones like tourmalines, lapis, amethysts can raise the value of other examples too.
Where multiple different types of stone are used, design often becomes a major factor, making the difference between a colourful ring and a great one. Names are key here; rings are made with marks that can be used to establish the date it was made and often also the maker. The only issue is that these are often rubbed off through use or removed as part of adjustment-work. If marks on your ring are fading, be sure to get a valuation and take a photo!
It will come as no surprise that household names like Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels often fetch the highest prices in the saleroom. Big-name 20th century designers tend to have fairly obvious marks. There are many marks you might not recognise, however, on less conventional or older jewellery so be sure to check them out.
Some particularly stylistic rings may attract interest from a particular type of collector by virtue of their design – it is notable that antique mourning jewellery in general is not very wearable (and therefore not valuable), but the most macabre examples can appeal to their own collecting niche and so command higher prices.
Condition and Provenance
When it comes to rings, especially those which might be more valuable, condition is an important consideration. By their nature, rings are often adjusted, resized and reworked, but pieces that have lost their marks or original components (especially the stones) are going to sacrifice some value as a result. Just how much of a difference alteration make will depend on how well it is done.
On older pieces the survival of any intricate carving or delicate work can be important but can also reflect the age of a piece. Indeed, if a ring purports to date to the 18th century you’d expect it to carry some wear and tear, especially if made of silver or softer gold. This is where provenance can come into play.
For newer pieces, original jewellery boxes, receipts or any other paperwork can reduce the doubt of unmarked examples. Reproductions of famous 20th century designs are not uncommon, so making sure your ring is genuine would be important to its valuation. On older pieces, a history which can verify that it is indeed as old as expected would add to buyers’ confidence – an expert valuation and appraisal is of course also essential!