Jewelry Blog

Heirloom Engagement Ring Etiquette

Halo Engagement Ring

Without a doubt, an heirloom engagement ring has a lot of sentimental value. The ring is a constant reminder of a family history that’s filled with love, belonging, and commitment.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that many grooms choose an heirloom engagement ring to show they’re ready for “till death do us part”. However, sharing this piece of jewelry isn’t without its challenges. One of the main questions is how to ask the family for the ring and whether the bride-to-be is going to like it.

But there’s no reason to worry unduly. This article is here to answer all your questions regarding heirloom engagement ring etiquette.

What is an Heirloom Engagement Ring?

Crown Mounting Style Ring

An heirloom engagement ring is a ring that has adorned the finger of a fiancé’s mother, grandmother, or even aunt. What’s more, there are families who have a tradition of passing an engagement ring on to a future daughter-in-law.

Either way, the family stories attached to the ring give it a unique luster that might be hard to match with a brand-new ring. Truth be told, this is a highly romanticized definition if it does befit the occasion. But once you have your eyes set on an heirloom ring, there are a few things to consider.

First of all, there are different types of heirloom rings, some of which might not have the same charm or emotional significance. After all, you’re not the one who pays for the ring and it’s perceived value needs to outweigh any monetary considerations. It may come as a surprise, but this also applies to expensive heirloom rings.

Take Kate Middleton’s engagement ring for example. The mesmerizing 12-carat sapphire with a 14-diamond halo belonged to the sadly-departed Lady Diana. Unlike most royal engagement rings, this one isn’t bespoke. The thing that makes it priceless is the fact that it once belonged to such an iconic figure.

Different Types of Heirlooms

Heirloom Cushion Cut Diamond Engagement Ring

By now, it should be obvious that a captivating family story is key to the ring’s appeal. That said, it might not be quite the same if you get the ring from a living relative (e.g. your mother) or a distant cousin. Here’s a shortlist of the common options.

  • Living ancestor – most commonly the fiancé’s mother
  • After passing/estate – the ring belongs to you or your immediate family as part of an inheritance
  • Direct relative – most commonly the fiancé’s grandmother
  • Distant relative – the ring that belongs or belonged to your great aunt, cousin, etc.

Some would argue that you shouldn’t go for a ring that comes from a distant relative or an estate, but that’s not necessarily true. To reiterate, the important thing is the ring’s value within the family. This is largely determined by the personal histories of those who wore the ring before.

To put things into perspective, your great aunt might have brought her mother’s engagement ring to the U.S. when she fled France during WWII. The age, journey, and effort etch a permanent mark onto the ring that instills distinctive responsibility and pride.

Therefore, you should focus more on the ring’s provenance, rather than your connection to the previous owner.

Important Note

Sometimes there’s an heirloom ring in the future bride’s family that bears great emotional/family value. If your bride-to-be has her mind set on that ring, consider getting her a matching bracelet or necklace. This way, you honor her decision and still offer a lasting reminder of your love.

Is it Appropriate to Ask for an Heirloom?

Asking for Heirloom Ring

The heirloom ring etiquette is probably as long as the engagement ring history itself, but this doesn’t make your job any easier. To answer the question right off the bat – yes, it’s appropriate to ask for an heirloom. But how do you do it?

The best way is to approach the family directly, present your noble intentions and politely ask for the ring. Of course, this should be done face-to-face without beating around the bush and the talk needs to involve all immediate family members.

If you’re lucky, the family might offer to give you the ring, but you shouldn’t expect them to hand it over, point-blank. You need to think about why your heart is set on the ring and explain it to the family.

Chances are, you’ll get the green light but it’s only the first step. Once the family okays your decision, you should ask about their expectations. For example, if you’re allowed to reset the ring.

The Next Step

The moment the ring is in your hands, it should be cleaned, appraised, then insured. The jeweler’s job is to give the ring a thorough inspection and secure any loose stones. That out of the way, proceed to get the ring appraised and, if possible, obtain a gemologist’s certificate.

Tip: Check out this guide to get a better understanding of the insurance options.

How to Propose with an Heirloom Ring?

Romantic Proposal with Heirloom Ring

In all frankness, there’s no right or wrong way to propose with an heirloom ring. However, you need to make sure your significant other likes the ring and that it fits her. Since you probably don’t want to spoil the surprise, some detective work is required.

Grab one of the rings your loved one is wearing and check the ring’s size. Fortunately, there are a few tricks to measure the ring itself. Put it on one of your fingers and see where the ring fits. Alternatively, you can measure its circumference, or borrow the ring and compare it to the heirloom.

Determining the size is the easier part, but it can be tricky to figure out if your bride-to-be is going to like it or not. To avoid problems, you should take a look at the jewelry your future spouse wears and compare the styles. At this point in your relationship, you should also have a clear understanding if she’s into vintage jewelry or not.

When you have all the loose ends covered, think about how to incorporate the family stories with your proposal. But be careful, this is an emotional moment and your future bride shouldn’t be intimidated by the perceived responsibility that comes with the ring’s history.

Reasons That an Heirloom Ring May Not Be for Her

One of the main reasons an heirloom ring might not be the right fit is emotional detachment. Don’t forget, this ring may mean a world to you but if your future spouse can’t relate to it, you’re probably better off with a different choice.

The trick is to make your bride part of the family history and get her acquainted with the stories and/or the person who wore the ring previously. This varies from one relationship to another, but you should avoid presenting an heirloom ring just out of a blue.

As hinted, an heirloom ring may introduce unnecessary pressure to the proposal. Add the family history to the ring’s actual value and losing the piece suddenly becomes terrifying. Okay, this may be a bit of an exaggeration, but the future bride will surely feel obliged to like the ring.

What if She Doesn’t Like the Ring?

As heirloom rings are usually vintage, ladies who are more into modern style might not like it. On the other hand, this isn’t a pressing issue for some because a lot of meaning is attached to the ring. But then, the ill-fitting piece might burden your future bride so it’s best to be upfront with your decision.

Again, you’re supposed to figure out which way the wind blows without revealing your plan to pop the question. Try to bring up the topic in casual conversation to gauge her position. And it’s worth pointing out that your future wife has every right to want her own kind of ring.

A happy compromise would be to reset or alter the ring so it looks and feels unique, yet retains some of its heirloom properties. This, however, might be easier said than done. Therefore, it pays to consider all your options.

Are You Allowed to Fix/Alter an Heirloom Engagement Ring?

Fixing an heirloom ring is an absolute must; something you need to do before the ring is cleaned and appraised. You may want to have all the blemishes and patina removed and make sure all the stones are set in place. However, altering the ring is a completely different question.

This is something you need to be upfront with your family about, asking them if it would be okay to adapt the piece to the future bride’s preferences. In general, any alteration beyond the ring’s size needs to be discussed and confirmed when you initially ask the family for the piece.

In addition, you should know that the price of a major ring overhaul may exceed the price of a new ring. Plus, it’s best to discuss the changes with your future spouse. Albeit it’s not exactly romantic, you can propose with an heirloom ring, then have it personalized together with your future wife.

When all is said and done, it’s crucial to plan well in advance and try to find a balance with everybody’s wishes. Don’t forget to factor in your budget – if the alterations come close to the price of a new ring, it might be best to ditch the heirloom piece altogether.

Resetting the Center Stone of an Heirloom Engagement Ring

Resetting the center stone may completely change the appearance of the heirloom ring. This shouldn’t worry you because it doesn’t detract from the actual value of the ring and it’s likely to put a smile on your future wife’s face.

First, you need to find a good jeweler whose style you like. At this stage, there’s an option to use the stone in a completely new setting without actually recutting the stone itself. For example, a skilled jeweler should be able to fit a round stone into a square-shaped or hexagonal setting that won’t look odd.

The stone’s cut and color may also dictate the type of precious metal. If there are traces of yellow tint in the stone, metals such as platinum may make the stone look less appealing. Therefore, you might want to consider recycling the existing metal for a more uniform look.

This way you kill two birds with one stone. Melting and reusing the old metal preserves a lot of the sentimental value and the new ring will have a uniform aesthetic flow. Plus, it might be cheaper than using new material.

How to Buy an Heirloom Ring?

Estate Diamond Jewelry Showroom Appointment with Afshin

So far, the tips and tricks have been based on the premise that you have access to a family heirloom ring. But what if you don’t and your future wife is really into vintage jewelry? Of course, you always have the option to purchase a vintage ring, but how do you do it?

When it comes to choosing the size and style, the same tricks apply. To reiterate, you need to take a close look at the jewelry she’s already wearing to determine her taste and preferences. Then you need to find a reputable jeweler like Estate Diamond Jewelry and avoid auction houses and pawn shops.

It’s important because you want to make sure that the ring has been properly appraised and has a gemologist’s certification. For example, a lot of Estate Diamond Jewelry’s vintage rings come with a GIA certificate, which is the foremost authority on gemstone appraisal.

In addition, it’s easy to contact Estate Diamond Jewelry and request additional information or images of the ring. Plus, this jeweler offers different financing programs that may allow you to extend your budget to get the perfect piece.

Nevertheless, the best thing about Estate Diamond Jewelry is the number of options at your disposal. You get to choose rings from different eras and the shop’s intuitive filters allow you to quickly zero in on the price, cut, type of stone, and carat.

How to Care for Heirloom Engagement Ring

Engagement Ring next to Jewelry Cleaner

Like any other engagement ring, the heirloom one needs some TLC. For starters, your future spouse shouldn’t wear the ring while exercising, sleeping, or showering. Precious metals are malleable and might damage in the gym.

Body washes and other cleansers can accumulate in the tiny crevices and make the stone appear cloudy. The best way to keep the ring in good shape is to use mild soap and a soft-bristle brush to give it a good clean. You should always clean the ring in a bowl to avoid losing some of the gemstones.

If the ring features opals or pearls, you should clean it with a soft cloth. These gems might scratch, so it’s advisable to avoid brush and soap altogether. Also, you should get the piece professionally cleaned every six months or so, especially if your future spouse wears it every day. 

Pledge for the Next Generation

In the past decade, vintage jewelry has become increasingly popular; a trend that’s unlikely to wane. The reasons for this lie in heirloom ring provenance and timeless aesthetic appeal. More importantly, the stories that come with the ring may make it priceless in the eyes of the beholder.

Finally, when you decide on an heirloom piece, the key things to consider are your future wife’s preferences and if you’re allowed to tweak the ring or not. For that reason, go talk to your family before you pluck up the courage to pop the question.


About Afshin Shaddaie

Afshin moved to New York City in the 1980s, and a few years later, he began his career in the fine and rare jewelry scene. He teamed up with Michael Khordipour, and they've been curating vintage jewelry ever since. He also regularly contributes to Forbes, Rapaport, CNBC, The Knot, and Insider. Afshin constantly travels to international shows and private viewing events in the hope of finding rare vintage rings that will be important enough to make an impression. He is available for appointments at our New York showroom when he's not traveling. In 2019, Afshin authored his book called The Engagement Ring Guide for Men. He is considered one of the world's foremost authorities on vintage jewelry and antique diamonds. His favorite jewelry era is Art Nouveau, and he loves rare Italian jewelry from the 1950s - 1970s. The Natural Saltwater Pearl is his favorite precious jewel.