Modern Jewelers Bring New Twist to Bridal Designs of Old

New York Times, December 6, 2011

NEW YORK — Legend has it that Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy in 1477 with the world’s first diamond engagement ring. Nearly 500 years later, De Beers’ standard-bearing “A diamond is forever” campaign, conceived in 1947, turned the archduke’s romantic gesture into a cultural imperative. Ever since, the jewelry industry has made a killing from it.

The tradition of sealing a betrothal with a diamond ring reached its apogee in the past decade, with celebrities flaunting rocks the size of sugar cubes on their fingers. Despite the transience of some of those unions, the tradition persists — albeit with an undercurrent of 21st-century nonconformity.

Take Maureen Meyer, for example. Shortly after her 2009 nuptials, two things led the 32-year-old co-owner of Rosebrook Meyer, a wedding invitation business, to reconsider the traditional jewels she had worn on her wedding day: Her wedding band went missing and she became pregnant.

“That changed our perception of being newlyweds and opened us up to do whatever we wanted,” she said.

While shopping for a replacement band, Ms. Meyer came across a vintage 1930s emerald-cut tourmaline ring. Set in platinum, the dark green gemstone instantly seduced her.

“I thought briefly, is this too unusual?” Ms. Meyer recalled. “And then I thought, it doesn’t matter.”

Ms. Meyer now alternates between the tourmaline ring and the emerald-cut diamond ring her husband gave her when he proposed in 2008, pairing them with “a paper-thin gold band.” She is not the first woman to break with precedent in her choice of bridal jewelry, but her experience underscores a sea change in the industry.

Long the province of staid, conventional rings that have not changed much since 1886, when Tiffany & Co. introduced its iconic six-prong setting, bridal jewelry has benefited in recent years from an infusion of novelty introduced by refugees from the fashion side of the business, drawn to a recession-resistant niche.

At roughly $12 billion, bridal jewelry sales in the United States accounted for about 20 percent of the overall jewelry market in 2010, said Ken Gassman, president of the Jewelry Industry Research Institute.

“Not only is it a relatively recession-proof category, it’s ripe for jewelry designers,” Mr. Gassman said. “That single-stone solitaire that every mother in America had is not what today’s bride wants.”

Unless, maybe, the solitaire bears the unorthodox stamp of Anna Sheffield, a metalsmith in New York best known for her costume jewelry collection, Bing Bang. Ms. Sheffield started exploring fine jewelry in 2007, seeking inspiration in her grandmother’s heirloom ring. “I wanted to see how I could make it punk rock and crazy,” she said.

She reimagined the center stone as a faceted hunk of gold with a tiny diamond tucked inside the shank. The piece eventually spawned a bridal and commitment jewelry line, introduced in September, that is at once charming and impertinent: black diamonds, solitaires with inverted settings, and outré inscriptions.

Available at Liberty in London, Ms. Sheffield’s collection is one of seven lines that will be part of a new “alternative engagement ring bar” opening in March, said Kate Brindley, head of media relations for Liberty. Displaying cutting-edge work from the likes of Ruth Tomlinson, Jordan Askill and Moritz Glik, the showcases are reserved for fine jewelers who are “using traditional stones in a slightly more irreverent way,” Ms. Brindley said.

“I know engagement rings are supposed to be classic and traditional, but why can’t something left of center last forever?” Ms. Brindley asked.

Stephen Webster, the British designer, has answered that question with his first bridal collection, presented in October at a goth dinner party in London. The line features the thorn motifs and romantic-macabre inscriptions (“’Til death do us part”) that are his signature.

Even the iconoclastic Mr. Webster, however, understands that the primary purpose of bridal jewelry is to symbolize a loving, just and enduring commitment. He has conceded to that tradition by incorporating gold from Peru certified by Fairtrade and conflict-free diamonds from De Beers’s Forevermark brand into his settings.