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Something Old

As you build your future, heirlooms can be a beautiful connection to the past—when handled right

By Darryl McGrath

When Prince William finally asked his eternally patient girlfriend Kate Middleton if she’d like to be Queen of England one day, it’s a fair bet that more people were looking at the engagement ring than the smiling faces of the happy couple.

That’s because the Titanic-sized sapphire on Middleton’s left hand had belonged to William’s mother—the late, ill-fated Princess Diana. The collective reaction of those old enough to remember Diana’s brief and tragic reign as Princess of Wales wasn’t difficult to guess: “Yikes.”

But William, who actually looks like he’s in love and who already appears to be far more astute at dealing with the public than the rest of his family, evidently realized what everyone was thinking. And he had a ready answer: The gift of Diana’s engagement ring was his way of making his mother part of what genuinely looked like a happy occasion. (And one quite unlike the engagement announcement of William’s parents, when a besotted 19-year-old Diana seemed unaware of the pained, awkward and unloving expression on her prince’s face.)

So if the wedding of the year is going to feature an heirloom ring, how do engaged couples whose nuptuals won’t be televised affairs of state navigate the sometimes tricky etiquette of jewelry and attire that belonged to someone else?

It’s common for a bride to field a few offers to wear someone else’s wedding gown—that of a friend, a sister or even her mother. It’s difficult to say no to someone who can’t wait to see how their gown looks on you, and the way you handle that request is important.

Two friends offered to lend me their wedding dresses. The first was a one-of-a-kind two-piece boutique dress that had looked stunning on my friend but looked awful on me—and I was relieved when my friend agreed with that assessment. The other dress had been worn by a friend whose marriage had ended in a bitter divorce. I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out why she thought I would want to wear a dress with such bad karma. Instead, I told her the gown would be far too formal for my garden wedding.

For you married ladies who know that a newly engaged friend or relative really does want to wear your wedding gown, make sure it’s in good condition before you seal the deal, even if you had it properly cleaned after you wore it. Synthetic fabrics can yellow in just a few years; stains that survived a dry cleaning may have darkened with time; and the larvae of clothing moths—common in upstate New York—will eat silk as well as wool. Check the dress before you hand it over to the future bride, even if it’s been stored in archival-quality acid-free packaging.

As for worn-before engagement rings: Guys—this part’s for you. There’s a right way and a wrong way to give a woman an engagement ring that used to belong to someone else. Be sure, first, that your bride-to-be wants an old ring, or at least an old stone. If she’s a minimalist and you surprise her with an ornate antique filigree setting, you’d better hope you went over the return policy with the jeweler. It’s safer to be certain: A coworker of mine whose fiancé surprised her with an antique diamond engagement ring had seen her admire it and knew she loved it. I have another friend who knew that her now-husband had been promised one of two central diamonds from a pair of earrings which had been in his family since before the Civil War. He had the stone set in a platinum band that he helped design.

Those are the right ways to offer an heirloom ring. The wrong way is to give a woman a family ring without getting it cleaned and having the setting and stone checked before you pop the question—an oversight that is at best ignorant and at worst sloppy and lazy. Incredibly, I know someone whose fiancé gave her an heirloom family engagement ring without doing any of these preliminaries, and it didn’t take her long to discover that the diamond was chipped and the setting needed repairs. (She should have paid more attention to those early indicators, but that’s another story.)

If you have no family heirloom to give, and you’re both OK with a ring whose story may forever be unknown, an estate ring from a reputable jeweler can be a unique choice. Jim Cook, owner of Romanation Jewelers in Troy, sells both contemporary and estate engagement rings, and says that even young couples often choose a vintage or antique ring. Older rings are more likely to have hand-cut diamonds in European styles that are rarely seen in today’s machine-cut stones, Cook says.

Diamond cutters of 50, 75 and 100 years ago worked more closely with the shape of the rough stone. The goal was to save as much of the original stone as possible, and not to obtain the incredible sparkle that modern diamonds offer, Cook says.

As for the often-unknown origins of an estate ring, Cook says that he doesn’t see too many couples express angst over how an antique or vintage ring ended up in a jewelry case. My own wedding ring, now about a century old, came from an estate jeweler and is set with a rose-cut diamond, a flat- bottomed cut not often seen today. I don’t know why someone sold it, but I like to think that its original owner would enjoy knowing it had a happy ending. And indeed, says Cook, the back story usually isn’t that exciting: The heirs sold grandma’s ring under amicable circumstances because they realized that it’s easier to divide money from the sale of jewelry than the jewelry itself.

“I always tell people that somebody had this stone 75 or 100 years,” says Cook. “You’re just carrying on the tradition.”

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