Engagement rings have shown betrothment at least since the early Romans. Roman men gave their future wife an iron ring to wear, signaling their commitment. It was worn on the fourth finger of the left hand because it was thought that a vein ran down that finger, directly to the heart. Somewhere around the 4th century, inscriptions inside the band became popular.
Traditionally, diamonds have been the gemstone of choice for engagement rings since the middle 1400s. The diamonds from that period had very primitive cutting, usually ending up without sparkle. Even higher quality diamonds with little to no inclusions looked lackluster. Diamonds were chosen because of their hardness (10 on Mohs’ scale), signifying a lifelong commitment to each other. To make up for the dull, mostly gray gemstones, goldsmithing took on beautiful, sometimes elaborate designs with royal fleur-de-lis and floral themes. By the 17th century, diamonds were discovered in Brazil, making them less rare and more affordable to people other than nobility.
By the time diamonds were discovered in Africa in the 18th century, lapidaries had started perfecting their faceting. The diamonds were still dull, and usually rose cut and worn as a halo around a center colored gemstone, or as a cluster of smaller diamonds bunched together. During the 19th century, lapidaries learned that light could bounce off facets within the gemstone and have a prism effect with sparkle (dispersion). Between the improvements in faceting, the rich deposits of newly discovered diamonds in Africa and the industrial revolution, more people could now afford to use diamonds as engagement rings. By the mid-18oos, the diamonds were cut so beautifully that they were now being used alone in engagement rings.
The diamond was the engagement ring of choice for many people until 1981, when Princess Diana chose a beautiful 12 carat oval blue sapphire, surrounded by 14 diamonds in 18K white gold. Diana had become a worldwide fashion leader, and the alternative engagement ring was born. People soon discovered that there were other colors of sapphire – yellows, greens, pinks, purples and reds (rubies) were now becoming fashionable, with red being the universal color of love. Movie stars and other celebrities started wearing colored gemstones, mined from all over the world. Elizabeth Taylor, known for her massive diamonds, was given a huge emerald for an engagement ring from Richard Burton. New deposits of garnets, tourmalines, aquamarines, emeralds, morganites, etc. became very popular gemstones.
It is important to note that colored gemstones vary in hardness, and some are not suitable for everyday wear. At California Girl Jewelry, we have over 34 different species of gemstones, with about a dozen that work well for alternative engagement rings. We offer diamond rings as well.
Here is a list of some popular gemstones, recommended and not recommended for everyday wear, especially if you are ‘hard’ on your jewelry:
Sapphire, ruby, tourmaline, spinel, garnet, aquamarine, Oregon sunstone, phenakite, danburite, alexandrite and chrysoberyl, natural zircon, color changing diaspore, emerald, kunzite, morganite, amethyst, citrine and topaz.
Not recommended (lower than 7.0 on Mohs’ scale of hardness):
Tanzanite, moonstone, opal, sphene, pearls, turquoise, coral, rhodochrosite, peridot.
We are seeing a lot of spinels, morganites, Oregon sunstones, tourmalines and garnets become engagement rings. Most of the colored gemstones above are much rarer than diamonds and come in a rainbow of colors. Garnets, tourmalines, and sapphires for example, each are naturally found in thousands of shades. The rarer the color, the pricier. The padparadscha sapphire is the rarest color of sapphire, and has become popular since Princess Eugenie, the granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II, received one for her spectacular engagement ring. ‘Padparadscha’ is the Sinhalese word meaning lotus blossom, as the color is a beautiful combination of pink and orange, in various peachy saturations.
The rarest of the durable gemstones are copper-bearing and color-changing. Spinels, alexandrites, sapphires, diaspores, tourmalines and garnets all have rare color change varieties that will change colors in candlelight and incandescent lighting. Oregon sunstones and tourmalines have varieties that are copper-bearing. These are rare, and the microscopic copper particles in the gemstones explode in sparkle when sunlight shines on them. The copper-bearing tourmaline is especially rare, also called a “Paraiba” tourmaline and is usually neon blue to green in color. The GIA calls the Paraiba tourmaline, "The most sought after gemstone in the world."
For people that adore opals, and want to wear them everyday, there is one variety that actually is strong and durable – the Mintabie opal from Australia.
If you’re looking for an everyday ring, it’s best to do your homework and talk to knowledgeable gemologists that specialize in colored gemstones. There are so many choices, it really depends on your favorite color. Newly discovered rare deposits of purple (Bishop’s) garnets, neon green garnets, ‘purple pearl’ amethysts, bright neon fire engine red (“Jedi”) spinels, lavender sapphires, platinum spinels, etc. are now popular with gemstone collectors, jewelry designers, and couples looking for something rare, beautiful and different.
Questions? Just ask us…