How to buy an engagement ring at auction

Buying an engagement ring at auction sounds like a daunting prospect, but Hetty Lintell urges you to dip your toe in the water — you’ll be surprised at the gems you can find.

When searching for the perfect sparkler to charm its wearer for a lifetime and beyond, one can feel hugely overwhelmed by the waterfall of options. Buying from a big named brand has its pluses, but often you can be paying more for the name than the ring itself.

Smaller retailers and boutiques are a good option, try Hancocks on Burlington Arcade, SW1, Pragnell in Stratford-on-Avon or G Collins & Sons in Tunbridge Wells, where you’ll receive impeccably personal service, and you’ll know you are in safe hands. Then there is having something made bespoke, a wonderful idea, but perhaps best done if you know a very specific wish, or with your partner alongside.

So how about buying at auction? It turns out it can be a very sensible option, and certainly more budget friendly. You could come away with a piece of history, sure to bewitch its owner and become an heirloom for generations.

We spoke to Carole Gordon, Head of Jewellery at Bonhams Knightsbridge and an expert in her field. Here are her tips for how to go about it.

What makes an antique ring so special?

Antique rings are beautiful, made individually by jewellers, with an attention to detail seldom found in modern jewellery. There is something special, and a bit magical, about owning a piece of jewellery with a past. Each piece is a unique work, with its own character, and by acquiring it, the buyer is becoming part of the ring’s history.

This Art Deco diamond ring sold for £4,495 at Bonhams.

Budget-wise, can you get more for your money?

Yes, the retail markup for jewellery is considerable. Buying your ring in an auction is often more affordable, depending, of course, on what you are looking for. Bonhams jewellery sales offer pieces at different price points to suit a variety of budgets.

How to know how much higher than the guide price to go?

We recommend that you decide in advance how much you wish to spend. There are always specialists on hand to give advice and to assist buyers with making their decisions.

A spinel and diamond Ring, circa 1880-1900. Estimate £10,000 – 15,000. Part of the Bonhams London Jewels sale on 28th April 2021.

Can potential buyers see a ring in person first?

Yes. The option to view in person will again be available once the restrictions are lifted in April. After that, pre-sale exhibitions will re-commence. Public viewings typically take place for three days prior to sale day. Details for viewing arrangements and preview dates are published on bonhams.com

Do people search for special stones in rings to have them reworked?

Yes — don’t ignore an unattractive mount — it may be hiding a hidden gem that can be turned into something fabulous. Some people prefer to have their diamond or coloured gem reset in a ring of their own design to give it a personal touch.

What are the current antique trends and what is next?

Art Deco jewels remain sought after as they are timeless, elegant and sophisticated. Buyers are also drawn to the light, delicate designs of the Edwardian era. Beautiful, 19th century cushion-shaped diamond rings are popular, as are Georgian diamond cluster rings. These are often converted from dress ornaments which makes them easy-to wear.

Diamond rings, of course, remain popular. Diamond is the hardest of gemstones and the perfect choice for everyday wear. In recent years, people are less constrained by tradition and are more likely to buy something that they feel reflects their individuality. This may be a beautiful diamond ring, but it could also be a 17th century posy ring, or an antique acrostic ring where the first letter of each gemstone spells out REGARD or DEAREST. Buyers are increasingly embracing coloured stones for an engagement ring — a trend that in my opinion will continue.

This diamond plaque ring, circa 1890, sold for £3,192 at auction.

If you want to sell a ring, what is the first step?

A specialist will value your jewellery and discuss the auction process with you so that you can make the best decision. The first step is to send us images of the ring — JPGs are fine – or if it is easier, a short video from your smartphone. It also helps to have other supporting information such as receipts, if you have them, or provenance if it has been in your family for some time.

We will then get in touch with our recommendations. Bonhams has been the leading auction house for jewellery in the UK for more than a decade, which is a testament to the expertise of the department and the quality of pieces that come through our sales. Buying or selling jewellery is always more than a transaction for us. We want to see the right pieces going to the right home.