Your wedding day is one of the most monumental occasions of your life. It's a time when family means everything as you cherish traditions and heirlooms passed down through generations. When it comes to the proposal, there's nothing quite as special as an heirloom engagement ring. But with such a sentimental piece, you have to be delicate about its use. So, what are the rules for accepting, wearing, or even altering a family piece? Beyond expressing gratitude to the giver, Liz Bryant, president and founder of Liz Bryant Business Etiquette in Richmond, Virginia, offers sage advice on the etiquette behind using a sentimental ring.
Factor in Your Motivation Behind Using an Heirloom Ring
Each family is unique, and traditions pass down to future generations in various ways. Honoring the things that make your family special is essential, and that fact can bear weight. Bryant encourages couples to think about their motivation for wanting an heirloom in the first place. "Is it because you have fond memories of time spent with your great aunt, or is it because her diamond was a flawless three-carat oval?" she queries. Of course, either answer is valid, even if the reason is simply to save money by not purchasing a ring. "You are carrying on a family tradition, but think about the possible emotional costs that could be associated with the estate piece," advises Bryant.
Consider the Emotions of Other Family Members
Your engagement is a happy time of life, and nothing should overshadow that—especially the feelings of other family members. It's possible that your grandmother is thrilled to give you her heirloom diamond ring, but you may have cousins or other relatives that feel left out. In the case that a family engagement ring could cause distress, Bryant says to take the feelings of others into account. "It may be best for the sake of family harmony to not use the ring as your engagement ring," says Bryant. "You can still wear it and enjoy it, but it won't be a constant point of sibling contention."
Ask Permission Before Altering an Heirloom Engagement Ring
Passing down an article of jewelry is a gracious act, but there may be a few things you'd change about the piece. Possibly you like the stone but not the setting, or you want to change from white gold to yellow. The best thing to do is be upfront and have an honest talk with the giver. "An open conversation is your best bet," advises Bryant.
The person offering the heirloom can always say no, and if you have your heart set on a different piece, you can always decline. "Again, a delicate approach is best," says Bryant. She suggests letting them know that you appreciate the offer and the sentiment behind the gift, but you and your partner would like to start your own traditions—with a new ring.
Often repurposed rings simply need to be resized and the prongs checked to ensure that the diamond is secure, which is regular maintenance and shouldn't require permission. "All you might need is a resize and a tune-up of the existing ring, especially if the original ring and setting are just too unique to alter," says Brooke Worthington, the owner and designer at Brooke Worthington Jewelry in Nashville, Tennessee.
Ensure Your Partner Wants the Ring if You're Proposing
If you have a family ring that you plan on giving your partner, make sure that they actually want to wear it. "You may love your grandmother's ring, and she may be delighted for you to have it, but your soon-to-be wife is the one who will be wearing it for the rest of her life," states Bryant, who also suggests that you should approach the conversation carefully. Ask your significant other how they feel about wearing the specific engagement ring you intend on giving.
"She may love the ring and be delighted, but what if she has her heart set on starting her own tradition?" asks Bryant. "Approach the conversation openly and allow the bride to take the lead on the decision." Let your partner express their honest feelings while kindly declining the ring if necessary. Be prepared for a candid answer and accept the outcome, positive or negative.
Put Emotion Aside if You're the One Offering a Family Ring
If you are the one offering a treasured piece, you probably aren't taking the decision lightly. However, be prepared to take hold of your thoughts and feelings. "There can be a lot of emotion attached to family heirlooms, and it will serve you well to at least attempt to put the bulk of this emotion aside," advises Bryant. For example, you may want your eldest granddaughter to have a sentimental piece, but you should try to offer it without expectations.
"It must be a free and clear gift with no strings attached," says Bryant. "Otherwise, you can—without intent—create an uncomfortable situation." Sometimes the best gifts are given selflessly because you want the recipient to enjoy the heirloom.
Get an Appraisal if You Do Use an Heirloom Ring
Whether you decide to keep a ring as is or alter it, be sure you have a professional jeweler give an up-to-date appraisal. "An updated appraisal from a reputable gemologist or fine jewelry store is a crucial step when repurposing heirloom jewelry," says Worthington.
She also notes that appraisals typically cost under $200 and establish a replacement cost and record the condition of the piece and the quality of the existing gemstones. Also, insure your vintage engagement ring so that a jeweler can use the appraisal to recreate or replace the ring if it gets lost or stolen. An estimate coupled with insurance and regular maintenance is an excellent way to pay homage to your family and keep your heirloom safe.