The Golden Age Of Jewelry: All The Small Things

By Diane White McNaughton

Truth: all that glitters is not gold. That luminous sparkle and shimmer could be a perfect-cut diamond, pure sterling silver, or a color-soaked gemstone.

And there’s no time like Valentine’s Day to bring home some bling for your boo.

Fine jewelry and Valentine’s Day go together like a lonely Lacy Chabert character and the wholesome Ken-doll leads of the Hallmark Channel. 

For centuries, diamonds have spoken the language of love. That dialect can take the form of a marquise, circle, pear, oval, or emerald-cut.  Like jewel-encrusted crowns, gold chalices, the Hope Diamond and Cleopatra’s amulets, all things bejeweled have also spoken of power, tradition, faith, and culture.

A major jewelry theft in November, 2019, in Dresden, Germany, where the diabolical heist masterminds managed to haul off an estimated $1 billion in royal jewels, was lamented not only for the loss of irreplaceable heirlooms, but of that nation’s innate culture.

Although many Americans assume engagement rings became a “thing” thanks to a shrewd advertiser targeting love-struck women and men eager to please them, the first well-documented use of a diamond ring to signal an engagement took root more than 500 years ago, by the Archduke Maximilian of Austria in the imperial court of Vienna. 

In 1477, he sent the love of his life, Mary of Burgundy, a diamond ring, as a symbol of lifelong fidelity, inspiring many men of a higher social class and wealth in the Middle Ages and beyond to give diamond rings to their intended when they popped the question.

The ring was a natural choice, with its circle having no beginning or end, signifying the endless love of a perfect pairing.  Plus, we all know “diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”

According to Tonia Ulsh, co-owner of family-owned Mountz Jewelers, Valentine’s Day is probably the second most popular day to get engaged — second to basically the entire month of December.  At the holidays, family and friends are together, generosity is in the pine-scented air, and “Will you marry me?” and “Yes!” are the greatest gifts two people in love can give each other. 

“Valentine’s Day is more a blip than a Bell curve, (compared to December’s popularity),” says Ulsh, who operates jewelry treasure troves in Harrisburg, Camp Hill, and Carlisle with her brother.  “But it is the holiday of love so it still ranks right up there,” as a red-letter day for engagements. She also says New Year’s Eve is also a fashionable time to get engaged.

Indeed, a diamond signifies not just a promise to lifelong love and marriage.  Diamonds and other gems are clothing, art, emotion, power, a promise.

Consider J-Lo’s engagement ring from Ben Affleck—a 6.1 carat pink diamond designed by Harry Winston in 2002.

And proving that diamonds may be forever but the relationship—not so much—, J-Lo’s later engagement Instagram caused us all to do a collective “Wow.” Alex Rodriguez announced his engagement to Lopez with a picture of an eye-popping emerald-cut diamond, estimated to be between 10 and 15 carats and worth between $1 million and $5 million. The caption: “She said yes.”

According to the current national average cost of an engagement ring is $6,351 for a 1.2 carat center stone diamond ring with a total ring carat count of 1.8.  In 2011, the average spent was closer to $5,095, reflecting a 25 percent increase in cost in less than a decade. 

Other figures reflect more modest proposals. The DeBeers group lists U.S. engagement ring expenditures averaging $3,400 in its latest Diamond Insight Report from 2019. 

From gaudy engagement rings to classic must-haves and the latest trends, jewelry always tells a story, brilliantly. 

Like hemlines and hairstyles, jewelry fads change like the seasons.  Mercifully, the temperamental mood rings, preppy pearl chokers and Puka shell necklaces of the 80s have yielded to chocolate diamonds, family trees necklaces, high-tech jewelry, and the eternity charms of today. 

Bangles and beads can transform a bland outfit or “class-up” a working-class life. Think Julia Roberts’ sapphire and diamond stunner choker from Richard Gere in the “Pretty Woman” Cinderella story.

From Princess Diana’s 12-carat sapphire blue ring surrounded by 14 solitaire diamonds, to a signature costume brooch, you can tell a lot about a person by their jewelry. And jewelry is not just for women.  Men often don dog tag necklaces, heavy chain bracelets, thick cross necklaces, stud and hoop earrings, and of course, simple silver and gold wedding rings.

Skiing sensation Lindsay Vonn caused quite an avalanche of interest when she bestowed upon her fiance a male engagement ring. Even FROZEN necklaces and Minnie Mouse earrings are available for the Paw Patrol set. 

Pantone’s color of the year for 2020 is classic blue, inspiring many Dynasty-style sapphires. Ulsh notes that this new year marks the 20th anniversary of the Levian chocolate diamond, which is particularly apropos in the region hugging the sweetest place on earth.

But traditional has always been trendy.

“I always tell people to hang on to their vintage pieces because what’s old is always new again,”  said Marlyn Schiff, a jewelry store owner in Haverford featured in the December 11, 2019 Philadelphia Inquirer.

Schiff said hoop earrings have endured through the years, and the yellow-gold trend transitioned to white gold and then to rose gold.  Sterling silver never faded away. Jewelry pieces we can personalize with charms or that bear a name were in style, then not, and now are the height of jewelry fashion again, Schiff added.

For engagement rings, whether it’s silver or gold, in a rich black velvet box or a trademark Tiffany blue, the ring tells a story, Mountz’s Ulsh says. How the buyer chooses that ring of a lifetime is what makes it special.

Her jewelers are dedicated to building a connection with the prospective buyer to help them “buy something that has meaning for the recipient.”

“This is why our slogan is ‘Trust your special moments to Mountz.’ We help you create a moment that will be in your mind forever.”

“A good piece of jewelry will take you back, like a song you heard,” Ulsh says.  “It takes you back to the time when you received it.”

“It’s fun for us to come up with ideas for people.  We love to match the proposal to the relationship.”  They have been playing jewelry matchmaker for generations.

Because their Carlisle store is based in a military town, and Fort Indiantown Gap is also close, they have frequently played a vital role  in many tear-inducing soldier engagements. They have contributed to many long-anticipated military reunions at airports, and tearful, on-the-tarmac engagements. “It’s so heartwarming to be a part of major events,” she says.

Ulsh points to several fashionable trends shining now, such as the perfectly-cut, octahedral Hearts on Fire diamond.  Less than one percent of the 1.5 million diamond cutters in the world are qualified to cut Hearts on Fire diamonds. It takes four times longer to cut this type of diamond than a traditional one. The Trinity band also signifies eternal love, and is considered to be among the best of the best.

Ulsh says she and her sales staff have been a cherished part of engagements, then remained in the unfolding life picture, for the wedding ring and the kids.

Whether a couple wants a stadium proposal on the Jumbotron or a very private moment, “everyone has a different dream for how that day will come,” Ulsh adds.

“Our goal is to make it as special as possible.”

Ulsh says yellow gold is making a comeback in engagement rings. Other style trends include the layering of necklaces –not merely longer ones, but shorter ones.  A stylish woman may layer a 15-inch with a 16-inch necklace, or a 30-inch necklace with a 36-inch one.  Adjustable necklaces are popular as well, and can be doubled and tripled up.

According to Ulsh, the stacking of bands is very popular, too, as are custom designs.

The round diamond is still the most popular shape, but bands are becoming more unique, she notes.

Ulsh is seeing many wedding bands that are V-shaped, with the engagement band not perfectly “fitting” directly into the wedding band.  Ring wearers can sport rings on the upper part of their finger or stack them in shapes. 

Hayley Paige, from TV’s “Say Yes to the Dress” fame, has also designed for the “Hearts on Fire” line, which is “very unique and trendy.”

Custom design in their choice of engagement rings is also appealing to young couples.  Ulsh says Mountz has computer-customized (CAD) design, enabling sales representatives to show you on a computer screen what your “ring” vision will look like.

But is it really about the price tag? Can’t we signify our love with a bubble-gum-machine ring?  

“Costume jewelry is practical and fun, but when you want something to last for generations or to signify a special time in life or a memory you want to create, you want something more generational,” Ulsh says. “Fine jewelry will last a lifetime and can be passed through the generations.”