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The alternative bride

Young people are eschewing conventional engagement looks and practices, spurring ring designers to think outside the box.

By Francesca Fearon


One positive outcome of the recent lockdowns is that it brought many cohabiting couples closer together, to the point that quite a few got engaged or decided to make a binding pledge to one another. Whether planning to have a wedding or simply committing without one, they wanted to express their love and promise with a ring.

A ring is an important and emotive purchase. Yet couples are increasingly liberated in their choices, which means the traditional bridal category is coming under scrutiny, and there are changes afoot.

For decades, the classic diamond solitaire or three-stone band has dominated the market, but during the past three or four years, designers have been thinking outside the box and getting more creative. It’s often bespoke commissions that encourage them to do so; as Los Angeles-based Katherine Kim of Katkim points out, the best part of designing bespoke is that “there are no rules with choosing an engagement ring. It’s all about creating that special piece that just feels right.”

Tomasz Donocik in London concurs. He has made bespoke engagement rings since founding his eponymous brand in 2009. “This is still an important part of my business, and I truly enjoy it, since you get to create someone else’s vision,” he says. “The journey is always extraordinary.”

Avant-garde attitudes
Customers’ progressive attitudes mean couples are moving away from the traditional engagement rings and wedding bands to combinations that feel more distinctive. In New York, Eva Zuckerman, founder of jeweler Eva Fehren, set about modernizing wedding bands and engagement rings in 2016, feeling it was the right time for a shake-up in the category.

“I saw my customers gravitating toward my stacking rings, such as the X Ring and Shorty, as nontraditional wedding bands and engagement rings, and it really inspired me to start thinking about the category in a different way,” she says. The scope of what people consider engagement jewelry has expanded, and it “has been really liberating for me as a designer. I hope I have helped push the category forward and have broadened people’s perspectives on what makes a ring an ‘engagement’ or ‘commitment’ ring.”

Katkim’s avant-garde aesthetic similarly appeals to progressive tastes, and Kim has noticed clients selecting more “unconventional” pieces. “They’ve become more open to wearing modern settings with nontraditional silhouettes,” she reports. Her Grande Crescendo Flare ring — a double wrap pavé diamond band featuring a between-the-finger diamond — illustrates that look, as do her Floating Diamond rings, which feature an open double band with pavé setting and a large off-set solitaire.

Dubai-based Gaelle Khouri has been particularly daring with her first wedding rings, the result of designing one for her own wedding during lockdown last year. The engagement rings are a bold play of geometry, with baguettes dancing around yellow-and white-diamond center stones, while the wedding bands are a mix of gem cuts on a zig-zag band that looks anything but conventional.

“So many people are getting engaged or married in nontraditional ways now. It only makes sense that engagement ring styles follow the same trend,” says New York designer Shahla Karimi, whose adventurous creations include slant bands with pear and lozenge-cut diamonds, double bands bridged by large gemstones, and metal-heavy open bands with two diamonds of differing cuts.

“It’s also exciting to see people’s individual styles come through more now that more unique rings are available.”

Karimi’s first official bridal collection was a collaboration with lab-grown diamond producer Diamond Foundry in 2018, featuring more out-of-the-box designs than were prevalent at the time, but she admits that even these were more traditional than what we’re seeing today. At the time, she trialed hexagon-shaped diamonds; now she has luckies (brilliant-cut elongated octagons), half-moons and lozenges in the collection. “It is obvious that conventional engagement rings are a thing of the past,” she declares.

Who’s proposing to whom
It’s not just the look of the ring that’s changing. New York designer Sophie Ratner, who specializes in lab-grown diamonds, believes “the classic ring and the traditional engagement process are outdated” — a stance that comes out loud and clear in her “Say Yes to: Doing Things on Our Own Damn Timeline” campaign slogan. In fact, she says, some clients got married during the pandemic and arrived afterward to choose the ring together. “I think that shows a shift in the customary steps of an engagement and even standard gender roles.”

Another influential factor is same-sex marriages. British jeweler Stephen Webster, who is taking bridal out of its safe space and giving it a twist with his new No Regrets Chapel collection, has often designed bespoke rings specifically for women and men to use in proposals to both guys and girls.

Unsurprisingly, he says, “these were not in any way classic four-claw settings, but something specific and personal to the couple as individuals, no matter their sexual orientation. As we continue to move toward accepting that people want more fluidity with their identities and partnerships, we will see what used to be labeled ‘alternative bridal’ — for anything that was not the four-claw setting — start to redefine the entire bridal category.”

Webster’s first bridal range of ready-to-wear and semi-bespoke designs taps into favorites from previous collections like Thorn, the Lady Stardust motif and the Magnipheasant Feather rings, but tweaks them to fit their new role and to make them wearable day to day. The charismatic designer decided to debut the collection by getting ordained in the non-sectarian Universal Church of Life. As a minister, he can perform wedding ceremonies in the US — but of course, one doesn’t have to be a bride to wear his eye-catching rings. In the modern world, No Regrets Chapel is for anyone wishing to express their love and commitment.

Choices with an impact
Sustainability is also a strong factor in young couples’ choices. In London, designer Annoushka Ducas has released her first bridal line, which contains 100% recycled 18-karat gold to make the jewelry as eco-friendly as possible.

The first piece of jewelry Ducas designed was her engagement ring 30 years ago. Last winter, while celebrating her anniversary in lockdown, she designed the Love & Commitment collection for her Annoushka brand. “New traditions [in the market] are being carved out, which made it seem pertinent to be completely non-prescriptive — you can wear them as engagement rings, or just a beautiful ring to symbolize a memory or milestone,” she says.

The collection consists of engagement rings in diamonds and symbolic colored gemstones, such as rubellite for luck and prosperity. They can be sandwiched with polished and hammered wedding and eternity bands, or even Annoushka’s Crown and Marguerite rings, to look like one strikingly large ring framing the center stone. The idea is for the wearer to be creative and playful — “something I also want to inspire in my designs,” she says.

Playing with cut and color
Engagement rings are the bread and butter of major brands like Tiffany & Co. and De Beers, which feature the classic solitaires and three-stone styles in their collections but are still getting a nudge from emerging trends. De Beers has become more elaborate and experimental with its high-jewelry diamond rings, which more clients are choosing for engagement, while its Home of Love bridal line features marquise-cut and heart-shaped diamonds in platinum. Harry Winston, too, has released a new range of rings: Its Bridal Couture capsule collection draws on the artistry of a wedding gown. And Tiffany’s elegant Victoria line introduces additional color, with morganite, tanzanite and aquamarine half-framed in a wreath of diamond vines. Ducas has chosen some of these colors for her collection as well, and Webster uses grey spinels and black diamonds. But diamonds remain the focus for many designers. Zuckerman has always featured rare diamond cuts in her Eva Fehren pieces, and says she has “definitely seen a surge of interest in less-common diamond cuts such as portrait cuts, hexagons and ovals.” Donocik highlights other cuts, including Asscher and his signature baguettes, for his deconstructed Art Deco and New York-inspired Moderne Bridal debut, which he designed during lockdown last year. The geometric cuts are perfectly suited to the zig-zag shape of the Chrysler building in his Grand Tiara ring, as well as his own refined graphic aesthetic. His goal is a collection that is “bold, free of traditional boundaries, and accessible to everyone in terms of price, comfort and style.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - October 2021. To subscribe click here.

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