These 7 Nontraditional Engagement Rings Have The Sweetest Backstories

Beyond the standard solitaire.

Originally Published: 
courtesy of Allison Haywood
Allison Haywood engagement ring

Now more than ever, couples are looking for unique nontraditional engagement rings to make a statement of love and commitment to each other, rather than going with more expected styles. And while searching for the perfect band of your or your partner's dreams can seem somewhat daunting — it is, after all, a piece of jewelry meant to be worn everyday, with everything — it’s also thrilling to find something completely distinct in the sea of simple solitaire and halo diamond bands. To that end, TZR has tapped a few stylish couples to share their personal experience searching for and finding an out-of-the-box option.

In speaking with the couples, everyone had their own reasons for wanting a less traditional ring. “I really encourage everyone to consider unconventional engagement rings,” Jamie Holloway, Head of Brand Communications at Everlane, tells TZR. “It feels so special and unique, and I can't tell you how many compliments I've had!”

One way to ensure your engagement ring stands out? Go for an antique design. If you are lucky enough to have an heirloom piece within either side of the family, this is perhaps the easiest way to find a ring that no one else has. This longstanding tradition keeps familial artifacts in, well, the family — and the stories behind them alive through multiple generations. To that effect, vintage resale is also a fantastic way to imbue your band with meaning, even if you don’t know anything about its previous owner. This route was popular with some of the couples TZR spoke with, as the feeling of nostalgia and history that comes with a pre-loved piece offers meaning and value.

Then, of course, there’s always a custom design route. “I wasn't involved at all [in the design process of my ring], and I love everything about that,” longtime New York-based editor and current Metaverse Fashion Merchandiser at Meta, Erin Cunningham, says. “In my opinion, if you're making a commitment — both emotionally and financially — like getting engaged, your partner should know you and your style well enough to pick something out.” Surprisingly, many partners took the wheels in creating the jewelry piece for their betrothed, completely surprising them, making for some of the incredible anecdotes ahead.

Erin Cunningham & Harry Mather

courtesy of Erin Cunningham

How did you two meet?

EC: We met in 2009 in sophomore year of college at George Washington University. In November 2012, at a birthday party in a sketchy basement bar on Avenue B, we became a little more 'friendly.' We don't really have an anniversary since everything kind of just happened, but we've been together for almost 10 years now.

Did you know what type of ring you wanted?

EC: I knew that I didn't want a diamond; I tend to prefer things less conventional, especially when it comes to fashion. An interest in an aquamarine came from two places: 1. Harry's mom has one that I've always loved, and 2. I'm obsessed with Princess Diana, and she had a similar ring that Meghan Markle wore to her own wedding reception.

Describe your search process for the ring.

EC: Harry handled it on his own. He worked with Lauren B in the Diamond District on a custom design that includes an emerald-cut aquamarine, platinum band with micropave diamonds, and a step-cut trapezoid diamond on each side.

How did you settle on the right one?

HM: I described my vision to Lauren B and shared references, like videos and pictures of my mother's engagement ring, which was the inspiration. From there, Lauren set about finding emerald cut aquamarine stones in the carat and dimension requirements that I sent her. I was in D.C. so my parents actually visited Lauren in-person initially to see the stones in person! Once I made my selection, Lauren was able to share several CAD images so I could see the rendering of the ring and share my alterations.

courtesy of Erin Cunningham and Harry Mather

How did the proposal happen?

EC: We got engaged at the end of May In London; Harry was born and raised there and it's become one of our special places. As someone who plans everything, I am very hard to surprise — but I actually didn't suspect anything the night he proposed. We already had dinner booked at our go-to old-school spot, The Ivy on West Street and planned to walk to the restaurant from The Mayfair Townhouse, where we were staying. En route, I kept calling out that we were going in the wrong direction, but he insisted that he wanted to just walk along a quieter street. Finally, we got to Mount Street Gardens, he started reminiscing on our relationship, and I burst into tears. Later, we met his parents, who also were in town, for drinks at Claridge's, one of our favorite places in the entire world. To cap off the celebrations, we enjoyed a weekend away at Beaverbrook Estate, probably the most idyllic place I've ever been.

Azibo & Amberly Dixon

courtesy of Amberly Dixon

How did you two meet?

Amberly D: We first met when we were 19 and working at an ice cream shop in Atlanta. We became friends but lost contact after summer ended and I went back to school. We reconnected some years later, when I saw his name on Facebook on a mutual friend’s page. I sent him a message and from there he asked me out on our first date.

Describe your hunt for the right ring.

Amberly D: I knew I wanted something non-traditional mainly because my birthstone is a diamond, so I am probably one of the few women who is unimpressed by diamonds. I think there are so many other beautiful gemstones to choose from. My favorite color is green so initially, I wanted an emerald as my center stone set in yellow gold.

courtesy of Amberly and Azibo Dixon

What was the search process like?

Azibo D: I knew that my wife wanted a nontraditional stone and her preference was an emerald stone on yellow gold. Talk about fighting against societal norms! This process was more challenging than the purchase of our first home. From in-person to online I viewed close to one hundred rings. I had no luck finding her preference in a ring that I liked. It was by chance that I came across a ring that looked like her in jewelry form: a morganite center stone with a diamond halo on a rose gold band. Just like her I knew it was the one... I just had to convince her to change her mind about the kind of ring she wanted. I was pretty confident she would like this alternative, though, because it still checked the boxes of being unique. We visited a couple of stores so she could get an idea of her options and when I saw a version of the ring I liked I asked her to try it. I could tell that she really loved it and the fact that I had chosen that stone and metal on my own.

How did the proposal happen?

Azibo D: No one warns you about the anxiety of asking someone to spend the rest of their life with you. Although Amberly was my lover and best friend, I had a healthy amount of imagining: “What if she says no?” I know she doesn’t particularly care for public displays of affection, so I wanted to find a romantic setting that would be memorable. During August of 2020, we planned a quick beach getaway with a couple of friends and I thought that would be the perfect time to propose. I played out that night on the beach a million times in my head hoping to get it right, praying that she would swoon and say yes… It was beautiful! We enjoyed an intimate proposal with only God and the moon as witnesses.

Sumer Sabooh & Yang-Yi Goh

courtesy of Sumer Sabooh

How did you two meet?

SS: We met on Bumble, and had an amazing first date of drinks and dinner. And then…our schedules got in the way, and we fell out of touch for about a month. By the time we reconnected, neither of us was in a place to date, but we had enjoyed each other’s company so much that first date that we decided to be friends. For the next month, we hung out constantly. Everyone around us was confused, because we were spending so much time together but kept insisting we were just friends. Secretly, though, we were both catching feelings, but did not want to lose our newfound friendship. Finally, one fateful night, after hours of laughter and conversation, Yang finally professed his feelings in the most rom-com-y way possible (we’re keeping that story for a screenplay someday) and we’ve been madly in love ever since.

Did you have any idea of what type of ring you wanted?

SS: I didn’t have a clear idea, but I’ve never been that drawn to classic engagement rings. I knew I didn’t want a traditional white diamond, but as a Persian woman, I definitely wanted a yellow gold band. What was most important to me was that my ring reflect my style and values, which tend to lean in a vintage and/or ethically sourced direction.

YG:I was vaguely aware of Sumer’s preferences, but she also had zero clue I was looking for a ring or planning to propose, so I really did have free reign to find the perfect one. Which, frankly, was a ton of pressure.

courtesy of Sumer Sabooh & Yang-Yi Goh

Describe your search process.

YG: Knowing Sumer’s love of all things vintage, I went down that path initially, looking at a slew of antique cocktail rings from the early-to-mid 20th century. Ultimately, I decided it was too difficult for me to determine the quality of an older stone or ring and I also had no way to tell if they were appropriately priced. So I started looking at a handful of contemporary jewelers online to get a feel for what was out there. Almost immediately, I stumbled upon salt-and-pepper diamonds, which felt so right for Sumer: They’re dark and moody like both her taste in music and wardrobe. Plus, she’s a pastry chef who is wholly obsessed with finishing everything with a pinch of flaky salt.

At that stage, I began seeking out jewelers who worked regularly with salt-and-pepper diamonds. I had a couple of false starts before my older sister sent me a link to Anna Sheffield. Her designs felt like the ideal balance of vintage aesthetics and crisp clean lines. So I visited her New York showroom expecting to begin the design process for a custom ring, but instead found the perfect one just sitting there: it was anchored by a painterly, devastatingly beautiful salt-and-pepper diamond, and happened to be Sumer’s exact size (which I’d sneakily figured out a few months prior). I bought it on the spot.

How did the proposal happen?

YG: I told Sumer I wanted to take her to Philadelphia for our anniversary, and that we needed to pick up our rental car from the airport. When we got there, I pulled our passports, and told her we were actually flying to London — her dream destination ever since she was a kid. We arrived the following morning, and after a whirlwind day, I surprised her again by bringing her to Paddington Station with two of our close friends who live in London. Sumer’s all-time favorite movies are Paddington and Paddington 2, and we watched them both on one of our earliest hangouts. We walked over to the Paddington Bear statue on Platform 1, and she was already getting emotional just being there. But when I surprised her again by getting down on one knee as we posed for photos , she was more shocked and overwhelmed than ever. The most satisfying part of the proposal, for me anyway, was hearing her say she absolutely loved the ring — and that it fit perfectly. Oh, right, and that she said yes.

Jamie Holloway & Tom Fitzgerald

courtesy of Jamie Holloway

How did you two meet?

JH: We met in London in 2011. We had a brief interaction at a work event, and Tom held the door open for my friend and me as we were leaving. We then bumped into each other a month later on a night out. I was there for a friend's birthday and nearly didn't go because I was broke from a vacation. A friend loaned me some money for the night, thank goodness he did!

Did you have any idea of what type of ring you wanted?

JH: I thought I did! But honestly nothing was fully formed in my mind, I just knew I wanted something unconventional. Tom was the one who designed it in secret, and when I opened the box it was absolutely perfect and just what I wanted, even though I had never been able to articulate it.

Describe your search for the perfect design.

JH: I used to work for a jewelry brand, where I met my dear friend Kate Baxter. She now runs an amazing company called The Cut, which helps match people up with smaller amazing jewelry designers for bespoke pieces like engagement rings. Tom was savvy enough to enlist her help, and she matched him up with the incredible designer Hannah Martin. Tom created his own mood board with pictures of things like stained-glass windows, us together, and our eye colors (blue and green). He had a lot of ideas! And Hannah worked with him to boil all those down into the most incredible ring, imbued with all sorts of significance. The sapphires and emeralds represent the colors of our eyes, and there are 12 emeralds and 12 diamonds, making up 24 hours on the clock for our timeless love. Hannah was amazing, and created something that looks both modern and antique that I will never tire of gazing at.

courtesy of Tom Fitzgerald & Jamie Holloway

How did the proposal happen?

JH: Tom took me to Switzerland! At the time we were living in London, and we flew to Geneva, and then took the train up to Pontresina, which is next to St Moritz. The train track itself is a UNESCO world heritage site, and the views across the mountains as we made our journey were breathtaking. We stayed at a once-in-a-lifetime hotel called The Grand Hotel Kronenhof. There was a live pianist at dinner every night, and we fell in love with this song called River Flows in You by Yiruma that he played.

When Hannah's team sent the ring off to be polished a few days before our trip to Switzerland, the polisher accidentally dropped the ring and one of the emeralds cracked! Hannah's team had to urgently replace the stone and reset it, by which time we were already in Switzerland. In the end, one of Hannah's team ended up flying out to Switzerland to hand Tom the ring in our hotel lobby so that he could still propose on the trip, which had all been planned around the engagement. Tom was so relieved he decided to propose to me straight away over lunch, rather than waiting for dinner, which ended up being perfect. Talk about going the extra mile!

Sara Holzman & Taylor Sutton

courtesy of Sara Holzman

How did you two meet?

SH: We met through a mutual friend during our first year of college while attending the University of Missouri.

Did you know what type of ring you wanted?

SH: I knew I didn't want a traditional one, but I didn't have any specifics in mind. I've always gravitated towards art deco rings — like the pieces my grandmothers and great-grandmother had — and ideally, I wanted to give a vintage or antique piece a second or third life.

Describe your search process.

SH: My close friend is also a former accessories editor, so she took the lead when I started the initial ring search. For fun, she arranged an appointment-filled day of ring shopping at several jewelers in NYC. Ultimately, I didn't see anything for me, so we headed to Fred's at Barney's (RIP) for a late lunch. As we were making our way downtown, we decided to make a quick stop at Doyle & Doyle, a jewelry store specializing in rare antique and vintage pieces. I was immediately drawn to a five-prong pear-shaped ring they pulled from the back, which serendipitously fit. While the ring didn't have a super clear lineage, the staff mentioned it was custom-made for someone circa the 1940’s. I'd never seen anything like it and couldn't stop thinking about it.

Did you ask Taylor to buy it for you?

SH: He sneakily purchased the ring without telling anyone. I knew Doyle & Doyle sold the ring to someone — my friend and ring concierge did her due diligence and called the store several times to ask if it was still available. Doyle & Doyle, in turn, asked Taylor if they should tell her, but he asked them to keep it a secret. He hid the ring box in the back of an armoire in our living room, an unexpected home for the piece over the course of nearly two years while the world was shut down.

courtesy of Sara Holzman & Taylor Sutton

How did the proposal happen?

TS: In June of 2021, as travel slowly returned, we booked a trip to Parrot Cay in Turks and Caicos. We were on the room's back porch, getting ready for dinner. I told Sara I had something that would look nice with her outfit and pulled out the ring from Doyle & Doyle. She was so surprised! We face-timed our family — who had no idea but were over the moon... and not shy about letting us know they had waited a long time for this moment.

Allison Haywood & Toby Merkt

courtesy of Allison Haywood

How did you two meet?

TM: Though Allison is critical of all things social-media related, we met on a dating app — actually, we met on two separate apps! We matched not once, but twice. The first time we matched, I direct-messaged Allison and she never responded. The second time turned out to be the charm, and after finally responding to my message, Allison agreed to meet up for a first date.

Did Allison share what type of ring she wanted?

TM: Allison had a very clear idea of what she wanted for an engagement ring, as she is a trained jeweler and used to have her own line. She sketched her engagement ring design for me to give to her mentor, master goldsmith Daniel Valencia and he handmade her engagement ring. Allison wanted a modern ring, and opted for a bezel-set diamond flanked by smaller flush set diamonds on either side.

What was your inspiration for the ring?

AH: I love aesthetics, but above all, I believe in utility. As a jeweler, I have seen women come in with loose prongs — some have lost their diamonds entirely. Given my experience, and my love of practicality, a bezel-set main stone was the only option for me. Bezel set stones are more secure than prong set stones. I also opted for 14k yellow gold over 18k yellow gold as it's a little stronger and more resistant to scratches.

How did the proposal happen?

TM: Though we had been together for over four years when I decided to propose, and I like to think I knew 100 percent that Allison would say yes, the nerves were uncontrollable leading up to the moment I got down on one knee. It's a huge life event, and I wanted to make sure it lived up to Allison's dreams. We took a trip to Terlingua, Texas expressly for the proposal, although, of course, Allison didn't know this in advance. I just told her we were going camping, and she bought it!

Katheryn Thayer & Andrew Kay

courtesy of Katheryn Thayer

How did you two meet?

KT: On Hinge in 2018. I realized he was friends with a coworker of mine at Kickstarter (thanks, Alfie!). I was all about roster dating those days, but Andrew quickly became the guy I was most excited about. We had really funny text banter and he didn’t disappoint when we met up for drinks. Our second date, two days later, at Estella in New York City, we decided we should book a trip to Mexico City. So, we got together more or less immediately.

Did you have any idea of what type of ring you wanted?

KT: I have to admit the wedding category is not what gets me sartorially excited. I do love vintage finds, heirloom hand-me-downs, and pieces with a story, so it was special to receive the ring Andrew’s dad used to propose to his mom. Andrew’s father passed away less than a year into our relationship. The appeal isn’t just sentimental, though. I’m very into the ring’s chunky deco look and its (probably unintentional) similarity to the evil eye symbol. My mother-in-law keeps telling me I can scrap it for parts and have it reset, but I’d never. I want to pass it down, too.

courtesy of Katheryn Thayer & Andrew Kay

Can you share more about your family heirloom?

AK: My parents, Ellen and Steve Kay, bought the ring as a traditional Tiffany setting in the ‘80s at Boone and Sons in D.C., and had it reset by a jewelry designer named Larry Seegers a few years later. My mom Ellen Kay shared this with me: “In the ‘80s, that bezeled Bvlgari look was in and I wanted it done in the Italianate look.” Larry Seegers still has a cult following in our nation’s capital, though he’s long since relocated to upstate New York.

How did the proposal happen?

KT: At the beach, after a fight. I was mad at him for being weird and secretive about a phone call. He couldn’t exactly explain that it was about having his sister bring the ring when she met up with us. We went on a sunset stroll and he turned around and pulled the ring out of his white overalls. He’s more the bridezilla between the two of us. He wore those white overalls a lot around the time we got engaged.

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