The ’90s killed yellow gold engagement rings, but now they’re back

This Valentine’s Day, Americans are expected to spend a record $20.7 billion on everything from cards to romantic dinners. But more than anywhere else on the occasion, consumers flock to jewelry stores. Valentine’s Day is one of the most popular holidays for engagements and weddings, a major reason why Americans shell out more cash on jewelry than any other merchandise this time of year.

But the engagement rings and wedding bands you’ll see on couples in 2019 might look different from their predecessors of even just five years ago. After two decades of platinum and white gold dominating wedding jewelry, yellow gold is back, say jewelry retailers and experts alike.

The color’s renaissance in recent years might be part of the general turn toward gold jewelry that’s seen the bamboo earrings, nameplate necklaces, and religious jewelry long found at swap meets marketed to the general public as hip and edgy. Refinery29’s Channing Hargrove recently suggested that this trend is cultural appropriation. In terms of gold wedding jewelry, however, the unconventional tastes of millennial brides and grooms might also be at play.

Twenty-somethings have been blamed for bypassing diamond engagement rings, and sometimes precious gems altogether, for New Age faves like quartz instead. Gold bands might simply be another way for young couples to mix up the wedding jewelry they’ve come to view as conformist and unimaginative.

And the influence of the most visible couple to wed last year can’t be counted out: Prince Harry presented Meghan Markle with a gold engagement ring.

How Meghan Markle is influencing wedding jewelry

Even before Markle became engaged to Prince Harry, the jewelry she wore garnered interest — from a ring with the initial “H” to a necklace with both of their initials — nearly all of it gold. So, it wasn’t surprising that when they decided to wed, Markle’s engagement ring and wedding band were both yellow gold.

The Welsh gold wedding band was gifted to Markle by Queen Elizabeth, and Prince Harry purchased the three-stone engagement ring described as priceless by jewelry experts due to its link to Princess Diana’s jewelry collection. Discussing the ring, Prince Harry suggested there was no doubt what color metal he would choose for the band.

“The ring is obviously yellow gold because that’s [Meghan’s] favorite, and the main stone itself is sourced from Botswana and the little diamonds either side are from my mother’s jewelry collection to make sure that she’s with us on this crazy journey together,” Prince Harry said of the engagement ring during a BBC interview.

Predictably, the ring has spawned knockoffs — ranging from under $100 to thousands of dollars. Buckingham Palace is even selling replicas of the ring for $40.

“Their choice of a yellow gold, three-stone ring instantly bestowed that style with a regal gloss,” Tanya Dukes, a runway stylist and jewelry expert, told Vox. “And in true millennial fashion, they were focused on where the diamonds were sourced and their personal connection to them.”

Collectively, the sheer number of royal lookalikes flooding the market now means yellow gold, once disparaged as “tacky” and old-fashioned, is influencing bridal trends again. In addition to Markle, Dukes credits independent designers with ushering in the yellow gold engagement ring trend.

“I think there’s a fair degree of excitement among jewelry producers that clients have recently become more open to engagement rings in yellow gold and rose gold,” she said. “Often independent designers in the wedding category, like Erika Winters, Megan Thorne, Jade Trau, and Ila Collection have been at the forefront of advancing the yellow gold trend.”

Anna Sheffield, Mociun, and Pamela Love are also part of this trend, as are celebrities not named Meghan Markle; Dukes pointed out that Kirsten Dunst, Miley Cyrus, and Mary-Kate Olsen have gold engagement rings too.

Why gold engagement rings and wedding bands fell out of fashion

Gold engagement rings were standard when baby boomers tied the knot (for the first time) from the 1960s to 1980s. But by the ’90s, when Gen Xers began heading down the aisle, gold wedding jewelry had fallen out of favor. Even jewelry experts can’t be sure exactly why, but since the decade was one in which looks like grunge and “kinderwhore” dominated mainstream fashion — you could find lookalikes of Courtney Love’s baby doll dresses at the mall — gold simply may have been deemed too flashy for the time.

Although consumerism ultimately swallowed up grunge, innovators of the trend cloaked themselves in flannel shirts and grandpa sweaters to express that they didn’t care about capitalist-driven fashion. Even gangsta rap, which influenced trends during this time too, was largely centered on functional clothing.

In the West Coast rap scene, the workwear brand Dickies was ubiquitous. While some of these rappers still rocked gold chains, the ethos of the ’90s was generally minimalist, a reason why the pared-down fashion of Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy became just as influential as the grunge look.

“The look [of the ‘90s] was a quieter, more understated reaction that fit in with the period’s low-key minimalist style,” Dukes said.

By the early aughts, gold was deemed so distasteful that Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw actually vomited after discovering her boyfriend planned to propose with a gold engagement ring. She admitted to liking to wear her “ghetto gold” nameplate necklace for fun, but she didn’t want the color for something as serious as an engagement ring.

The admission revealed the character’s class consciousness and how gold was viewed as the metal of the nation’s underclass. The 1980s and early ’90s saw rap groups like Run-D.M.C. and Salt-n-Pepa drape themselves in thick gold chains, and even today, some retailers advertise imitations of these chains as “rapper chains” or “pimp chains.”

Eighteen years later after Carrie Bradshaw melted down over a gold engagement ring, it’s hard to imagine that a television show would send its protagonist into crisis over a ring’s color. Now it would seem more realistic to portray a character panicking about whether the gemstone was ethically sourced.

Even Prince Harry made a point to mention where the diamonds in Markle’s engagement ring came from, likely not only because he’s spent so much time in Botswana but also because the diamond industry there has supported development in the country, Dukes said.

If the revival of gold wedding jewelry teaches us anything, it’s what we already know: Fashion trends are cyclical.

“Couples getting married now want something that’s a bit of a departure from the generation before,” Dukes said. “Yellow gold looks fresh to their eyes.”

So, give it 20 years, and gold will start to look stale again.

Want more stories from The Goods by Vox? Sign up for our newsletter here.