The Guys' Guide to Engagement Ring Shopping
Get Educated Before Ring Shopping
Few things in life are more intimidating than shopping for an engagement ring. There is the discomfort with buying something about which you may know very little, the nagging fear that she might not accept your proposal (don't worry – she will!), and of course, the enormous price tag. A little education can go a long ways towards instilling confidence in your engagement ring selection. Once you know about diamonds and gems, setting styles, and how to know you are buying quality, the whole process becomes much more enjoyable. Before you visit your first jewelry store, peruse this guide to engagement ring shopping.
It is estimated that about 80% of all the engagement rings sold in the United States are diamond rings, so a little diamond education is an excellent place to begin. Selecting a diamond can be an overwhelming prospect for the average man who has never before purchased anything so small yet so expensive. How do you know what to look for in a gemstone? What assurances are there that the stone you select is the quality you think it is? What are the “4 Cs” anyway?
Color Is the First of the 4 "C"s of Diamonds
The “4 Cs” are the foundation of diamond grading, quality, and price. The first “C” refers to color. Diamonds are graded based on the amount of yellowish or brownish color that they show. The less color, the more rare and valuable. Letter grades D,E, and F are given to colorless diamonds. G-J diamonds are considered to be near colorless, K-M have faint color, N-R show very light color, while S-Z have light color. A large part of the appeal of a white diamond is in its icy color, which is why the colorless gems are the most desirable (and therefore the most costly). The top of the near-colorless range, G-H, is a good option for bringing down the price of the gemstone while still retaining an icy look. An I-J color diamond could be as much as 50% less expensive than a D colorless gemstone. Be aware that some eagle-eyed women will notice a faint hint of yellow in a diamond with a color grade of H, and below that, most women will. An old trick is to set an H color diamond in yellow gold, as a bright white platinum setting will make the diamond look more yellow by comparison. In most instances, it is a good idea to select a diamond with a color grade of H or better when purchasing an engagement ring. These color grades apply only to white diamonds, by the way. Diamonds can also be found in naturally occurring "fancy" colors, including blue (like the Hope Diamond), green, pink, orange, and even red. Very rare, the fancy colored diamonds command a premium price.
Diamond Clarity: From Flawless to "Dirty"
The second “C” of diamonds is the clarity grade. Clarity refers to the natural inclusions within the gem. Inclusions are like tiny birthmarks which are created when the diamond grows in the earth, and can take several forms, such as feathers, pinpoints, clouds, and grain lines. A diamond may also have surface blemishes such as scratches or marks from imperfect polishing. Diamonds are graded for clarity under 10x magnification, meaning that most of the inclusions described will not be visible to your fiance's eye when she sees her ring. Clarity is mostly a matter of the value and rarity of the gem, although in certain cultures (especially Asia) a virtually flawless diamond is extremely important. It is important to realize that if a diamond is heavily included or has inclusions which break the surface of the gem, that the structural integrity of the stone might be affected. More minimal inclusions, however, will not cause any problems with the diamond's durability.
Flawless, as implied, is as perfect as a diamond can get, and is extraordinarily rare. IF, or internally flawless, means that the diamond has only minor surface imperfections. VVS1-2 is the next category, and it means very, very slightly included. These gems are also very rare. VS1-2 stands for very slightly included, and these are more commonly chosen diamonds for engagement rings as they have excellent clarity but a more affordable price. SI1-2 (Slightly included) diamonds are also popular for engagement rings, and their cost will drop considerably. Once you get into an SI2 range, some inclusions may become visible without magnification to some people (it depends on the nature of the specific inclusions and whether they are dark or white). The I1-3 range stands for Included, and these diamonds will have imperfections which are visible to the naked eye, making them a poor choice for an engagement ring. Some gem labs may grade a stone as SI3, which is not a clarity grade given by GIA or AGS, the premier gem labs. SI3 is essentially an upgraded I1 diamond which is judged to have a large number of inclusions, but not ones which are readily apparent without magnification.
Diamond Cut Matters Most for Sparkle
Onto cut! The cut of a diamond refers not to its shape, but to the quality with which it has been cut. The determining factors include proportion, symmetry, and polish. Why is cut so important? Because it is the cut of the diamond which determines how it reflects and refracts light. In layman's terms, the quality of the cut is what gives a diamond its sparkle. And the sparkle is what a diamond is all about! Although it is well known that most ladies love a big fat diamond in their ring, a huge stone which is poorly cut will not be nearly as gorgeous as a slightly smaller one which is as brilliant as the sun. One way to know that a diamond is well cut is to review the cut grade on its cert. For round brilliant diamonds, look for one which has been cut to “ideal” proportions. An ideal cut diamond will receive a cut grade of “Excellent” from GIA or a “000” from AGS.
Because each diamond is a natural occurrence, each one will have its own unique character. Two gems which look exactly the same on paper may not look the same in person. One will just have more sparkle, fire, and scintillation than the other, even if both gems are cut to ideal proportions. This is why it is always best to see a diamond engagement ring first hand before purchasing it. When you buy your girlfriend Swarovski crystal jewelry, it is fine to shop online, because the crystals are always going to be the same consistent quality. This is not true with diamonds, so while you may wish to research on the web, when it comes time to actually buy that special ring, it is advisable to do it locally. Besides, it is just nice to have that personal service when making such an expensive and emotionally significant purchase!
Carat Weight: How Big Is the Rock?
Carat weight is the fourth “C” and it is the most straightforward. Simply put, the carat weight tells you how heavy the diamond is. What it does not tell you is exactly how large the gem will appear; sometimes diamonds are cut with a larger table to help them “face up” larger than their carat weight. Although it sounds great, sometime that can result in a less-than-ideal proportion, so be cautious. It is not worth it to choose a stone which looks larger but sparkles less. The carat system works just like pennies to the dollar: each point is 100th of a full carat. In other words, a ¼ carat gem weighs 25 points (usually written as .25), a ½ carat is .50, and a ¾ carat diamond is .75. A full carat would simply be 1 carat. The 1ct. size is a benchmark, and there will be a price jump at that size range. Ultimately, though, one should purchase an engagement diamond based on what he can afford, not hitting some magical number. Of course, if you wanted to select a diamond engagement ring over 1ct., the chances are that would be okay with your girlfriend, too!
Trust but Verify: Diamond Certs
When shopping for an engagement ring, be sure to find out if the diamonds you are being shown are natural diamonds. What does that mean? It means that the diamond has not been treated in any way (other than cutting and polishing), and especially that no fillers or drilling techniques have been used to try to enhance the clarity of the gem. The best way to ensure that your diamond is untreated is to work only with a jeweler whom you trust. Reputation is everything in the jewelry industry, so by all means, ask your friends and family for referrals to a reliable jeweler. As the old saying goes, trust but verify. Once you have found a jeweler in whom you trust, verify the specifics of the diamond by examining its certification or “cert”. The certification is an official document produced by an independent laboratory which shows the grade of the diamond. GIA and AGS are the premier gem grading labs, although there are several others in existence (some of which may have slightly less stringent standards). It will cover the 4Cs: color, clarity, cut, and carat weight, as well as the shape of the diamond. The cert will also mention any unique features the gem may have, such as a laser inscription on the girdle. The girdle is the very narrow edge between the top and bottom halves of a diamond when viewed from the side. A laser inscription is not visible to the naked eye, but can be used to identify the gem by labeling with its certification or other id number. Sometimes grooms may also choose to have a personal message inscribed on the girdle of the diamond, such as “I love you” or “Forever yours”. As the inscription will only be visible under 10x magnification, you might want to bring your fiancée to the jewelry store to see your message under the microscope after she accepts your proposal!
Rounds, Ovals, and Asschers - Oh My!
Now that you know all the technical aspects of selecting a diamond, you are ready to hit the jewelry stores to look at styles. Most of the diamonds in the stores will be the classic round brilliant cut. As the name implies, the round brilliant is the most sparkly of all the shapes, but it is by no means your only choice. There are several other popular shapes for diamonds, including princess cut, Asscher, emerald, radiant, and oval. Less commonly used shapes are heart, pear, and marquise. Before you start shopping for an engagement ring, pay close attention to your girlfriend's other jewelry. If she likes very modern clothing, she might enjoy the crisp square shape of a princess cut. A woman who adores vintage pieces will likely gravitate towards the Asscher or emerald cuts. Long slim fingers will be complemented by the graceful shape of an oval diamond in her engagement ring. You can also be sure to walk past a lot of jewelry stores while on your hunt for the perfect ring to pop the question. It is a rare woman who can resist peeking in the window of a jewelry shop, and you might be able to pick up some strong clues about which styles she finds most appealing. When in doubt, the classic round brilliant is always a safe bet.
Platinum or Gold?
Not only is there the diamond to consider, but the setting of the engagement ring as well. You will find rings made in platinum, 18kt gold, and 14kt gold. The gold rings may be the classic yellow color, but white gold is also very popular. Rose gold is less common, but also quite lovely. Platinum is the finest metal used to make engagement rings, and also the most costly. If you can afford it, it is a better choice than white gold, being both more durable and more hypoallergenic. Women who wear a lot of silver jewelry will like the white color of platinum. Of course, some women prefer yellow gold, in which case 18kt yellow gold will give your engagement ring the richest golden luster. Not all ring settings are created equal. An engagement ring should be made to last for a lifetime, so seek out a setting which is die-struck or work-hardened, rather than a lightweight casting. An easy way to tell the difference is to hold one of each in your hand; the die-struck ring will feel heavier than the light casting, even if they look identical. Even on a yellow gold ring, platinum prongs are ideal to secure the diamond that you worked so hard to select.
Choose a Distinctive Setting for Your Engagement Ring
For some men, choosing a ring design is even more daunting than learning the technical aspects of diamonds and settings. This undoubtedly explains why the solitaire is by far the most commonly chosen engagement ring for surprise proposals. However, if you took a poll of ten women you know, the majority of them would say that a solitaire would not be their first choice. The solution is to shop with a friend or sister of your girlfriend for style advice...presuming she can be trusted to keep your secret! Some of the most popular settings are the three stone and micro-pavé designs. For those who may not be familiar with the term, micro-pavé is a beautiful technique in which many tiny diamonds are set on the band of the ring. The pavé is often extended around the central diamond, which enhances its sparkle and also makes it appear to be larger – two very good things! Vintage-inspired rings, including the micro-pavé as well as other ornate designs, are very much in style right now. Since your soon-to-be-fiancee will be wearing her engagement ring for the rest of her life, it is important to strike a balance between selecting a ring which is unique and one which she will never grow tired of seeing.
She Said Yes!
With the perfect engagement ring in hand, you will be ready to work on planning the perfect proposal! Be prepared to watch her eyes widen in awe as you drop to one knee and pull out the telltale ring box. When she sees the special engagement ring that you have so carefully selected, the answer is sure to be a resounding “yes!”