Buyer’s Guide to Engagement Rings: Part I

Event Planning, Living & Spending, Shopping Savings
on August 13, 2014

Buyer's Guide to Engagement Rings: Part One

Planning to pop the question? You’re in the right place. We’ve put together a comprehensive buyer’s guide covering everything you need to know before you start shopping for the ring, with budget-conscious notes throughout. Find the first installment of the two-party guide below, detailing the engagement ring buying process, including how to identify the type and quality of the rock you’re after. Check back next week for part two, which will cover how to select a the cut of the stone, the setting and the ring band, as well as tips on where to buy!

The Engagement Ring Buying Process

The engagement ring buying process looks a little different for each individual couple. Some girls may want to be surprised with a ring their fiance picks out, while others may want to go the store either before or after the proposal to select the ring together. Regardless of when or how the deed is done, the absolute first thing you should do before buying a ring is set a budget and stick to it.

While common knowledge holds that you should spend two or even three months of your salary on an engagement ring, this cultural myth is actually a throwback to a De Beers diamond ad campaign that started in the 1930s (talk about propaganda). In reality, you should only spend as much on the ring as you feel comfortable doing. If money is a serious concern, talk to your significant other about ring expectations and financial realities as well as whether or not he/she wants to help pick it out. When it comes to actually purchasing the ring, try to save up and pay with cash to avoid shelling out even more in the long-run for interest. Major jewelers do usually offer payment plans but can slap you with huge fees if you don’t pay the ring off on time, so do your research and know the rates.

As for choosing the ring, if you’re surprising your significant other, consider what kind of jewelry she already wears and also her lifestyle and/or occupation, since she’ll hopefully be wearing it everyday for the rest of her life. Does your squeeze wear silver or gold jewelry more? Prefer a vintage or contemporary style? If your future fiancée hasn’t mentioned her engagement ring style preferences yet, you can try to casually slip it into conversation, or ask her friends if she has said anything about the kind of ring she would like.

You should also know the ring size, and if you’re unsure, get a slightly bigger ring than you think she will need, as it’s easier to size down than size up. Always double check the store’s return policy, so you’re covered if you need to swap it out for any reason. Finally, if you want to surprise your bride-to-be and let her customize the ring to her liking, consider buying a loose stone and then letting her choose the setting and band. In fact, some stores like Brilliant Earth even offer temporary settings, or you can buy a cheap band such as sterling silver and upgrade it after you pop the question—and get the answer you’re looking for.

Buyer's Guide to Engagement Rings: Part One

The Four C’s

The prices of gemstones vary wildly based on the quality of the stone, and diamonds are no exception. The basics of choosing a diamond begin with the four Cs: color, clarity, cut, and carat weight. Many of these differences are not visible to the naked eye and can only be determined by an expert. As a result, it’s important to check the diamond’s GIA (Gemological Institute of America) or AGS (American Gem Society) grading report and get it independently appraised to confirm you’re actually getting the quality that you think you’re paying for.

Since diamonds are clear, the “color” aspect actually evaluates the absence of color; the more colorless the diamond, the higher quality it is. Diamond color is ranked on a scale from D to Z, with D being completely colorless and Z being a pale yellow tint.

Diamond clarity evaluates the absence of inclusions, blemishes and other imperfections in the stone, although no naturally-occurring diamond can be completely flawless. The diamond clarity scale has six classes and eleven grades ranging from Flawless (FL) to Included (I1, I2, and I3).

The diamond cut ranks not the shape of the diamond (see below for that), but rather how well the diamond’s facets interact with light. Cut includes factors such as brightness (the white light reflected both internally and externally), fire (the scattering of white light), and scintillation (the amount of sparkle).

Diamond carat determines how much the diamond weighs; a metric “carat” is defined as 200 milligrams, and each carat can be subdivided into 100 points. Larger diamonds are rare, so you’ll pay more for a 2-carat single diamond than (say) two 1-carat diamonds. Prices also jump at the full- and half-carat marks, and you can save up to 20% by buying a 0.8 carat diamond rather than a 1.0. The size difference won’t be that noticeable to the naked eye, since diamond weight is evenly distributed.

Finally, don’t forget that smaller stones will appear larger on smaller hands, so make sure the gem is proportional to your fiancée’s fingers. You can also save big by buying a diamond that isn’t as highly graded on one of the four Cs as long as the imperfections aren’t visible to the naked eye. However, don’t skimp on cut — a well-cut diamond will not only look more beautiful and last longer, it will also sparkle more, making the stone appear bigger than it actually is. And whether you purchase it loose or not, insure the stone as soon as you possibly can.

Diamond Alternatives

There are two main classes of diamond look-alike alternatives: synthetic and stimulant. Synthetic refers to man-made gems that not only look like the precious stone they are trying to imitate, but also have the same chemical composition and crystal structure. Lab-created diamonds (also called engineered or cultured diamonds) fall into this category, and most closely mimic “real” mined diamonds.

Stimulants are gems that simply looks like another precious stone. They can be natural or (more-typically) man-made, but they usually don’t have the same chemical composition or crystal structure. Some common diamond stimulants include cubic zirconia (CZ), moissanite and white sapphire. Cubic zirconia is probably the most popular and most well-known diamond alternative, and it will often come up as a result if you search for lab-created diamonds, although these are not the same thing. Many prefer CZ for its diamond-like appearance and clarity—and it’s usually the cheapest diamond alternative.

A step up from CZ, moissanite more closely mimics the durability and brilliance of diamonds but is still a great option for a ring on a budget. Moissanite does occur in nature and was originally discovered on a meteor in Arizona in 1893, but due to its rarity, it’s usually grown in a lab. White sapphires are also an excellent alternative, although they’re not as durable as CZ or moissanite. While some are lab-grown, naturally-growing white sapphires are readily available, and since there’s less demand for them than blue sapphires, you can often get a really good deal on a decent-sized stone.

Saving money isn’t the only reason couples look into diamond alternatives, though—many diamonds are mined in war zones and sold as “blood diamonds” or “conflict diamonds” to finance war crimes. Opting for a diamond alternative guarantees that your ring was come by ethically and your purchase didn’t contribute to any sort of violence.

Buyer's Guide to Engagement Rings

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Other Stone Types

Believe or not, you don’t have to buy a diamond engagement ring. Whether you’re looking for a more unique ring or just trying to cut costs, there are many other precious gems you can get set in your bride-to-be’s ring. While it may not be traditional colored gems will set your engagement ring apart from the diamond masses—which would be exactly what you’re after.

Even famously wedded couples have had non-diamond engagement rings. Princess Diana’s ring was an 18-carat sapphire, now famously worn by Kate Middleton. Prince Andrew presented Sarah Ferguson with a ruby, and Jackie Kennedy sported a gorgeous emerald ring. Sapphires and rubies are quite hard and durable, while emeralds are a little softer. Other colored gemstones can also make good candidates if they are of high-enough quality, such as topaz, opal, amethyst and pearl.

You could also incorporate your bride’s birthstone, or choose a colored gemstone based on its symbolism — for example, garnet symbolizes honor and commitment. If you’re watching your budget, opting for a colored gemstone over a diamond will allow you to purchase a bigger, higher-quality (and more impressive) stone. However, don’t just assume that all colored gemstones are automatically cheaper than diamonds. A very large, high-quality gemstone like those in celebrity rings can easily cost more than a smaller diamond, so do your research and stick your budget, no matter what aesthetic you settle on.


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