Buyer’s Guide to Engagement Rings: Part II

Event Planning, Living & Spending, Shopping Savings
on August 21, 2014

Buyer's Guide to Engagement Rings: Part II

Once you’ve selected the perfect stone for your bride (and your budget)—as detailed in Part One of the guide—you’ll need to select a cut, stone setting and of course, the ring band itself. Here, we break down different available options for each so you know what you’re looking for and where to find it. And since knowledge is power, arming yourself with plenty if information will allow you to operate outside the pressure to spend more.

Stone Shapes and Cuts

The shape of your stone is just as important as the quality and type of stone you choose. If you’re looking for a unique ring, you can choose an uncut or rough-cut stone—which offers a more rustic aesthetic—but many opt for a cut diamond or gem to better showcase the stone’s shine. The shape of a diamond also impacts how large the stone appears. For example, if two diamonds are the same carat weight, the stone with the longer cut, such an oval, will seem bigger than a round- or square-cut stone.

The ten most common diamond shapes are round, princess, pear, cushion, asscher, oval, emerald, marquise, radiant and heart. Round is by far the most favored diamond cut, as it maximizes the stone’s fire and brilliance, or the way it catches and reflects light. Princess-cut diamonds are also a popular choice, although how square or rectangular the stone is can vary. According to fine jewelry company Ritani, more than half of engagement ring diamonds are round-cut and another 30 percent are princess-cut—so 80 percent of all diamonds sold come in these two shapes.

In other words, if you want a unique stone that still sparkles, try one of the other cuts, such as marquise, which fewer than 1 percent of engagement rings feature (and as a bonus, it has the highest size-per-carat weight of diamond cuts). If you’ve chosen to feature a diamond alternative on your engagement ring, some other shapes to consider include ovals for sapphires, cushions for rubies and emerald-cuts for emeralds (go figure).

Setting Types

For those of you purchasing a band and a stone separately, you’ll want to select a setting as well. A setting refers to how to the stone is secured to the ring, while a mounting is the setting before the stone is actually secured to it. Just as there are multiple ways to shape a stone, there are multiple ways to set it. First of all though, you need to decide how many stones you want to set in your ring: a single stone (or solitaire), three stones (representing past, present and future) or a large stone surrounded by lots of smaller ones (either as a halo setting or as side stones).

Some common settings for a single stone include prong, tension, bezel and gypsy. The most popular setting, prong, uses three to six “claws” to hold the gem in place. This lets the most light enter the stone, making it look larger and more brilliant—but it offers less protection, and the prongs can often snag clothing. Since it requires less metal and labor, this is often the cheapest setting for a single stone as well.

Tension settings use pressure to “squeeze” the diamond in place using the band’s metal, but this style is difficult to resize or repair and also doesn’t offer much protection. For those who are more active or use their hands a lot, a bevel encircles the stone with a rim of metal, providing a secure setting and smooth surface so it snags less. Popular with mens’ rings, a gypsy or flush setting involves setting the stone directly into the band of the ring, which secures it well and keeps the sides from chipping, although this setting can be more expensive due to the labor required.

If you want more bang for your buck, two other settings to consider are illusion, which uses prongs with fancy designs to make the stone look larger, and cluster, which sets multiple small stones closely together to give the appearance of a single large gem. If you want to get part or all of the band set with stones, other settings to consider are channel, bar and pavé. Channel secures the gems between two continuous horizontal bands, while bar inserts short vertical bars between them. Pavé involves many tiny stones set next to each other, giving the illusion of more diamonds than there actually are.

Band Metal Types

While it may seem like you only have two choices—silver and gold—there are many more options for the band metal than you might think. Durability, color and hypo-allergenic qualities are all important factors to consider. Metal prices also tend to fluctuate due to market supply and consumer demands, but some are generally more expensive than others.

For example, platinum is very durable and won’t tarnish over time, but it’s rare and therefore quite expensive. The same goes for palladium, although it’s usually slightly cheaper than platinum. Titanium is very durable and hypoallergenic, and it often falls in the middle price-wise. Stainless steel is also quite budget-conscious, and it will cost you less than almost any other band type except silver, which is not as durable.

Since it’s a soft metal, pure gold is actually not that durable on its own either, so it’s usually combined with other metals to strengthen it (which is why most rings are 14K or 18K gold rather than pure 24K). The purer the gold, the more it will cost. If you’re feeling especially unique, you can even opt for a wood engagement band, but since wood is soft and easy to mark, it’s not likely to last as long as a metal band.

Buyer's Guide to Engagement Rings: Part II

Where to Buy

There are two basic ways to purchase an engagement ring: online or in store. Either way, you should ask around for recommendations and do your research to find a reputable dealer. If you choose to shop online, making a couple trips to a brick-and-mortar store first can help you get a better idea of what you want in a ring, since you’ll be able to see and handle the samples in person.

When shopping online, pay close attention to the ring’s dimensions, as photos with blank backgrounds can make the ring seem like a different size than it actually is. If you’ve found a ring you love that’s way out of your price range, you can buy a similar stone and band separately online, then get them set at a local jeweler. Make sure that the company has a good return policy and that the diamonds are all certified by a reputable association—and see if the company offers any insurance as well.

Brick-and-mortar store options include large retail chains, independent jewelers, and vintage jewelry store. Brand-name jewelry retail chains will have a large selection but not necessarily have the best everyday prices, although they sometimes run considerable sales. They may also try to push buying a stone and band already set together, but you’ll usually save more and be able to customize the ring if you eschew their sales pitch and buy those elements separately, even from different stores.

Independent jewelers will probably have a smaller selection, but the rings they offer will usually be more unique, and you’ll be more likely to receive personal attention as you shop. Depending on how exclusive the store is, your budget might also stretch further there, as the more well-advertised brand-name chains tend to have higher markups. Smaller jewelry stores will also probably probably be more willing to customize orders or otherwise help you find and/or make the perfect engagement ring.

And if you’re watching your wallet, you should consider shopping at vintage jewelry stores. A majority of vintage or antique engagement rings are truly one-of-a-kind, and some brides opt for vintage rings as a surefire way to avoid conflict diamonds, the sale of which took off in the 1990s during Sierra Leone’s civil war. Just be careful with them, as you would with all antique jewelry, since vintage rings can be more delicate than their brand-new counterparts and often feature softer stones.

Finally, if you find yourself on an especially tight budget, stores such as Walmart and Costco will provide the most cost-effective options. And if at the end of the day choosing a ring still seems too overwhelming (or too ordinary) for you, then perhaps you might consider a tattooed ring instead?

Haven’t checked out Part One of the guide yet? Do that here

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