Buying a diamond ring can be intimidating. What do you look for? How much should you pay? Should you buy online or in a store?
First learn about the four C’s: carat, color, clarity and cut. This system of grading diamonds was developed 60 years ago by the Gemological Institute of America. Then do research online or visit jewelers. You’ll soon understand your options.
Carat, color, clarity and cut
Carat is a weight measurement. A 1-carat diamond weighs 200 milligrams. But there’s no ideal size; it depends on budget and taste. Some women want a big rock while others prefer a delicate look. A ring with three small diamonds totaling 1 carat costs less than a single 1-carat stone of similar quality.
Color is graded by letter, starting with D for rare, colorless diamonds. E and F are considered excellent, but G or H diamonds will look just as good to the naked eye. Farther down the scale, you’ll notice differences. “If you put a K color beside a G color, you’ll notice more yellow in the K,” said Russell Shor, senior industry analyst for the Gemological Institute.
Clarity measures flaws, called inclusions, which might appear as tiny spots, clouds or cavities in the stone. The grade SI stands for “slightly included.” VS is better, “very slightly included.” VVS is even higher, “very, very slightly included.” Most inclusions in the VVS-SI range cannot be seen by the untrained eye.
Cut measures workmanship, which enhances sparkle and luminosity and can hide flaws. The best rating, ideal, is rare. About a third of diamonds are rated fair, good or very good.
What should you look for in each of the four C’s?
“The one thing you should not trade off on is the quality of the cut,” Shor said. “Even a nice color stone, if not well-cut, will be dull and lifeless. But if it’s a middle color — like K — and it’s got a real excellent cut, it will pop and flash.”
After choosing the cut, “balance the color, clarity and carat weight based on your personal preference to find the best diamond for you and your budget,” said Amanda Gizzi, spokeswoman for Jewelers of America.
For example, for $2,000, you might pick a 1-carat, K-color stone with a slight inclusion, or a half-carat, G-color, with a very slight inclusion. An L- or M-colored diamond at that price “will get you a 2-carat honker, but you’ll definitely notice the yellow and you’ll see some inclusions,” Shor said.
Consumers pay $3,500 on average for engagement rings, according to Jewelers of America. Shor recommends spending at least $700 to $1,000 to get “something that’s not too small and of reasonable quality, a respectable half-carat stone.”
It’s easy to compare options online. At BlueNile.com, set your price range, then play with the four C’s to see tradeoffs.
Many websites list the four C’s for every ring they sell. Brick-and-mortar stores should be able to provide grading reports from the Gemological Institute or another expert lab.
Shape and style
Engagement rings traditionally feature gold bands with a center diamond, though some have smaller diamonds on either side. Melissa Colgan, senior style editor for Martha Stewart Weddings, says the engagement ring that Prince William gave to Kate Middleton, a large sapphire surrounded by diamonds, has increased interest in rings with other gemstones.
Diamonds can be cut into many shapes. Round, the most common, offers “the biggest bang for your buck because the difference between the raw and cut diamond is smaller,” Colgan said. But she said unusual shapes with names like marquise, Asscher and pear are having a resurgence, partly because celebrities are wearing them.
Whether a shape is flattering depends on your fingers. “If you have long thin fingers, you can wear something like Asscher or princess that is more square-cut,” Colgan said. “If you have shorter fingers or muscular hands, marquise or oval will elongate your fingers.” But long nails don’t mix with oval: “It looks like you’ve got a weird nail in the middle of your hand.”
Online or in store
Many major brands, including Macy’s, Kay, Zales, Tiffany and even Costco, sell diamonds both online and in stores.
Some retailers sell online only. Gemvara.com’s site is fun for customizing designs. Just click to see how a ring looks with diamonds and sapphires, versus diamonds and rubies, or with white versus yellow gold.
Blue Nile has sold engagement rings to 325,000 couples over the Internet, including one for $1.5 million. The company will mail a free plastic ring-sizer with no obligation to buy. Blue Nile also has a 30-day return policy, though fewer than 10 percent of customers take advantage of it, company spokesman Josh Holland said.
Many retail stores also offer 30-day returns. That’s important for surprise proposals in case the bride-to-be says no, or if she says yes but wants a different ring.
These days, though, couples often shop together.
“It’s perfectly OK to say, ‘Let’s just go and look at things together,’ ” said Colgan, of Martha Stewart Weddings. “This way she knows what he can afford and he knows aesthetically what she wants.”
Some customers prefer online shopping so they won’t be pressured by an aggressive salesperson. But most diamond rings are bought in person, according to Jewelers of America, citing the 2011 Wedding Report, which found that only 11 percent of engagement rings are bought online. Most people want to see, touch and try before buying.
A new online retailer called Ocappi.com mails out “try on rings” made from silver and cubic zirconia. The replicas let you see how different styles, shapes and carats look on your finger. You can order up to six replicas at once. As long as you return them, there’s no charge and no obligation to buy the real thing.
Some buyers prefer brands they know, like Macy’s or Tiffany. Others want to go local.
“For some people, they want to have a relationship with a jeweler, or they want to buy something where their parents bought their rings,” Colgan said.
In 2011, a 33.19-carat diamond owned by Elizabeth Taylor sold for $8.8 million. The same stone was $305,000 in 1968. But the average diamond does not appreciate much, if at all.
“A diamond will never become worthless, but I would not buy a stone for $1,200 thinking I’m going to get $2,000 back for it at some point,” Shor said.
Does that mean estate-sale rings are a bargain? Shor says “older stones can be a bargain,” but cautions that stone-cutting has improved with computers and robotics, so older rings may not have “the quality of workmanship” found in modern diamonds.
It’s also a matter of taste.
“I think some of the old-cut jewelry is so incredibly beautiful,” Colgan said. “They’re not quite as shimmery or blingy but they have a really sweet sparkle. There are also girls out there who want an estate look because they identify with a certain decade and they don’t want something blinged out.”
In the 1990s, concerns arose that some African diamond mines supported rebels undermining legitimate governments. The U.S. and 79 other countries agreed to a set of rules called the Kimberley Process to ensure that diamonds sold within their borders are “conflict-free.”
Other groups are working to raise awareness of issues such as harmful environmental practices or child labor in diamond production. Interested consumers should ask retailers about their involvement with these efforts.