Like most cliches, the old gag of pulling out a magnifying glass in order to see the tiny stone in an engagement ring is an accurate reflection of cultural attitudes. Much of our society expects and respects large, sparkling gemstones, and the pressure on young couples to produce a spectacular or at least acceptable diamond is sometimes intense.
The advice of gemologist Janine Cline is to buy the best you can afford within reasonable limits, without being carried away once you are caught up in the glamorous business of "romancing the stone."
"Decide what you want to spend before you go shopping and then stick to it," she says. "Allow a 10% leeway in case you fall in love with a particular ring, but do stay in the set limits of your budget."
Once you've decided what you're going to spend, there are four major factors to consider in your purchase: size, cut, color and clarity. Each is crucial and all play an important part in your decision. "It's an equation with individual solutions, and it all depends on your personal priorities," Cline says.
Cline suggests these guidelines when shopping for an engagement ring:
--Size. Typically, people want a diamond at least a half to a full carat or more in weight, and at today's rate, this can get pricey. If size is of prime importance to you, you can get a larger stone by sacrificing one or more of the other factors--cut, color and clarity. If the price is still prohibitive, put off buying that large center diamond and opt for several small stones scattered in a setting you really like. These stones will always have sentimental value and can be used later when you can afford a center diamond to enhance a new setting.
--Cut. Diamonds are available in a number of different shapes, ranging from the traditional round stone to the more fancy cuts, such as the marquis, pear, oval, emerald and heart shapes. Whatever your choice, strive for a diamond that is brilliant and lively, with flashes of color when it moves. The flatter the cut, the less "scintillation" the stone will have. The object of cutting a diamond to its exact proportions is to create a prism that will break light into colors of the rainbow and direct the light to the eye. When a diamond is properly cut, the light going through it gives it a scintillating fire.
--Color. Because it is difficult to see gradations of color when a stone is face up, your jeweler should help you assess the stone by placing it upside down against a white background. Diamonds have small amounts of yellow and brown tones, and professionals grade them accordingly, starting with D, which is considered colorless in the trade, to Z, which is full of color. D, E, and F are all classified as colorless but their cost is prohibitive. The best range for the average person is G, H, I and J, all of which are in the nearly colorless range and can be found in most jewelry stores.
--Clarity. Although diamonds are graded according to their perfection, it is impractical and costly to select a stone that has no flaws. Instead, look for an "eye clean" one that has no visible inclusions or imperfections when you look at it closely without magnification. In jewelers' vernacular, this would be a diamond in the clarity range of Vs1, Vs2, SI1 and SI2, four grades of clarity that will provide you with a good-looking diamond that will hold its value.
If you want a pedigree for your diamond that describes its attributes and evaluates its quality, ask your jeweler to either show you certified stones or send your selection out for certification. Some stones come with papers, Cline explains, but if your choice doesn't, you can have it evaluated by experts if you're willing to pay a few hundred dollars and wait a month for the report.
"The only certificate that really matters in the trade is the one issued by the Gemological Institute of America," Cline said. "GIA is the scientific, educational branch of the industry. They invented the system of grading and evaluation that is used. Their certificate is not only highly respected; it can increase a diamond's resale value."
Over the past few years, people have become more flexible about their choice of a center stone. They are looking at other gemstones, such as sapphire, ruby and aquamarine. "Although Americans have never had a history of using colored stones for engagement rings, they are beginning to do so now," the gemologist says. "Europeans have always appreciated colored gemstones, and the fact that Princess Diana chose a sapphire and her sister-in-law, Sarah Ferguson, chose ruby for their engagement rings bears this out."
Cline teaches a UCLA Extension course on evaluating gemstones. She says colored center stones surrounded by small round or baguette diamonds are now very much in vogue. They can be as beautiful and impressive as the traditional diamond and they will hold their value.
"But don't buy a colored stone unless you really love it," Cline said. "Keep in mind that you'll be wearing your ring for many years, and whatever you choose should give you pleasure every time you look at it."
Another good possibility when shopping for an engagement ring is estate jewelry. Most establishments carry a stock of it, and some specialize in these old, sometimes-antique pieces, all of which are one-of-a-kind items that offer true originality and good value.
"Diamonds are cut to very exact proportions, and most estate jewelry has a slightly different cut than modern stones," Cline said. "And you really have to like the unique styling of these rings. Some people have a stigma about owning someone else's jewelry, and if you feel that way, it's not for you.
"I love the old workmanship, the intricate detail of the mountings and highly recommend estate pieces if they match your taste," she said.