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The New Colors of Love

Though diamonds still rule, more brides-to-be are breaking with tradition by selecting engagement rings from a rainbow of gems.

April 15, 2002|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kim Stevenson thinks of herself as an old-fashioned girl. So when she and her fiance got engaged, they went shopping for a diamond ring, just like they were supposed to. "I looked at diamonds and I just didn't feel much," said Stevenson, 36. "They just seemed so plain to me."

She came home instead with a velvety blue sapphire that spoke to her soul. The crystal blue of the stone makes her think of the ocean, the sky and the time she and her man lived by the beach, during their early courtship. "I didn't expect to get a sapphire," said Stevenson, a writer who lives in Thousand Oaks and plans to marry in June. "But I guess I wasn't going to let tradition make me wear a ring I didn't like."

I know what she means. I recently became engaged and had to face the diamond dilemma, too. Diamonds are a symbol of love, but I don't really like them. I prefer the fire of rubies, and the glow of emeralds to the cool sparkle of diamonds. So for my engagement ring, my fiance and I chose a ring with an Australian opal that glimmers green and blue like winter waves. It was designed by goldsmith Amy Moss, who works out of a horse trailer in Malibu, and I love it.

But I have to wonder, will people even know it's an engagement ring? In some repressed feminist way, do I secretly like that they might not? Am I a contrarian freak?

Much as I hate to admit it, I seem to be part of a trend, albeit a small one.

Moss, who designs custom jewelry that looks like it was unearthed from Egyptian tombs, said her clients are often interested in unusual pieces.

"Diamonds will always be beautiful," Moss said. "But they are more of a man's idea of doing what their Mom wanted. It's not the creative decision. It's the young, blushing bride that will choose a diamond. It usually indicates the wealth of the husband."

Clearly the vast majority of women--and, more important, men--still believe diamonds are a girl's best friend. But evidence is emerging--in anecdotes and in the press--that there is growing interest in non-diamond engagement rings.

"It's just a nontraditional choice that more and more people are prepared to make," said Douglas Hucker, executive director of the Dallas-based American Gem Trade Assn., which promotes the sale of colored gemstones in North America. "I think people are feeling less constrained by tradition all the time."

Michelle Orman, spokeswoman for New York-based Jewelry Information Center, said that alternative gemstones made a splash in 1981, when Lady Diana Spencer--who starred in the biggest bridal princess fantasy in the latter half of the last century--was presented with a sapphire engagement ring, surrounded by diamonds. The choice startled a world trained to love diamonds, and opened the door, ever so slightly, to options.

The more recent interest in alternative gemstone rings, said Orman, is driven by demographics and economics. Women are marrying later, making more money and developing their own sense of identity and style before they wed. Between 1998 and 1999--the most recent period for which statistics are available-- women spent $12.1 billion on diamond jewelry for themselves, a 41% increase over the year before, according to Orman.

By the time these "female self-purchasers" get engaged, they have already draped sapphires around their necks, hung rubies from their ears, or slipped diamonds onto their own fingers.

"The few extra years of singledom serves to solidify one's personal tastes," said Elizabeth Florence, the Jewelry Information Center's executive director. "More than ever, women are involved in the process of picking out the engagement ring. If they prefer a different gem, they are not afraid to address that."

Jane Bohan, an award-winning New York-based designer who focuses on gemstone jewelry, says part of this shift is simply availability. "You think of what was offered 20 years ago, and you just did not see a sapphire with these arrangements around them," she said.

The glossy pages of women's bridal magazines reflect this increased openness, availability--and curiosity--about non-diamond rings. "Perhaps by now you've noticed the color-is-hot trend in all things bridal," begins an article titled "Gem Dandy" in the November/December 2001 issue of Bridal Guide.

"Is a diamond really my best friend--or would I swap her for a sapphire?" asks "Ring in the New," an article in In Style's January wedding issue. Modern Bride plans to run a story on sapphire engagement rings in its June/July issue.

"Slowly, things are starting to change," said Tania Riddell, Modern Bride's accessories editor. "Slowly, you are seeing more colored rings out there. Women, girls, just want something different. There are just so many choices out there, and finally consumers are becoming aware of that."

To be sure, most women will stick with diamonds. According to the Diamond Information Center, which tracks industry trends, 84% of all U.S. brides celebrated their engagement with a diamond engagement ring last year.

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