An Engagement Ring Buying Guide For Beginners: The Basics You Need To Know

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Much like a house, car, or luxury handbag that’s priced well above your average paycheck, an engagement ring is a purchase that comes with a vocabulary all its own — one that can seem entirely foreign and rife with misinterpretations if you’re a first-time shopper. And while neither you or your soon-to-be betrothed may require a complete encyclopedic knowledge about diamond rings just to select the right one, knowing some basics can help you feel more empowered in your decision. And, with the help of an engagement ring buying guide, as confident in your choice of jewelry as in your choice of spouse.

Before breaking down diamond-ring jargon and the all-too-common, but still rather mysterious, 4Cs, the process of buying an engagement ring often begins with a few very necessary questions to ask oneself. This includes identifying a budget as well as addressing priorities for how you’re spending it, especially in regard to how a diamond is sourced. “I think a solid starting point is ‘Are the brand’s values aligned to yours?,’” suggests Anna Sheffield, whose eponymous jewelry brand is known for its beautiful, unique, and stackable engagement rings, as well its commitment to environmentally sound practices. ”Are they are working to be sustainable, and do they have responsible manufacturing and sourcing practices?”

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These answers can quickly help sift through trusted vendors so that you can then delve into details such as cut, clarity, and whether or not you prefer your diamond to be grown in a lab. Feeling a little overwhelmed yet? Not to worry. Ahead, gain a better understanding of a few key basics thanks to the help of some of the industry’s innovative sources, including Diamond Foundry, Couple, and Single Stone.

The 4Cs

It’s likely you already know what the 4Cs are, but perhaps only on the most surface level. Together carat, cut, color, and clarity are the qualities that determine a diamond’s value and what it looks like. Here’s what they really mean:

Carats: “Carat is a unit of measure by weight, so it will always dictate and be correlated to the size of the stone, no matter the cut,” Sheffield tells us referring to the weight of both diamonds and precious gemstones. As she explains, the number of carats is one of the biggest decisions to be made by the purchaser as it will be a huge factor in determining price and overall aesthetic of the ring. “As precious material, diamond prices generally increase with carat weight, but one must also take into consideration the other 3 C’s,” the designer adds.

Cut (and Shape): “The cut and shape of a diamond are distinct yet interrelated,” says Sheffield. As she explains, the term “cut” refers to the arrangement of the stone’s facets and how light is reflected in it. Meanwhile, the shape of a diamond is what it looks like from the top. Think oval, emerald, square; the silhouettes can run the gamut and can be tailored to your preference.

“Round brilliants are traditional and always popular for their brilliance and fire,” weighs in Mona Sadat Akhavi, VP of marketing at Diamond Foundry, a mining-free diamond company which produces the rare stones using solar technology. Akhavi adds that emeralds and ovals have been the shapes of choice this year specifically, with plenty of other creative interpretations available. “Designers are really embracing our unique shapes ,” she says. “Instead of the typical 10 shapes, they can choose from a keystone shape, elongated lozenge or a rose hexagon!”

Clarity: As Sheffield explains it, diamonds are “part science, part alchemy” and therefore each is unique with its own imperfections that contribute to the clarity of a stone. “Inclusions,” which are used to describe the small imperfections on a diamond and can effect how it shines, “can be more, or less, visible,” says Sheffield. However, they are not necessarily a sign that you shouldn’t purchase a stone—it’s really a matter of preference and taste. “On one end, we work with stones that are flawless to very slightly included, though not visible to the naked eye. On the other end we celebrate and create jewelry with highly included stones.”

Color: The hue that a diamond takes on is the result of trace amounts of nitrogen and other elements present when their crystals form,” Sheffield says. While some of the most popular and ubiquitous engagement stones tend to be colorless, the options can include anything as dark as black or as unconventional as a blueish green tint. Again, it's ultimately a matter of personal style when it comes to selecting a shade to wear on your engagement ring finger.

Lab-Grown Diamonds

When it comes to committing, especially financially, to a diamond ring, there shouldn't be any question of authenticity. Which is why the term lab-grown diamond is still the cause for a few raised eyebrows and a natural dose of skepticism. In short, “a diamond is a diamond,” says Akhavi of Diamond Foundry, citing directly from research the FTC released last year.

“The big benefit and a reason why we started this business,” explains Jeff Brenner, cofounder of Couple, a newly launched, luxury lab-grown diamond brand, “is there are clients who are in the market to buy a diamond and really want to know there is not an ethical impact to this product. Our diamonds are grown in the US and it comes without the same environmental impact as a diamond grown in the ground.”

While Brenner says he’s often asked whether this lab-grown alternative is a real diamond, there are two common misconceptions most customers always ask about: One, that the diamonds are 3D printed and two, that they’re perfect. “Lab-grown diamonds as a raw stone and that stone still needs to be cut and polished and be graded just like a diamond that comes from the ground,” Brenner explains. “They’re just a unique. The 4Cs apply the same way.”

Vintage

For those with an affinity toward unique, harder-to-find, but worth-the-hunt pieces, a vintage engagement ring is likely appealing. But it’s best to know what to look for when discussing a purchase. “Vintage diamonds were cut at least 30 years ago and the term often refers to diamonds that were previously set,” explains Corina Madilian of Single Stone, a brand which only uses vintage diamonds in their antique-inspired ring designs. “True ‘antique’ diamonds were cut over 100 years ago and will usually have a culet, which refers to the extra facet on the underside of the diamond. The larger the culet, the older the stone.”

When it comes to vintage or antique stones, there may also be more obvious-to-the-naked-eye differences, as well. “Since antique diamonds were cut by hand, there needs to be some leniency as to the cut,” Madilian explains in regard to applying the old 4C standards. “While color and clarity are still considered, most vintage diamonds are warmer in color. It is harder to find vintage diamonds in the colorless range because many of these have been either recut or are in private collections. Antique diamonds were cut for candlelight and were not cut for today’s standards or certification. While it isn’t impossible to find a colorless antique diamond, clients need to be aware of their rarity and open to pay a premium for them.”

In a hunt for a ring, Madilian also advises that terms like “estate” or “previously owned” do not mean a ring or its diamond is vintage. “Neither does adding engraving or any other vintage motif like filigree or a fleur-des-lys,” she adds.

Metals

Of course, diamonds and gemstones are not the single most key decision to buying an engagement ring — it’s necessary to make a thoughtful choice in metals, as well. The most popular options include gold, white gold, platinum, and rose gold, and each with nuanced qualities and prices attached. “Gold is by far the most commonly used metal for fine jewelry,” Sheffield says. While pure gold is 24 karats, Sheffield says she typically works with 14k for both yellow and rose options. For white gold, palladium alloy is added to yellow gold in order to create the bright, white appearance. “The cost is commensurate with the metal’s purity or karat,” she says.

Meanwhile according to Brenner, the cost of platinum options have declined in recent years, making it on par with it's other white-metal counterpart. “The choice between platinum or white gold has come down to preference,” explains Brenner. “Platinum is heavier, and white gold is rhodium plated. It’s more scratch-resistant but overtime you will need to get that plating redone. Platinum you get polished after several year and it’s hypo allergenic.”

Certification

In the same way an engineer might inspect a piece of property for sale or a mechanic looks under the hood of a car, a diamond ring should not be bought without a third-party certification on the stone. Here’s a simple rundown of how it works: Diamonds — both mined and lab-grown — are both certified using the same set of parameters, as Akhavi says. A grading can be based on the 4 Cs however each stone's grade also includes information about the stone’s origin and date it was inspected, reports the International Gem Society. Some of the most popular certifications include the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), Gem Certification and Assurance Lab (GCAL), and the International Gemological Institute (IGI).

“It’s a very subjective process,” says Brenner about the certifications. “It’s being done by humans in a lab setting and there are variations from one person to the next about how diamonds are graded.” Ultimately, being able to identify which organization certifies a brand's jewelry, as well as a stone's individual grade, helps consumers be aware of their diamond’s intricate and finest details, as well as understand where it was source. “I would never recommend anyone buy bigger than half carrot without one,” adds Brenner. In short: Don't hesitate to ask for as much information as possible.

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