Shopping for an engagement ring has got to be one of the most angst-ridden things a grown-ass man can go through. Between worrying about the correct sizing, decoding the "one-sixth of your annual salary" thing, and, you know, trying to find a style that your soul mate will want to wear for the rest of her life, buying an engagement ring is a stomach-tangling experience that all the Pepcid AC in Duane Reed couldn't calm.
And sure, maybe you don't buy into the whole institution of the engagement ring and think it's insane to spend so much money on a symbol when she should just, like, feel it, man. I get it. But even if you're planning on making the symbol of your love out of wood from the park bench where you first made out or out of packing foam because you were her UPS guy, some of this info might still be relevant. Ultimately, the most important thing is what she's going to like. But yes, damn the man, and congrats on being so edgy.
Either way, take a deep breath. If you take note of what she likes and learn a thing or two about what to look for, the process is at least a little less daunting. In fact, if you go the traditional route, it's possible to get something really beautiful without needing to sell any vital organs on the black market. That's why we recruited Lia Wilson and Danielle Mainas of engagement-ring-consultation site Little Bird. They're here to share some tips on how to select the best symbol of your love without causing a pulmonary embolism. "She's marrying you, not the ring," they council. But still, let's make sure we don't get a stupid, embarrassing ring.
We've all heard of carats in relation to diamonds, but most of us don't actually know what it means. Simply put, a carat is a measurement of weight, and one carat equals one-fifth of a gram. While "more carats" almost always means "more expensive," it doesn't always make for a better, more visually appealing diamond. A lot of it comes down to how the diamond is cut. "The cut grade refers to the proportions of a diamond and the way that all of the facets work together with the diamond's unique refractive index to create a stunning display of brightness and color," Little Bird explains. "Cut is not the same as shape. A heart or an oval is a shape. Cut grade refers to how well or poorly the shape was executed."
Little Bird recommends you try to buy right below the carat line. Why? "Prices jump at the carat mark, so cutters will often compromise on cut precision to try and make a diamond a full carat, or two full carats, etc. There are all sorts of tricks to increase weight that actually detract from the quality of the diamond. Don't let them fool you. A .98 carat diamond is more likely to be well-proportioned and therefore sparklier." Think about it like a suit. You can buy top-quality materials, but if the tailoring is terrible, it'll still look lousy. Little Bird advises you get a diamond with an Excellent or Very Good cut grade if you can afford it, but Good is still quite good. "Pay attention to the cut grade first."
Diamond color is rated on a scale of D to Z, and they kind of go in groups: DEF, GHI, etc. "Buy G color instead of D, E, or F color," the ladies of Little Bird tell us. There's often a huge gap in price between F and G, and the difference is so slight most experts wouldn't see it without specialized equipment (and maybe not even then). Anything past K, though, and things start to get yellow. If you have to go further than that, consider setting it in yellow gold, which will make the yellowness less noticeable. More on metals in a minute.
Diamonds form miles under the Earth's crust over millions to billions of years. In all that time, it's not so surprising that little bits of other elements get pushed into your lovely jewel. The rarest diamonds are rated F for "Flawless," and they will cost you a lot of coin. Moving down from there, there's IF for "Internally Flawless," VVS for "Very Very Slightly Included," and VS for ""Very Slightly Included," and so on, with a few different levels within each classification. Generally speaking, the more inclusions, the less brightly your diamond will shine. Little Bird says that the sweet spot between perfect and price is in the VS1 and VS2 range. "Unless you are a trained gemologist looking at the diamond with a 10x magnifying glass, you are going to have no chance of telling the difference between VVS and VS grades," Little Bird tells us. "In my opinion, the VS1 and VS2 diamonds are a good buy for most people because they are still of very high quality, they have excellent brightness, and they are more reasonably priced." Sweet.
"If you are buying a modern (not antique or vintage) diamond, you generally want a diamond certificate with it," says Little Bird. The Gemological Institute of America (or GIA) has been issuing certificates since the 1950s that vouch for a diamond's carat weight, clarity grade, cut grade, and color grade. GIA's gem labs test hundreds of thousands of stones every year, and diamonds will be laser-etched with a number that should match the number on the GIA certificate. Basically, it proves that you're getting what you pay for. Now, if the diamond doesn't have a cert that doesn't necessarily mean there's something shady going on, but if you want a guarantee, get a rock with a cert. The American Gem Society (AGS) issues them, too, and they're reliable as well.
Sure, it's less expensive to get a larger sapphire or a ruby, and it'll look great … for a while. But diamonds are three times harder than corundum (the family that sapphires and rubies are in). That means that after 20 years of wear and tear, that rock is likely to look the same as it did on day one, while a sapphire or ruby may need some serious resurfacing.
Of course, the rock is just one part of a ring. What about the rest of it? What's popular right now? Little Bird tells us that there will always be a demand for a classic solitaire on a plain band, so when it doubt, that's probably the way to go. That said, they're also seeing a major rise in people reusing heirloom rings and diamonds, and antique-diamond styles like Old Mine Cuts and European Cuts. They also say that "more and more people are seeking out creative and artistic jewelry designers because they want uniqueness and individuality in their ring." Ultimately, though, it's less about what's in style, and more about what's her style.
"You don't have to snoop around your girlfriend's jewelry box," say the ladies of LB. "All you have to do is be observant of her and the jewelry that she wears. Does she favor bold, chunky jewelry? Delicate designs with lots of detail? Indie quirky? Luxe with tons of sparkle? Natural materials like wood, shell, or leather? Modern streamlined style?" Start by looking for something that matches her tastes. Also, think about her lifestyle. Is she very active? Then she probably doesn't want a ring that sticks way out and is going to catch on stuff. Look for something sturdy and low-profile.
How in the hell do you find out what size ring your lady wears on her left-hand ring-finger if she doesn't wear a ring on that finger? You don't want to ask her, because that would ruin the surprise. Wait until she passes out drunk and then use a tape-measure? Maybe, but still dodgy. You could borrow a ring from her jewelry box that she wears on the ring finger of her other hand, but know that the sizes could be pretty different.
If you have zero idea as to the size of your intended's ring finger, get a 6.5. According to Little Bird, that's the average size for women, and it's very easy to re-size most rings. The only caveat is that rings that have stones that loop all the way around them generally cannot be resized. Those are typically more for wedding rings, anyway, in which case you'll probably be shopping with your lady, and she can try it on. The Little Bird ladies also suggest getting a ring that sits low on the finger so it rests snugly against the wedding band. Not only will it be more comfortable, but it will also mean she can continue wearing it with her wedding ring.
While gold may be the first thing you think of when it comes to rings, the ladies of Little Bird recommend checking out platinum. "Platinum is more durable, and it keeps its white color better," LB says. "It can scratch, but it doesn't wear away. If you get white gold, you will have to get it rhodium-plated every once in a while to keep it looking white. That is because 18k white gold is really an alloy made up of yellow gold, nickel and zinc.. The other metals wear away quicker, causing the ring to look more yellow over time." That said, they note that they still love the look of diamonds in 18k yellow gold: "It wears well and doesn't need re-plating." So, platinum or 18k yellow gold is the safest bet, got it?
You'll hear this phrase bandied about all the time, but most people don't know what a "conflict-free diamond" really is, and with good reason: It's an extremely nebulous term. "All diamonds that are sold legally (in most countries) have been certified according to the Kimberley Process," Little Bird explains. "That means that the sale of the diamonds did not go to fund conflict in countries where armed groups are fighting the government, and each government issues a certificate that the diamonds that are legally leaving the country were mined under humane conditions."
Sounds great, right? Well, here's the thing: There's a lot of debate about the effectiveness of the Kimberley Process. "As is usually the case, the term 'humane' is interpreted differently by certain governments," they continue. "And the Kimberley Process does not guarantee that governments don't look the other way about some pretty bad conditions. Also, 'Ethically Sourced' does not address the ethics of environmental destruction, habitat destruction OR the absolutely insane amount of water that mining consumes."
In other words, "'conflict-free' is about as precise a term as the word 'natural' on a food label," Little Bird says. Basically, there are no guarantees, and there isn't a simple website where you can look up your diamond and see if it's been ethically sourced or not. If it's really important to you, buy from a place that knows (for sure) what mine their stones come from, and then research that specific mine. The best bet is probably a Canadian diamond, because their mines are typically known for having the best conditions for workers and to be a little easier environmentally. Or, if you want to go the safest route, get an antique or vintage diamond (or ring). At least that way you're re-using rather than mining for a new stone. It's the same principles of recycling applied to jewelry.
So what did we learn here today? Look for a diamond that's just under a carat mark, with a color rating of G, a clarity rating of VS1 or VS2, and a cut grade of Excellent or Very Good, then have it put on a size 6.5 ring (unless you know her actual size) made of platinum or 18k yellow gold that can be worn toward the base of her finger. Or, if you want some personalized help, contact our highly recommended experts at Little Bird. Helping guys find the right ring is what they do, and they give free engagement-ring consultations. (Thanks, ladies!)
Ultimately, there's nothing that can completely de-claw this beast. It's a stressful proposition at best and outright terrifying at worst. Just remember: This is supposed to be about love and stuff, and love (and stuff) is the most important element here. That said, hopefully we've armed you with enough information to keep you from just calling the whole thing off.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
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