How to choose an engagement ring

How to choose an Engagement Ring

Guide by an award-winning jewelry designer
hand-forged vs mass-production

Custom vs Factory-made

A custom-made ring is fundamental when you want to look and feel attractive, successful,  and powerful.

A custom engagement ring is designed better, made of premium materials, and fits the diamond without gaps, kinks, or unwanted reflections, enhancing its appearance and increasing its value. The value of mass-produced jewelry quickly plummets because it is a part of a planned obsolescence market. On the other hand, a unique engagement ring is destined to become an heirloom.

The intelligent way to shop is to think long-term and not be scared away by the upfront cost. The premium paid for custom work returns as a brighter, and better-looking diamond. Custom-made jewelry offers an unlimited number of possibilities, while mass-produced comes in a limited number of styles.

Selecting a diamond​

  • Look up current diamond prices here but feel free to use other sources.
  • A round diamond is more expensive than a fancy-shaped diamond.
  • Most jewelers do not own the diamonds they sell; they source them.
  • The majority of diamonds are listed on one of several wholesale marketplaces.
  • Web forums are teaming with fake “independent” consultants getting commissions for bringing new clients.
  • You can identify any diamond by its GIA certificate number.
  • GIA is the gold standard in diamond grading. Buy only a GIA-certified diamond.
  • GIA grades CUT of round diamonds, but not fancy shapes.
  • “Ideal cut” is not an official grade. All stones with GIA ExExEx grade (excellent cut, polish, and symmetry) are ideal-cut diamonds.
  • “Super ideal” or “Hearts and Arrows” are round diamonds with exceptional symmetry and proportions. Their superficial superiority comes at a steep premium.
  • So-called “blockchain-enabled” diamonds are a deceitful marketing ploy. 
  • Vintage diamond cuts, such as Antique cushions and Asschers, are more expensive than modern diamonds due to their scarcity.
  • Most antique diamonds are cut in the present day and are highly desirable.
selecting a diamond illustration
Diamond carat sizes on hand illustration Leon Mege

How many carats?

The recipient’s physical appearance does not determine the diamond size. Neither does body type, height, or length of fingers. The carat size is determined by your social standing, your family’s affluence, and peer pressure.

The average engagement ring in the US has an approximately one-carat diamond.

Carats indicate a diamond’s weight, not its dimensions or size. The number of carats serves mostly for bragging rights and the actual carat weight often cannot be eyeballed. 

The smaller the finger, the larger the diamond will appear. A 2-carat diamond appears much larger on a size three finger than on a size 9. 

Compare notes with celebrities we all love to hate

What diamond grade to choose?​

The Gemological Institute of America, the world leader in unbiased diamond grading, created an easy-to-use 4C system for rating diamond Carat weight, Color, Clarity, and Cut.

To decide which grade is best for you, compare the most popular diamond tiers:

  • Investment grade D-E/IF diamonds – rarely used in jewelry, keep it in the safe and wait for inflation to kick in. 
  • Collection grade – E-F/VVS diamonds – top grade, when you want the best and are ready to pay for it
  • Premium grade- G-H/VS-SI1 diamonds – the sweet spot, the perfect balance between quality and cost
  • Commercial grade – I-J/SI diamonds – when you want a stone bigger than you can afford
  • Budget grade – I-K/SI1-I diamonds – mostly used in inexpensive low-end fashion jewelry

An ideal cut is recommended for investment and collection grades, as well as the premium grade round diamonds. Premium-grade fancy shapes are OK with Very-Good cut or better. Look for at least good symmetry in commercial-grade diamonds. Budget-grade diamonds are not GIA-graded, so whatever certificate accompanies them is worthless. Most jewelry sold in the US is set with Commercial/Budget grade diamonds.

Selecting a diamond grade illustration

Budget decision

Reasonable expectations will shield you from major disappointment. Start with setting your budget, and do not change even if you are told offered an incredible deal. 

The recipient’s physical appearance, body type, height, or length of fingers do not determine the diamond size. Your social status and peer pressure play a decisive role. The old rule, “two to three months’ salary,” is an outdated concept that should be put to rest.

New guidelines:

  • your projected one-month income ten years from now
  • ten times the cost of the wedding dress
  • the rough cost of the wedding ceremony
  • the cost of the honeymoon, x 4
  • the recipient’s sibling’s ring, x 1.2
  • the recipient’s best friend’s ring, x 1.5
  • the ex’s ring x2 for every decade passed

Ring Types

Solitaire. A solitaire presents a single stone in plain metal or pave-set mounting. Distinct varieties include Tiffany (six-prong, crown style) or “Winston” (four-prong, basket style) solitaires. A crown can be set with round diamonds; the basket style suits all kinds of diamond shapes.

Halo. A halo is a diamond pave that wraps the center stone around its girdle. A halo brings attention to the diamond providing a transitional space that gives it a feeling of exclusivity. A halo is a psychological boundary insulating the diamond from its surrounding. It also provides physical protection to the stone.

Three-stone. A three-stone ring has two side stones flanking the center stone, amplifying its presence and elevating it to a superior level of sophistication. The side stones prop up the center stone, make it more prominent, and provide a smooth transition to the shank.

Five-stone.  A five-stone ring is a variety of three-stone rings where each side combines two different shapes, usually a trapezoid or half-moon, followed by a bullet or baguette. More on the subject in our three-stone ring guide.

Cluster. Cluster rings are often mistaken for halo rings; however, clusters are made of larger stones set with prongs instead of the pave.

Twin or Bypass.  A ring with two stones of similar size in various shapes or colors. The Toi-et-Moi (‘you and me’ in French) design was made famous by the ring Napoleon gave to his first wife, Josephine.

What is a ring style? The ring style describes the combination of proportions, curvatures, and angles chosen by the maker based on their personal interpretation of the design. In other words, the style is the jeweler’s signature touch permeating through every element of a hand-forged ring.

Ring parts

Ring anatomy

The ring’s head is its focal point. The head can be a single setting or an elaborate assembly of different parts, such as prongs, stems, halos, galleries, baskets, and bezels.

A basket is a decorative arrangement supported by an intricate harness.

A crown is a single setting, typically a six-prong Tiffany head.

A setting or “mount” is a part that holds a single stone. The traditional setting consists of an upper- and lower bezel joined with prongs.

The prongs are the posts that grip stones and allow a stone to be exposed with minimal visual obstruction. Prongs are essential elements of a setting’s structure, working as connections in a tiered setting.

The shank wraps around the finger and straps the ring head to it. The split shank is divided at the top, going left and right from the center.

The shoulders are the raised shank arms connected to the ring’s head. A cathedral shank’s shoulders are split vertically from the base.

The upper gallery is located directly underneath the stones serving as a seat for each stone. When the upper gallery is set with pave, it is erroneously called a “hidden halo.” 

The lower gallery or “bridge” connects both sides of the shank at the base. It is a projection of the upper gallery or the center stone.

A halo is a frame around the center stone set with pave. A “Peek-a-boo” halo is partially obstructed by the stone it holds.

The stems are pillars connecting the halo with the gallery. Stems are often set with pave.

Metal preferences

The most desirable metal for an upscale engagement ring is platinum. For those who prefer colored metal, 18-karat yellow or rose (pink) gold is the metal of choice.

The 18-karat gold is the only one used in fine jewelry; lower-karat alloys (such as 14-karat) are never used.

White gold is a platinum substitute; it is seldom used in fine jewelry and rarely in hand-forged jewelry. Using white gold in hand-forged jewelry costs more, not less because it is more difficult to work with than platinum.

Still, considering white gold for your engagement ring? Read Platinum vs. White Gold.

Fascinating facts about platinum:

  • Platinum has been known to Europeans since the 17th century.
  • The world’s most precious gemstones and diamonds, including the famous Hope diamond and Dresden Green, are set in platinum.
  • During the Second World War, platinum was declared a strategic material and banned in the United States for civilian use.
  • Platinum is hypoallergenic and has many medical and dental applications.
    There is always more platinum in a platinum ring than gold in a gold ring.
  • Platinum’s purity symbolizes the sanctity of marriage. A platinum engagement ring owner is three times less likely to get a divorce.
  • In 1898 Louis Cartier designed a line of platinum jewelry and, in 1907, introduced the world’s first platinum watch.
  • Platinum jewelry first appeared around 1780 in the court of Louis XVI of France.
    He was so impressed with platinum that he proclaimed the white metal the only one fit for royalty.
    Platinum is strong, malleable, and durable, making it suitable for hand fabrication. Its neutral color is ideal for holding colorless diamonds without casting a yellow tinge.
  • The Art Deco movement fueled the rise of platinum’s popularity. From the beginning of the 20th century, platinum became the metal of choice for the finest jewelry.
Choosing metal color

Shopping for engagement ring illustrationThe party that pays is in charge of buying a ring. Traditionally, the groom picks out the ring for the bride, who is often involved in the selection but shies away when financials are discussed.

Most couples shop together for an engagement ring which is a smart thing to do. Sure, the surprise proposal is romantic, but unfortunately, a lot could go wrong. The groom can pick the wrong stone or setting and even guess the wrong finger size. All this can lead to long-lasting resentment and additional expenses.

  • Design by committee leads to disaster. Once you select a jeweler, do not second-guess their advice. Stop listening to strangers at public forums shot through with paid agents, crackpots, and misfits.

  • Bespoke engagement rings are made using only hand-forged components, assembled with precise tolerances, and the greatest emphasis on craftsmanship.

  • Micro pave diamonds are tiny tiles that cover unsightly metalwork. Just like wall tiles, more pave means a higher price. Incidentally, a diamond used for micro pave costs less than setting it into a ring.

what to avoid illustration

  • Ignore strangers who offer advice in picking diamonds. They are paid agents or unlicensed brokers prowling public forums.
  • Avoid missing out on a good deal because your funds are not liquid.
  • Do not buy a white diamond with a strong blue fluorescence unless you can tell bad fluorescence from benign.
  • Do not use a credit card to buy a diamond ring. Any credit card transaction carries up to a 3% hidden cost, even if you are told there are no credit card fees.

Most so-called "private jewelers" have a retail background; they are rogue salespeople, independent smooth-talkers often unfamiliar with the intricacies of bespoke jewelry.

 

Before the Internet, buying a brand guaranteed high standards of craftsmanship. These days, buying an engagement ring from a luxury retailer is an admission of not being able to understand quality and being willing to pay triple for your ignorance.

 

The top brands to consider are:

  • Harry Winston
  • Graff
  • Tiffany
  • Cartier

Other brands you might come across are either low-end or too fashion-oriented.

Once you start thinking about the proposal, there is no reason to delay the inevitable; ultimately, the "right" time is up to you. There is no prime purchasing season for custom-made engagement rings, but the holidays can affect production times. Instead of taking the plunge at the year-end when jewelers rush to deliver before shutting down for the winter break, wait until after the New Year.

Spend about a week doing market research and familiarize yourself with diamond grades and ring types. Learn how to use the GIA 4C system to balance the diamond grade with your budget. Exploring your options and selecting a jeweler to trust with your purchase takes a few days. Once you set clear guidelines, the jeweler can propose the best loose diamonds. Diamonds' shelf life is about a week, so deciding between the top contenders should not take longer than a couple of days. It takes, on average, 3 to 6 weeks to hand-forge a ring. All-in-all, you are looking at a two-three month process for a hand-forged piece. Getting a ring from a low-end jeweler working with casting takes less time, but is saving time justify inferior quality?

One ring per finger

You can wear engagement and wedding rings on any hand you choose. Traditionally both rings are worn on the same finger, but this tradition is outdated. Unless you believe in the old wife's tale about a special vein connecting your ring finger directly to the heart, you are free to wear both rings separately and avoid damaging them.

Choose the diamond shape first.

Each diamond shape (also known as a cut) is priced differently. A round cut is the most expensive, as are vintage cuts such as antique cushions and Asschers. Knowing the cut you want will allow comparing apples to apples.

Want to find out the ring size secretly?

Get your partner drunk. You have to be careful not to inebriate yourself, so you are still up for the job. Have a strip of paper and a sharp pencil ready. Wrap the strip around the KNUCKLE on a RING finger of the left hand. 

Mix not Match

Once upon a time, everyone wore matching sets of an engagement ring and a wedding band. The current trend is to choose a band that complements the engagement ring, not mimics it. Choose a  band based on your personal preference, tailored to your taste.

Keeping the ring clean can save you money.

Use a household-grade ultrasonic cleaner or rinse your ring regularly using dishwashing soup and a soft toothbrush. Dirt drops a diamond color by a few grades, so you can buy a cheaper diamond and still get the same sparkle.

Get ring size measured correctly

Make sure to get the ring finger properly measured by the jeweler who will make the ring. If this is a surprise proposal, talk to your partner's parents, siblings, or best friends; they should be able to find out. If all fails get your partner drunk and use a paper strip to measure the size.

 

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