Since time eternal (or at least since 1477), men have been dropping to one knee and presenting a bright, shiny thing to their beloved sweetheart, signaling that they’re ready to seal the deal. What’s a guy to do, though, when bling just isn’t in the budget?
From recession resourcefulness to recycled rings, Shoestring co-founder and creative director Meghan Udell culled top tips from industry experts to help committed couples everywhere stay chic on the cheap.
Know the 4 C’s
As with any major purchase or massive expenditure of funds, do your diamond-quality homework before setting out on your quest for the perfect ring. In order to negotiate a good deal (or not to get duped), you need to know the four C’s of the diamond craft: carat, cut, color, and clarity.
How much a diamond weighs, measured in ounces to the decimal place.
The proportions, symmetry and finish of a diamond. Cut affects the “brilliance” of the diamond.
The less color in a diamond, the better the color grade. The most expensive diamonds are considered “colorless.”
Diamonds have both internal features and surface blemishes, which make up clarity characteristics. Clarity is the relative absence of characteristics.
Online jewelry retailer Blue Nile offers an excellent crash course in Diamonds Education, which outlines everything you should look for in a genuine diamond in much more detail.
Also, be sure to inspect the diamond for two measurements often overlooked but equally important to the 4 c’s: table size (the upper flat facet of the diamond); and depth (the height of the diamond). Ideally, you want a diamond that has a 60/60 percentage. For the appearance of a larger diamond, you can cheat a little and get one with a slightly larger table size. You want to make sure that you don’t deviate too far from the 60/60 ratio, however, or the look of the diamond can be compromised.
Fake It ‘Til You Make It
If actual diamonds aren’t a necessity, consider going with a more affordable alternative: faux stones. Many expensive-looking rings are made with a decidedly more affordable diamond imposters, like cubic zirconia and moissanite—the latter of which is a great diamond look for a lot less. Make sure your sweetheart is copasetic with the swap, however. “Unless you know your partner really well, it doesn’t send a very good message,” warned Michael Schreier, senior fine jewelry buyer for RueLaLa and SmartBargains. “Honey, I love you, but I couldn’t afford to buy you a diamond and got you Moissanite instead. It’s not very romantic.”
If you do decide to go faux, there are a few quality control issues to consider, like condition of the stone, setting, and savings. While diamonds are among the hardest stones on the planet, artificial diamonds made from moissanite are not. Schreier recommends inspecting diamond alternatives for wear and tear, and that cubic zirconias and other faux stones are more likely to pass for the real thing if they’re set in 18K gold or platinum. Also, call around. You might have a harder time finding a jeweler who stocks moissanite, but the savings are worth it: moissanite sells for 1/10th the cost of a real diamond with comparable clarity.
Schreier suggests checking out online stores for styles similar to the pieces shown in high-end fashion and wedding magazines, but that unless your woman is on board, to wait on buying a faux stone. “Look at [genuine] sapphires and rubies instead if diamonds are out of your price range.”
If you’re not lucky enough to have family heirloom to pass down, check out estate jewelry pieces. Most major cities have a diamond district–the most famous of them all is in New York City on 47th street, with an entire square block dedicated to selling diamonds and jewelry. In addition to buying vintage pieces instead of vintage-inspired pieces, cut costs by cutting out the middleman. Go directly to the source and you can save thousands on high-end rings. Many of these retailers sell out of booths but also have online stores, like Estate Diamond Jewelers, which I found online while searching for a wedding band to match my estate wedding ring. They offer a platinum diamond micro-channel set band for $700 (linked above), which is about a quarter of the price of a similar ring at Bailey, Biddle & Banks. They were more than helpful in person, they will ship the ring directly to you for free, and they don’t charge tax if you’re outside the state of New York. Antiques shops often will also have a few quality pieces tucked away behind the counter, so don’t be shy to ask. Again, make sure to get an independent appraisal before paying any significant sum, and be sure to get everything in writing.
For multiple reasons—especially during this recession—many people are also deciding to sell or consign their used jewelry. Scour the newspaper classifieds, Craig’s List, and pawn shops. However, buyer beware: the chances of getting scammed are really high when you buy from an individual rather than an established business. To be absolutely certain, have the stone independently appraised by someone who is affiliated with a professional organization, such as the American Society of Appraisers. Ask for the original jeweler’s certificate, indicating the value and characteristics of the stone.
Size Does Matter
If the idea of wearing someone else’s secondhand ring leaves a sour karmic taste in your mouth, look for the highest-quality diamond you can afford in a plain or less expensive setting and have the stone reset at a later date, or try “buying shy”—a term coined by Fred Cuellar, author of How To Buy A Diamond: Insider Secrets For Getting Your Money’s Worth. Essentially, buy a diamond that is a fraction smaller than the next carat size. The difference might be negligible to the naked eye, but can net you major cash savings.
Also check out locally owned shops before buying from the big chain retailers. In addition to supporting the local economy, you’ll find the same quality of stones for significantly lower prices. Smaller business and local chains may also be more willing to haggle the price with you. If you are shopping at a large chain store, don’t be afraid to ask for a discount. In this economy, negotiating for the best deal is a necessity, and retailers need every sale they can get. Christmas and Valentine’s Day are traditionally the hottest times to get engaged. If you plan ahead, or don’t plan to get engaged at one of these seasons for romance, you can save money by purchasing your ring at an off-peak time. The best time of the year for jewelry bargains is mid- to late- summer. If you can’t hold off until then, try buying at the end of the month. Stores will be looking to move merchandise and to close up monthly quotas.
Don’t be afraid to go online, and don’t be fooled by aspirational television and print marketing. Many websites are sell high-quality jewelry for significantly less then their brick and mortar counterparts, especially around Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, such as SmartBargains.com, Overstock.com, and BlueNile.com. If you can wait to buy a ring, your best chance of scoring a great deal for Valentine’s Day with online stores. “Low brow” discount retail shops like Kmart and Wal-Mart offer the same jewelry pieces for prices up to 50 percent cheaper than stand-alone jewelry stores all year ’round.
Ethical & Environmental Issues
At this point, thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio if nothing else, everyone has at least heard about the problem with “blood diamonds.” These diamonds have been mined under unethical conditions, and are used to fund wars and insurgencies. In addition, the labor practices exploit children, workers, and the communities in which they exist–generally third world countries.
One way to ensure that you’re buying a conflict-free diamond is to check for the Kimberley Process certificate. The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme outlines the regulations and requirements countries must follow to make sure a diamond is mined and shipped in a humane, legitimate way. Unfortunately, the Kimberly Process is not without its flaws. Despite best intentions, the Kimberly process lacks the ability to oversee human rights abuses and environmental issues.
If you are looking for an alternative, you should consider diamonds that come from Canada, Russia, or Australia. These countries have expanded their diamond mining efforts, and have produced some brilliant gems. Check out the website Brilliant Earth.com. In addition to offering conflict-free Canadian diamond jewelry, they also donate 5% of their profits to communities impacted by the jewelry trade.
Copyright 2009 Shoestring, LLC. Photo: iStock