How To

Popping The Question? The New Rules of Engagement Ring Shopping

photo: Tambako the Jaguar

‘Tis the season for family gatherings, holiday shopping, and for some, marriage proposals. According to a survey by the Fairchild Bridal Group, which publishes Modern Bride magazine, 26% of marriage proposals happen in November and December.

Planning to pop the question this holiday season? Whether you’re planning a surprise for your bride-to-be or you’re going engagement ring shopping together, chances are this is going to be one of the biggest purchases you’ll make this year — if not ever. (And we’re not just talking finances, but emotions as well.)

Mint.com recently talked to financial and precious stone experts about engagement ring shopping. Here’s what to look for and how to ensure you get the best value for your hard-earned cash.

1. Feel free to flout tradition

The traditional rule of thumb was that the groom should plan to spend anywhere from one to three month’s salary on the engagement ring. But as priorities shift, that rule has fallen out of favor. “A lot of women wouldn’t want their fiancé to spend that much money on a ring,” says Kit Yarrow, a former jewelry dealer turned consumer psychologist and professor of psychology at Golden Gate University. “Make it a personal decision based on the importance of that ring to the fiancée.” 

Diamonds and a traditional gold or silver band are no longer de rigueur either. According to Sheryl Garrett, founder of the Garrett Planning Network, there are several affordable alternatives to pricey gold, platinum, or silver. “People are using stainless steel, which is very inexpensive,” she adds. “It looks to any novice exactly the same as silver but it doesn’t tarnish and it lasts virtually forever. Plus, you don’t have to have clean it constantly.” A couple she knows chose to have wedding rings made from turquoise and onyx. Mixed metal rings are also gaining favor, since the combination of gold and silver is more versatile and will likely match whatever other jewelry or watches you wear. 

In addition to nontraditional metals, some couples also shop through nontraditional channels. Yarrow says her husband originally purchased an expensive ring from Tiffany’s but the pair returned it and chose one from an auction instead. “If you have access to auctions, you can get unbelievably good deals that way,” Yarrow says. She adds that you may not find exactly what you’re looking for, but if you choose a diamond you love, you can have it remounted.

2. Consider lifestyle

A large diamond solitaire may look impressive in the store, but it may not be practical for daily wear, especially if the wearer is active. “Is this a piece of jewelry you’re going to want to put on and leave on?” asks Garret. “Or is this a piece of jewelry that will be set up on the counter in a safe spot?”

If it’s the former, then Yarrow suggests a flat band of small diamonds instead of the traditional solitaire. “It doesn’t bunch up in your glove, and it’s really practical for an active gal,” she says.

Plus, a grouping of smaller diamonds is usually cheaper than one big rock. The cost of a diamond increases exponentially with the size,” says Yarrow. “You can get a carat’s worth of diamond, but if you get it in ten tiny diamonds, it’s going to cost a fraction of what one one carat diamond would cost. Think about a three-stone ring with each stone a little bit smaller.” 

3. Learn the 4 C’s

Since the diamond is usually the most expensive part of the ring (“it’s hundreds of dollars for the band, and thousands of dollars for the diamond,” says Garrett), some couples choose alternate stones or a decorative band instead. But if you’re set on a diamond, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the 4 C’s, as developed by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA): carat, clarity, color, and cut.

Carat refers to the weight of the diamond (two carats weigh roughly the same as a small paper clip). Clarity describes subtle characteristics that can be seen under magnification (flawless diamonds are highly unusual and valuable). Most diamonds have at least a hint of color, and the letter grades from D-Z describe these shades. Lastly, cut refers to the number, placement, and shape of the facets. Light bouncing off these facets causes the diamond to sparkle.

According to Philip York, one of GIA’s diamond experts, the importance of each C will depend on the person and their preferences. For instance, “Do they like a lot of brightness or some fire (the rainbow of colors caused by dispersion)?” he asks. If that’s the case, focus on the diamond’s cut more than, say, its size. And if size is what’s most important to you or your bride-to-be, then depending on your budget you may have to sacrifice on cut, color or clarity.

4. Give yourself time

Just as some people have no trouble finding “The One” and others spend most of their lives searching, there’s no prescribed timeline for shopping for an engagement ring. It’s safe to say, though, that you probably won’t find what you’re looking for in a single afternoon. Says York, “you have to go to several stores and find what fits right for you. If you have a deadline, it creates more tension.”

He encourages engagement ring shoppers to visit several jewelers and ask lots of questions, including if it’s a real diamond, if it’s from a conflict zone, and if it’s been treated.

“It’s not a quick fix,” he says of diamond shopping. “You’ll have to look at a lot of stones. You can have all the numbers looking fantastic, but unless you see the stone and do a side-by-side, you won’t know. Even just one can take several hours to get a good feel.”

This may be one of your biggest purchases to date, so don’t be afraid to negotiate or ask about upcoming sales.

“Because diamonds are commodities, you can almost always negotiate,” says Yarrow. “People tend to romanticize the purchase of a diamond. This is a major expense, so they need to stay rational.”

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers business and lifestyle topics.