Diamond Ring Shopping 101: How and Where to Buy Engagement Rings

Consider this your ultimate guide to finding the perfect sparkler

Updated 05/28/19

With so many rings and so many jewelry stores, figuring out how and where to buy engagement rings can seem overwhelming! After all, it's one of the biggest purchases you'll ever make — you want to make sure you're doing it right. Read our engagement ring shopping guide to take the stress out of the process. Here’s everything you need to know to get the perfect ring your love will treasure forever.

1. Know the 4 Cs: Cut, Carat, Clarity and Color

You've probably heard of the "Four Cs," the official diamond grading system that's made its way into the mainstream. Here's a quick decoder on what each "C" is and how you can use that knowledge to locate the best diamond for your budget.

Cut

By "cut," we mean the sparkle factor rather than the ring shape. Cuts are graded from excellent to poor. When a diamond is cut into a shape, like pear or oval, it’s done within specific parameters so that the facets interact with light for maximum blinginess.

Carat

The size or weight of a diamond is measured in carats. The average diamond in an engagement ring is one carat, or 200 milligrams (about the size of an Advil tablet). By contrast, Kim K’s infamous stolen emerald-cut weighed 20 carats—and reportedly cost $4.5 million.

Clarity

Even a perfect-looking stone can have flaws—a.k.a. inclusions—tiny black or white flecks or lines that occur naturally as the diamond forms in the earth over millions of years. These minute imperfections determine clarity, which is rated on an intricate scale from flawless to included. The smaller, fewer, and less visible the inclusions, the higher the price.

Color

Diamonds come in a spectrum of shades, but the rarest ones are colorless. Color is ranked on a scale from D—no color, the most expensive—all the way to Z, which is visibly yellowish. Recently, so-called fancy colors—like pink, yellow, or chocolate—have become popular. For those, the more saturated the color, the more valuable the stone.

2. Pick Your Shape

The type of diamond engagement ring you choose should speak to your individual style. Here's a brief overview of the most popular shapes.

Round: It’s the most popular shape and best highlights a diamond’s brilliance.

Oval: This shape complements long, lean fingers.

Emerald: Its large facets showcase excellent clarity. (See: Beyoncé and Amal Clooney.)

Asscher: A square emerald has an art deco feel.

Cushion: Created in the 1800s, this vintage style is predominantly square with rounded corners.

Princess: The broad, flat top and pyramidal shape make a stone look larger than it is.

Marquise: This long, tapered style maximizes carat size.

Pear: A round-marquise hybrid looks extra delicate on a light, thin band.

3. Decide. Where. to Buy an Engagement Ring

There are many options for where to buy engagement rings — and each comes with its own advantages. Here's what you should know about each option.

National Jeweler

Think Robbins Brothers or Jared. These stores boast a national presence, huge selections, and financing options. Sometimes they even have upgrade programs, where you can trade your ring in eventually and upgrade to a bigger or different diamond.

When you're trying on rings in the store, be mindful that “store lighting is meant to optimize a diamond’s appearance,” says NYC-based jeweler Stephanie Gottlieb. “To get a true sense of color, stand near a window and look at the stone in natural light.” Gottlieb also recommends smudging the stone with fingerprints, since some inclusions that are marked “not eye-visible” may pop once it’s dirty. (And as soon as you start wearing the ring, it’ll never be spotlessly clean.)

Trunk Shows at Local Stores

If your heart is set on a specific designer, check trunk-show schedules to see if the brand will be at local stores in your area, advises Kristen Lawler-Trustey of Forevermark. “You’ll see a wider variety of styles and you can also take advantage of discounts or incentives.”

Private Jeweler

If you have a very clear idea of what you want (and don’t need to browse and try on lots of options), consider custom designing a ring with a private jeweler. Without the overhead of a storefront, you’ll often find better pricing. You can also expect to be handheld, from an initial consultation to review the 4C’s and determine the ideal diamond at your price point to picking a loose stone and choosing a setting, which can be pre-designed or handmade. (Expect the process to take anywhere from a few weeks or a few months.)

Online

When shopping online, you’re able to scroll through hundreds of stones that can you can either buy loose (and take to a local jeweler) or order set in the band of your choice. But Gottlieb advises to keep a close eye on clarity: “You could have a stone that’s totally eye-clean, with tiny white imperfections along the edges, or one of the same clarity with a big black fleck at the center that’s visible to the naked eye.” Read the official grading report (ideally from the GIA, AGL, or EGL) and watch a 360-degree video of the stone to check for any imperfections that could be hidden in photos.

Diamond District

Unlike major retail chains, the diamond districts are comprised of thousands of small businesses — which can make knowing where to start overwhelming. Most of these jewelers are extremely small businesses consisting of two to three people in total.

"Sometimes people are hesitant to shop at the Diamond District because they feel like they're not getting a real diamond or a good deal. The truth of the matter is that a good jeweler isn't willing to risk his/her reputation to rip people off," says Jaclyne Kirkorian Poliseno of Jupiter Jewelry, a third-generation diamond district jeweler. "Our goal is to provide amazing service, have customers shop with us again, and of course, share their experience with family and friends. Small businesses rely heavily on referrals."

So, start your hunt with who you know. Ask married friends, co-workers and colleagues where they shopped for a ring. You may be surprised to hear many "have a guy" in the diamond district — someone who they have been using for many years, if not generations.

It may seem counterintuitive to show all your cards, but when it comes to shopping at a wholesale diamond district, honesty really is the best policy. "Tell us what you really want to spend. If the jeweler can't give it to you for that much, they're simply going to say no, but most of the time they will be able to work with a realistic budget," says Poliseno.

Another often-unknown bonus? Diamond district shops may be sitting on inventory they need to move and will give you a great deal when you disclose your absolute final price.

Some businesses, like Jupiter Jewelry, design, manufacture, polish, and set stones themselves, so they have more wiggle room in their budget than retail stores— and since they design a ring from start to finish, they can create exactly what you want. "Ninety percent of the jewelry sold in retail stores is actually manufactured in the district. You can find something very close your favorite designer ring for a fraction of the price," says Poliseno.

4. Have a Budget (and Priorities) in Mind

First things first, let's clear up the misnomer that an engagement ring should cost the equivalent of three months’ salary. That was a marketing ploy created by De Beers in the '30s, and shouldn't impact your plans to buy a ring at all. The average couple spends $5,135, but rest assured, you can find a nearly-one-carat solitaire for as little as $1,500. What you buy will come down to how you prioritize the budget—be it the quality of the stone, the intricacy of the setting, or add-ons like baguettes or engraving.

If you can’t afford any major bling now (especially if you have back-breaking student loans or high rent), go with a simple platinum or pavé band that offers room to grow (i.e., add a chunk of ice after the wedding, once your bank account is replenished).

5. Find Ways to Save

No two diamonds are the same; prices differ based on cut carat clarity and color. To get the most bling for your buck consider these tips:

Choose a 0.9-carat stone rather than 1 carat (or 1.9 carats instead of 2). The difference is nearly imperceptible but could save you as much as 20 percent.

Compromise on color and clarity. If you're willing to compromise on color and clarity, you can get a larger stone. “My clients come in wanting an F color with very slight inclusions, but soon realize they can lower the quality to get a larger size or spend less money at the same carat weight,” Gottlieb says.

Pick a lower-clarity stone with a brilliant cut. Its many facets will hide imperfections, advises Lawler-Trustey. If you're after a step-cut stone (Emerald or Asscher), choose clarity over color: These styles are cut to have wide, flat "tables" so even the smallest imperfection can be completely visible to the naked eye.

Forgo a platinum setting: Choose a 18-karat or 14-karat white gold instead can save a few hundred dollars.

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