Complete Guide To Buying an Engagement Ring

July 1, 2021 – Posted in: Jewelry Blog

We’ve written a best-selling book on the topic of buying an engagement ring, and now we’ve created a blog article with everything that you need to know before you make this massive purchase.

We’ll cover topics from understanding the basics behind diamonds, ring styles, and then we’ll move to tips and tricks to getting the best value for your money.

A Brief History of Engagement Rings

12803 Diamond Engagement Ring with Side Diamonds

The history of engagement rings goes back to the early 13th century. In its simplest terms, an engagement ring was a display that the woman wearing the ring was already promised as a bride.

The concept of a ring finger started in Ancient Rome. The Romans believed that the vein in the fourth finger led directly to the heart. For this reason, engagement rings were placed on this finger and have remained there ever since.

In the middle ages, when engagement rings came into common usage in Europe, they were commonly simple metal. Some would have jewels in them, but this was restricted to the nobility. Over time, it became permissible for the middle classes to also use gemstones in jewelry, and this forms the basis of engagement rings as we know them today.

The first use of diamonds in engagement rings came during the 15th century. For the next 400 years, however, any gemstone could and would be part of any ring. Diamonds didn’t become the de facto engagement ring stone until the early 20th century.

For more information on the when, why, and where, take a look at our History of the Engagement Ring.

How Much Should You Spend When Buying an Engagement Ring?

Couple Buying an Engagement Ring Online

It used to be that an engagement ring was “A month’s salary which lasts forever”. But, eventually, people got a little more ambitious, and the marketing strapline now demands three month’s salary be spent.

But is that true? After all, how many people today just happen to have that much money lying about with which to buy a ring? Alternatively, if your salary isn’t particularly high, might that limit your options?

The simple fact is that you should only ever spend what you can afford. It might sound romantic to go the extra mile (and spend the extra dollar) for the woman you love – but we recommend not to do it. The last thing you need is for an engagement ring to be a constant reminder that you couldn’t afford it in the first place. It doesn’t matter if it’s the equivalent of one month, three months, or ten years’ salary. Only spend what you can afford to spend.

The average cost of an engagement ring in 2021 in the US is in the region of $6,000. But, stick with what you can afford, and you won’t regret it. If the woman you love is more concerned with the price of the ring than what it represents, perhaps you should just save your money. An engagement ring is a demonstration of your love and a signal of your intent to marry someone. You should have a beautiful engagement ring, of course, but it also needs to be one you can afford.

We strongly advise using our comprehensive engagement ring budget calculator before settling on a budget.

Summary: There are no rules for how much you should spend on your ring aside from only spending what you can afford.

A Crash Course on the Diamond 4Cs

The 4Cs are the 4 overall terms that gemologists use to grade and value a diamond.

The Cs stand for Color, Cut, Clarity, and Carat. Each grading ranking will directly impact how expensive the diamond will be.

Understanding the Color Grading

Almost all gem-quality diamonds will have soft tints of yellow coloring throughout. The levels of yellowness will determine the color grading.

The color scale for white diamonds runs from D to Z.

Diamond Color Grading Infograph

D color is absolutely colorless, and Z color will have a significant yellow tint. In the chart above you can see that the slight yellow tint starts to become discernable as you reach K color.

For the “fancy” colored diamonds, the color alone is often the key element of the stone.

To learn more about diamonds colors, feel free to read our articles on each color grading:

D Color | E Color | F Color | G Color | H Color | I Color | J Color | K Color | L Color | M Color | All Colors

Summary: The whiter the diamond, the rarer the stone, and the higher its value.

Grading a Diamond for its Cut

The grading for the diamond cut is determined based on mathematical calculations on how effectively the diamond lets in and expels light.

Diamond Cut with Arrows to Show Light Movement through Diamond
The ideal path of light within in a well-cut diamond

The cut grading scale, as devised by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) has very exacting measurements. Everything from how big the table is, to how much of the height is used above and below the girdle or the number of facets the diamond has will decide the grade.

With the advent of modern laser cutting techniques, the accuracy of new cut diamonds is much greater than it was even up to as recently as 20 years ago.

Before that time, it was the skill of the cutter which determined the grade. For antique diamonds, the cut is often not graded, as there were no standards at that time, and so cutters used their own proportions as they saw fit.

Summary: The more mathematically perfect a diamond is cut, the greater its value.

Understanding Diamond Clarity

The clarity of a diamond is a measure of how many flaws the diamond has within its structure or on its surface.

Diamond Clarity Chart Infograph With Inclusions

The more flaws within the diamond, the less light that is able to reflect back out to the viewer’s eye. Diamonds with lots of flaws appear duller and have less sparkle than one which is flawless. It is important to note that most diamond clarity inclusions are not visible to the naked eye.

The grade runs from Flawless (F) to SI2 (Slightly Included Level 2) with several levels in between. Grading is done using a 10x loupe, or magnifier. This means even down to SI1 grade, flaws will be undetectable without magnification.

Learn more about diamond clarity.

Summary: The imperfections within the diamond, even the tiny inclusions, will impact its price.

The Guide to Carat and Diamond Weight

The easiest of the Cs to quantify is the carat weight of a diamond. The carat, like the gram weight, for example, can be measured on a standard diamond scale.

Carat Diamond Sizes on Finger Until 5 Carats

Technically speaking, 1 carat equals 200mg.

Around 90% of all cut diamonds weigh under 1 carat. This makes large diamonds increasingly rare as the size goes up. It also, of course, makes them increasingly expensive.

From a rough crystal to the finished cut stone, a diamond will lose up to 2/3 of its original weight before making it to market.

If you find carat weight interesting, read our comprehensive blog article on understanding carat weight. Also, check out our article that covers how big a diamond will look on your finger.

Summary: The weight of a diamond is measured in carats. The bigger diamonds are far rarer.

The Fine Print to Buying a Diamond

Checking diamond ring under loupe for more details

In addition to the 4Cs mentioned above, there will also be a few more very important factors to learn about before making your purchase engagement ring purchase.

To buy well usually means to buy smart. Including consideration of the following in your search will help you to buy smarter.

What is Fluorescence?

Diamond with Florescence

Diamond fluorescence is a topic that often flies well under any buyer’s radar.

If you’ve ever been in a room where there are ultraviolet lights (blacklight) present, you will notice that clothing (and even teeth) can suddenly appear to be glow bright white. There are different factors depending on the material glowing, but it all comes down to some light being reflected and some not. Not all diamonds fluoresce under UV light, and there’s no hard and fast rule as to whether it is a good thing or a bad thing.

For colorless or near-colorless diamonds, high levels of fluorescence are undesirable and detract from the quality of the diamond. Conversely, diamonds with some yellow tint will actually appear whiter than they really are and are therefore desirable with fluorescence. This is because UV light is at the opposite end of the scale from the yellow light, and so cancels out some of its effects. Daylight, of course, has high levels of UV light within it, and so slightly yellow diamonds can look better in everyday use.

All jewelers will carry a black light for their own testing, so don’t be afraid to ask about the fluorescence levels of your chosen diamond. Also, fluorescence is most obvious from the underside of the diamond, rather than from above.

Summary: Fluorescence is usually undesirable. Ask about the fluorescence before purchasing the diamond.

Brilliance and Fire

Diamond Engagement Ring on Reflective Surface

A major factor in the beauty of any diamond is how it reflects light. The cut of the diamond becomes the most important aspect when we talk about how the diamond uses the available light. The modern cut grading scale is based on the perfect proportions to maximize the brilliance of a diamond. Brilliance is how much colorless or white light reflects back to the eye. This is the sparkle you will see on a well-cut diamond.

Fire is slightly different in that it is decided by how much colored light is reflected. Usually, this will be a combination of yellow, red, or orange light. Hence the “fire” of the diamond. Before modern cutting practices emerged, diamond cuts to maximize the available light, which usually meant candles. Diamonds were cut to produce a true fire effect in the limited light.

Whether you prefer brilliance or fire is up to you. Just bear in mind that in general, the older the diamond, the more fire it will have and, the younger, the more brilliance.

Summary: Older diamonds have an inner fire. Modern diamonds have brilliance.

The Age of a Diamond

Old European Cut Diamond vs Brilliant Cut Diamond
The left diamond is an antique diamond. The right diamond is a modern cut.

We’ve already mentioned above how old cut diamonds can differ from recent cut stones in appearance. Vintage and antique diamonds long predate the modern round brilliant cut. These older diamonds are hand-cut, relying on the eye and expertise of the cutter.

The Old European cut, which is the forerunner of the modern round brilliant cut, is the most popular variation of antique diamond cut. We have an article that will help you easily identify an old diamond.

Here are 3 quick reasons why we strongly advocate buying a vintage diamond:

  1. Ethical Diamonds. Diamonds are extracted from the ground at a great cost to our environment. Choosing an antique diamond encourages the market to focus on the diamonds that are already in supply.
  2. Handcut Diamonds. You cannot compare the unique beauty between a diamond that was hand-cut by a master cutter and a diamond that was precision-cut with a laser.
  3. Rarity and Cost. Genuine vintage diamonds are rare. As you’ve seen above, rarer means a higher price and an easier time selling.

Summary: Many ethical and conscientious buyers are starting to turn towards buying antique diamonds.

Kimberley Process

Soldiers in War for Diamonds

For more information on the vital role of the Kimberley Process, you can read our comprehensive explanation of the Kimberley Process and why it is necessary.

Diamonds are, like any commodity, bought and sold according to market forces. Sadly this means that there will always be someone looking to exploit things for their own gain. Even worse is the fact that we’re not talking about someone looking to sell the odd stolen diamond. With diamonds, we’re talking about stones mined using children in horrific conditions, in order to pay for civil wars or other conflicts.

The Kimberley Process was agreed by major diamond-producing and buying countries to try and eradicate these so-called “blood diamonds” from being traded. The process has helped reduce the number of diamonds funding conflicts worldwide. To comply with the process, all modern diamonds must be certified with their origin being clearly demonstrated. Without this certification, diamonds cannot legally become available on the open market.

Summary: If your dealer cannot produce evidence that the diamond he is selling is ethical, you should avoid buying it.

The Anatomy of a Ring

Anatomy of an Engagement Ring

There are more elements to an engagement ring than many people realize. Most think it is simply a diamond on top of a band. Of course, there is a lot more than just that.

On top of the pile, of course, is the center diamond. It is usually set in either prongs or a bezel. Prongs are thin metal bars, turned to grip the diamond in place. A bezel is a continuous ring of metal that surrounds the diamond completely.

Depending on the design of the ring, a designed gallery may sit under the main stone. Between both galleries, and leading down from the center stone to the band, are the shoulders. These often contain small diamonds or designs to provide a visual lead for the eye to the top of the ring.

Finally, we have the band itself. Technically called the shank, the word band has come into much more common use in recent decades. There are no rules on which metal should be used for which section of the ring design.

There is a more in-depth look at what makes up a ring in our anatomy of a ring article.

Understanding Engagement Ring Styles

$50k Diamond Engagement Ring on Hand

The style of the engagement ring will be one of the most important parts of the decision when shopping for your engagement ring. There are so many styles to pick from. Here are some of the most popular styles currently on the market:

Prong SettingA simple engagement ring that features metal prongs that hold together the primary stone
Tiffany Prong SettingA style popularized by Tiffany. A super-minimalistic ring with just prongs to hold the center diamond
Bezel SettingAn engagement ring that holds in the center stone by surrounds it with a metal frame
Halo SettingSmaller diamonds surround the center stone of the ring, making a complete circle around it
Pavé SettingA modern style ring that features lots of tiny diamonds that are placed into the setting using the pavé technique
Three Stone SettingAn engagement ring that showcases three dominant stones at the front
Cluster SettingA subset within the halo style ring that follows the outer shape of the diamond, displaying a floral-like appearance
Vintage SettingA ring that was handcrafted 20+ years earlier. See below
Crown SettingWhen the gallery makes the diamond appear as if it is sitting at the top of a crown
East-West SettingAn engagement ring that features the prominent center stone directed on a left-to-right axis instead of an up-to-down.
Elongated SettingWhen the ring (and usually also the center stone) extends a lot further along with the finger than a traditional engagement ring

There are many additional styles of settings to pick from for your engagement ring. Click to learn all the engagement ring styles.

Understanding Vintage Engagement Rings

Antique Engagement Ring in Box with Plants

A vintage engagement ring is an engagement ring that is older than 20 years of age. If the ring is older than 100 years of age, it is called an antique engagement ring.

Over the past few years, vintage engagement rings have become very desirable. There are a number of reasons for this:

  1. The superior craftsmanship of the vintage rings
  2. The ethical advantage
  3. Every vintage ring is original and unique
  4. Antique diamonds. See above
  5. The rarity and value of vintage rings
  6. Vintage styles, especially the Art Deco Style is in vogue right now
  7. Vintage rings come with a story or history, even if it is not known

If you are interested in buying a vintage ring, read our complete guide to buying a vintage engagement ring.

How To Save Money When Buying an Engagement Ring

Diamond Engagement Ring with Emerald Accents

Diamonds can be expensive, that’s no surprise. But did you know that you can get a lot more for your money just by being a little savvier? We’re not talking about haggling with the seller. Instead, we’re talking about changing your approach and reading a few of these insider tips:

  1. Educate yourself on jewelry. Education will give you leverage to know which type of diamond is best for your buck. We strongly recommend reading our jewelry blog and ordering our book on engagement rings to learn more.
  2. Buy your engagement ring online. You will pay a fraction of what it costs in a jewelry store.
  3. Avoid the large massive jewelry companies that have ads on big billboards and pay actors to model for them. You will pay a very high premium to be wearing their name on your ring.
  4. Wait for a promotional discount. Lots of online engagement ring vendors having periodic discounts. Wait to make your purchase until they provide a promo code. Sign up for our bi-monthly emails so that you can be notified as soon as our promocodes are active.
  5. Lower the bar for the diamond color and clarity. The difference in value between a D color diamond and a J color is hardly noticeable, but the price of a D color is usually far more than triple. The same thing applies with a Flawless clarity diamond against a VS2 clarity diamond.
  6. Purchase a diamond with a carat weight that is just beneath a major milestone. This means that a 1.49-carat diamond will be a lot cheaper than a 1.50-carat diamond.

Get Advice from the Experts

Do you still need help deciding what type of ring you need? Feel free to reach out to us. We’ve been in the industry for 40+ years.