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Back to Basics: How to Shop For An Engagement Ring

We asked designers and retailers for their best tips and tricks.
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Photo: Anna Sheffield

Photo: Anna Sheffield

"Basic" may have adapted a negative connotation in recent years, but there's no shame in seeking advice on theoretically simple sartorial conundrums. In our latest column, "Back to Basics," we're here to guide you through life's most common (and important) fashion and beauty concerns. Here, we tackle the topic of shopping for an engagement ring.

If you're reading this, you're doing it. You're about to get an engagement ring. Are you feeling overwhelmed? Excited? Clueless? That's totally normal. "A diamond ring purchase can be someone's first financial decision," says Kristen Lawler-Trustey, a spokesperson for the De Beers diamond brand Forevermark. "It's such an important decision both from an emotional and financial standpoint." But with a little knowledge, the shopping experience won't be so intimidating, and that's where we come in. 

The majority of this article will best serve the lucky partner who's doing the purchase and the big ask. But it also helps for both parties in the relationship to be equally informed when it comes to purchasing a rock that's forever. Read on to learn some key advice, tips and tricks from expert designers and retailers on shopping for an engagement ring.

Figure Out Your Budget

The three-month's salary rule? A myth. "It's all marketing," says Blue Nile spokesperson Josh Holland, who counsels customers to set a budget that they can reasonably afford and stick to it. It's the least romantic — and often uncomfortable — part of an engagement ring, but it's the most important when it comes to looking for one. "Once you know what your budget is, you can find the perfect ring. It's hard to narrow down your choices without it," says Elizabeth Doyle of Doyle & Doyle, a jewelry shop in New York City. "We don't want to show people things that are outside the budget because it's a waste of time for everyone." She also recommends finding a jeweler who will respect your budget and show you anything that works with it, which leads us to…

Catbird's Wedding Annex in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Photo: Catbird

Catbird's Wedding Annex in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Photo: Catbird

Find A Trusted Jeweler

Almost all of our sources stressed the importance of finding a reputable jeweler to guide you through the shopping process. That could be someone who's worked with your family for years, a recommendation from a friend or a jeweler with great online reviews and a solid following. It should also be someone with whom you feel comfortable having an open and honest discussion when it comes to budget, style and other factors that are important to you, such as sourcing practices behind a diamond and its origin certification. And if you're looking at antique and vintage rings, seek out a second look from a credible appraiser.

Do Your Research

Of course you're not an expert in diamonds, but a little research will only help you while you shop for one. When it comes to the four C's — carat, clarity, color and cut — a good amount of knowledge can actually be an advantage towards your budget. For carat, Holland brings up the phrase "buy shy," which means that diamond prices can jump proportionately at the half carat and whole carat. "If you buy just shy of that, you'll save hundreds of dollars and nobody will be able to tell. The human eye can only detect so much," he says.

Cut has the most impact on a diamond's sparkle, as well as its durability despite being one of the hardest substances on Earth. According to Lawler-Trustey, a lot of the diamond can be more prone to chipping and scratching depending on the cut. Want to add more sparkle to your diamond without breaking the bank? Lawler-Trustey also tips that a halo (an encircling pave set of diamonds) increases the visual look of a diamond without increasing its cost too much.

Color is solely one's preference and has to do with the diamond's natural lack of color. Brilliant Earth's Vice President of Brand Strategy Kathryn Money believes that most people can't tell the difference with the naked eye but a good, middle range on the color scale is a G or H-grade diamond. Warmer undertones can actually be a good option for those interested in a ring made from yellow or rose gold metal. As for clarity, it's usually the last consideration and has to do more with how much you value a diamond's rarity and how flawless it is both inside and out. An SI1 clarity level is a trusty choice and will only show a diamond's imperfections under 10X magnification.

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Photo: Forevermark

Photo: Forevermark

Choose a Style

Jewelry designer Anna Sheffield likes to start with figuring out a ring silhouette first and narrowing it down from there. "That helps indicate the gemstone or diamond because you might love a certain shape or metal color," she says. "Some diamond shapes work better with different silhouettes." Lifestyle also plays a part in determining the best ring style. For example, if someone is regularly active, then a low profile ring that's closer to the hands is a consideration. "Certain styles protect the center stone better than others," explains Doyle, such as a bezel ring setting.

With the help of Instagram, it's easier than ever to discover ring styles that you like. There's also a slight chance that the one who you're proposing to has a secret Pinterest board of favorites. Asking friends and family for ideas is a big help, too. But if you happen to be on the question-asking end with no clue where to start, Leigh Plessner, creative director at Catbird, usually begins with talking about your loved one. "Tell us what kind of jewelry do they wear. Do they wear white metals? Yellow metals? Talk to us about them and show us pictures. Help us see this person," she says. Sheffield, who often customizes her designs for clients, has referenced sources of inspiration that run the gamut, from including elements of a tree because that's where a client proposed to emulating a painting because it was a gift that one has given to the other.

Try It (All) On

If you and your significant other plan to shop together for a ring, it's best to try on as many styles that catch your eye and even a few that don't. "Jewelry looks different on you than an image, sort of like clothes on a hanger. Don't rule something out unless you try it on," says Money. Referencing photos with hand models might not be enough either. Adds Doyle, "Everyone's fingers are different. A ring that looks small on someone's hand could look perfect on someone else's."

If you have to do ring shopping remotely, online retailers like Blue Nile and Brilliant Earth provide an easy user experience that offers search filters, preset and customization options and extra features like detailed and 360-degree imagery, along with in-depth education guides on budgets, diamonds, precious metals and more. Plus, these rings are shipped fully insured and the return policy is fairly generous — Blue Nile and Brilliant Earth offer 30-day returns — compared to other jewelers.

What About The Wedding Band?

It's a mixed response when it comes to whether or not you should keep the wedding band in mind as you're shopping for an engagement ring. Some folks prefer to keep both rings entirely separate when it comes to style — and wear them on opposite ring fingers, too. Others go for a band that is a perfect match and fits alongside the engagement ring. Their styles could be similar, complementary or completely different.

Photo: Anna Sheffield

Photo: Anna Sheffield

Don't Hesitate on a One-of-a-kind Ring

If you're deciding on a vintage ring that's most likely one of a kind, retailers suggest that you make the purchase sooner than later. "If someone comes in and is absolutely in love with a ring, we'll tell them to not wait or at least put it on hold," says Doyle. "The worst thing is the when someone has slept on it and it's gone."

"Antique rings will sell pretty quickly," adds Erica Weiner, a jewelry shop owner in New York City who has witnessed couples come into her store looking for a ring that they've seen earlier online, but had been sold that afternoon. For those who are still choosing between a number of styles, Doyle advises to make another visit and think about your options until one of them starts to stand out more in your mind.

Keep It Clean

Once you've finally made a purchase, popped the question and announced the engagement on social media (isn't it inevitable by now?), then it's up to the wearer to make sure the ring is fit for the big day. To clean it at home, Casey Sullivan and Nikki Lawrence of Ebay seller Gleem & Co. suggest soaking the ring in warm water and dish soap. Before the wedding, opt for a professional steam cleaning to bring out the most sparkle. Or, if you happen to have an espresso machine with a milk steamer at home, you could attempt this DIY diamond cleaning: Wear a glove, hold the ring with tweezers and keep it a couple of inches away from the steamer until you notice an improvement in brilliance. 

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