Though I haven't experienced it myself, choosing an engagement ring presents an undeniable conundrum: Women often spend their entire lives envisioning their perfect diamond ring, but proposals are traditionally a surprise, meaning that the ring recipient sometimes has little-to-no involvement in purchasing said ring. As a result, engagement ring retail has historically been geared towards men, but things are starting to change and veer towards the modern.
According to a November 2017 study by The Knot, only one in three engagements are a surprise; likewise, one in three couples shop for the ring together. More people are shopping for rings online as well: 14 percent, versus 10 percent the previous year. And if there's one company that's making this sort of non-traditional jewelry shopping its "thing," it's Vrai & Oro.
For the uninitiated, the brand has made headlines for its unusual diamond sourcing methods. Launched in January of 2017, the Los Angeles-based, direct-to-consumer, millennial-geared fine jewelry brand has established itself as a go-to for diamonds that are not mined, but rather grown in a lab by Diamond Foundry, a San Francisco-based leader in manmade stones that acquired Vrai & Oro last year. These lab-grown diamonds have all of the same properties as mined ones do, but they are grown above ground by humans.
Despite the fact that Vrai & Oro has no physical storefronts, engagement rings make up nearly half of its business, and on Tuesday it launched a new "design studio" to make the online engagement ring shopping process easier, more accessible and more personal. For the first time, the same technology used by brands like Nike and Vans to help shoppers create custom sneakers online is being applied to engagement rings; shoppers on Vrai & Oro's website can create a ring from scratch and watch a 3-D model of the design change in real time on-screen as each selection is made from a toolbar. To ensure the ring is made to shoppers' exact specifications, once it's designed online, it's converted into an individual CAD file which is then 3-D printed to create the mold of the ring; the mold is then cast in gold or platinum, polished, and the diamond is set. The whole process takes under two weeks, and the rings can be returned within 30 days.
That Knot study also found that 40 percent of online ring shoppers mentioned "wanting to build a custom ring" as the main reason for going the ecommerce route, so the tool makes sense. While other retailers like Blue Nile and Brilliant Earth boast "build your own ring" tools, Vrai & Oro is presently the only one to offer both the photorealistic model and the ability to fully design the ring from the ground up, as opposed to simply choosing from existing options.
Founder Vanessa Stofenmacher tells me over the phone that she found the current engagement ring shopping process to be largely "outdated" and male-oriented, comparing it to buying a used car. (For more on the diamond industry's sexism problem, read this.) She also looked at the ways in which women tended to engage (no pun intended) with engagement rings — secretly going into stores by themselves, creating Pinterest boards, diving deep into Instagram, etc. — and wanted to come up with a way to involve them in the process. She envisions the design studio being used by women or couples designing a ring together.
If you, personally, can't imagine purchasing an engagement ring online, you might be a little behind the times. "People are very open to it today — it's modern consumers and millennials who are used to buying online," says Stofenmacher, adding that real, human customer service team members are on call to guide shoppers through the process if needed.
If couples don't come to Vrai & Oro for its ring customization capabilities, they might for its transparency around pricing, something you won't find among traditional jewelers. Like other DTC brands, it promises to offer affordable prices by cutting out the middlemen; the design studio even updates prices in real time as you select different options so that you can see the breakdown of what every element costs. There's also a sustainability element: Its diamond production is certified to be 100-percent carbon-neutral, which can't be claimed by any purveyor of mined diamonds.
Still, lab-grown diamonds are perceived by many to be "lesser than," and many couples still couldn't fathom buying a ring without seeing the materials in person. But for those who can look past all of that, Vrai & Oro could be sitting in a pretty sweet spot — and a peek into the future of the notoriously outdated wedding tradition.