Q And Answer: Choosing An Engagement Ring

August 17, 2010

Q and Answer: Choosing an Engagement Ring

A reader (whose name will not be disclosed for obvious reasons) writes: I understand that Put This On is primarily concerned with men’s style;
however, part of being a man is selecting an engagement ring for your
beloved. I don’t have much experience with women’s jewelry. Are
synthetic diamonds in poor taste? How much is a reasonable amount to
spend on an engagement ring? What type of metal should be used? What
ring style is classic?

I got engaged about three years ago now, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  Being married to someone wonderful is a joy and a comfort beyond words.  Congratulations on the big step!

Now, on to your question.

First of all… yes, synthetic diamonds are in poor taste.  Generally speaking, synthetic anything is in poor taste.  The simulacrum is not well-regarded in taste circles, generally.  So dump that idea.

Real diamonds, of course, are a fraught issue themselves.  I’m not going to go too deep into it, but there are two big issues.  The first, and most pressing, is conflict (or blood) diamonds.  Many of the sources of newly-mined diamonds are in regions beset by horrific wars, and the funds from the sale of these diamonds fund this violence.  There have been many efforts to eradicate this problem from the industry, but none are perfect.  The industry itself, even the non-conflict-diamond part, is pretty fucked, too.  It’s full of creepy cartels and collusion and awful colonialist and post-colonialist grossness.  So: just don’t buy a new diamond.

That leaves you two choices, both of which (in my opinion) are quite good.  The first is to consider a non-diamond gem.  The whole diamonds are forever thing is a bit of an industry construct, and while diamonds are quite beautiful, there are other choices that are similarly beautiful, and less expensive to boot.  You should only choose this route, of course, if you’re very confident that your fiancee doesn’t prefer the traditional diamond engagement ring.  (Of course, this tradition was in large part created and fostered by the diamond industry, but that’s a whole other story.)  Generally, remember that she is going to wear this ring for the rest of her life, and if you don’t think you know her taste, you must take a conservative route.

There is one diamond option that isn’t tainted: buying a vintage ring.  Rings that we would recognize as engagement rings were produced starting around the end of the 19th century, and there are many, many options available to you.  Spend some time looking at vintage rings on eBay to familiarize yourself with the jewelry styles of the first half of the 20th century, if you’re not familiar already.  I love the filigree and geometric qualities of an art deco ring, for example, and that’s what my wife wears.  Truthfully, most jewelry made before the 50s or so is “classic” enough to be worn for a lifetime without ever looking dated.  That is to say, it will always look old, but never passe.

The size of the diamond will be the primary determinant of the cost (and value) of the ring.  A beautiful setting helps, but mostly it’s the stone.  Diamonds are graded on clarity, color, size and cut.  Elements other than size are much less important in an old “mine cut” diamond than they are in a contemporary diamond, though.  In a vintage diamond, you’re mostly looking for eye appeal.  Look for something beautiful to your eye, then get it appraised independently.  When browsing, some familarity with eBay closing prices will give you an idea of how much the markup is at the retail outlet where you’re shopping.

Most cities should have plenty of estate jewelry stores at which you can browse, and each will have many choices.  Find something you love.  eBay is a totally reasonable option as well, but remember that it can be tough to judge size of stones and so forth by looking at a photograph.  Remember, too, that you should take the same cautions you would if you were buying, say, a used car online.  Reputable dealer, independent appraisal, good return policy, and so forth.

When it comes to metals, most older rings will be yellow gold, and some will be white or rose gold.  Platinum jewelry was much more uncommon in the first half of the 20th century than it is today.  Yellow’s usually the safest way to go, but you should generally know if your lady prefers white or yellow metals in her jewelry.  There are also settings that include both yellow and white gold, which are even safer.

Sizing can be tricky, but it’s inexpensive (forty bucks or so).  The best thing to do is steal a ring that fits her, find out what size it is, then have the ring you buy resized to that size.  If it isn’t a perfect fit, it can be adjusted.

As far as how much to spend, remember two (slightly contradictory) things.  The first is that it will be on her finger forever, so you’ll want to get the best piece you can.  The second is that its symbolic meaning so far outstrips its financial value that no matter what you get, she will love it.  The old rule of thumb is a month’s salary, and I don’t think that’s unreasonable.  If you’re a high earner, consider whether your wife-to-be would like to be seen as, uhm, a rich lady.  Most people are fine with that, of course.  If you’re not a high earner, again, remember that the ring will be the symbol of your love and commitment, and that is more beautiful than any rock.

Remember also that you can, if you like, shop for a ring together.  If you feel her taste far outstrips yours, buy a beautiful ruby ring for a couple hundred dollars, propose with that, and after the moment has passed, mention that you’d like to shop with her for something permanent.

When it comes to your wife’s wedding band, there may be something in the family you can use.  Otherwise, you can use something simple made to match the engagement ring – a jeweler can make this for you for a modest price.

Hopefully that’s helpful.  I’m excited for you.

And by the way: when you’re shopping for your wedding band, just buy it at Costco.  Seriously.  Great prices, nice designs, free sizing.  I’m very happy I bought mine there.  Keep it simple.  Yellow gold.

One note (thanks Chuck): some people are sensitive to nickel, which was used for many years to alloy much white gold.  If your wife has had problems (other than the usual finger-turning-green) with 9K or lower gold, this may be an issue for her, and you should inquire with the jeweler about the metal used to alloy any white gold.