September 30, 2011

The holidays are fast approaching, and if you’re in a serious relationship, that means one thing for sure: Opportunities to pop the question are plentiful. Maybe you subscribe to the two-months’-salary rule; perhaps you’re on a bare-bones budget. Regardless of your financial status, there are some rules and realities you should know before wandering into a jewelry store like a love-struck deer in the headlights.

Something new...

Anyone with Internet access knows the four C’s of diamond buying — cut, color, clarity and carats. Before you buy new, there’s more you need to know:

Pricing. Because the diamond market is driven by worldwide demand — not by seasons — pricing is very competitive. Avoid too-good-to-be-true advertising and look for a jeweler you can trust and communicate with easily. Once you know what you want, comparison-shop.

Make compromises. If you have a budget of $8,000 and want a 1.25-carat stone, a jeweler can help you find wiggle room with clarity and color to get the effect you want within your budget.

Don’t be shy. Jewelers expect customers to have done their research, and to be straightforward. “Things turn out best when a customer is comfortable articulating their concerns,” says Matthew Rosenheim, president of Tiny Jewel Box in the District. Always request proof of authenticity, and make sure the stone has been certified by a laboratory.

(istockphoto)

Buying a ring is a tactile experience. Visit a variety of stores — from mass retailers to high-end boutiques — and note how the rings feel in your hand. Rising metal prices have prompted some jewelers to skimp on metal content, resulting in rings that are lighter, thinner and not ideal for a lifetime of wear.

Timing is everything. If a mounting has to be made, it can take up to six weeks. Build that time into your calendar if you’re planning a time-specific proposal.

...Something old

Consumer interest in vintage and antique rings is on the rise, driven by factors ranging from economic and environmental to stylish and sentimental.

All diamonds are not created equal. “Buying a diamond was different in 1920 than it is today,” Rosenheim notes. “There are not many antique rings with white diamonds. . . . So you’ll see slightly off-color stones in those rings, and that’s natural.”

Acknowledge limitations. With vintage and antique rings, buyers can tweak design elements to a small degree — but don’t expect “Extreme Makeover”-style results on Grandma’s secondhand sparkler. You can alter the mounting to accommodate a slightly larger or smaller stone, but not much more.

Estate sales. When shopping estate sales, “you can’t tell if there’s a tiny crack in the mounting with the naked eye — that requires magnification,” Rosenheim says. “You may be able to get a good value, but you’re doing it at a serious risk.” If you find the perfect ring at an estate sale, check to make sure the stones are not loose and the metal has not been worn down significantly — two major red flags.

Put a jeweler on the job. Jewelers have access to a vast marketplace of dealers worldwide, so use their connections if you want something specific.

Embrace the unique. “You’re limited in terms of options, but the fact that there’s only one is what makes an antique ring appealing,” Rosenheim says.

The DIY approach

If only the most highly personalized piece will do, working with a jeweler to design a custom ring is your best bet.

Be prepared to pay a premium. The price of a custom ring can be nearly triple that of a standard style. Be upfront about your budget and work together on a piece that pleases you and fits your budget.

Think ahead. If your spouse will eventually wear a wedding band, the engagement ring should be designed to complement it. Or you might want to create a unique piece to be worn on the right hand after the ceremony. Keep in mind that it can take up to six weeks from order date to delivery, plus the time spent deciding on the design.

Ask for examples. A jewelry designer’s portfolio is akin to a résumé, and the best designers have created a substantial and varied body of work. “Look at a designer’s portfolio and ask them to show you the interesting things they’ve done,” says Elyahu Araki, owner of Secrete Fine Jewelry in Bethesda and the District. Train your eye to notice craftsmanship.

Anything is possible — within reason. Visit jewelry stores and research styles, taking notes on shapes and settings you like.

Get it in writing. Make a document that outlines design details, price and type of metal and have it signed. Stones should be authenticated and graded; if you’ll have the ring insured, you’ll need to have it appraised and note that it is a custom design.

THE BOTTOM LINE Find a jeweler whose work you admire. Be honest about your budget and your expectations; consider antique and vintage jewelry, which can be an affordable and unique option. If you’re commissioning a custom ring, look for experienced designers and get specifics in writing.

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