Monday, January 13, 2003

Buying a diamond? Leave no stone unturned

By Melissa Gagliard / The Courier-Journal
and Shauna Scott Rhone /The Cincinnati Enquirer

In most cases, the engagement ring is bought before the woman who intends to wear it for the rest of her life has ever laid eyes on it or knows it's coming. Seventy percent of men shop alone when planning to surprise a woman with a diamond engagement ring, says Fred Cuellar, author of How to Buy a Diamond (Casablanca; $16.95).

According to Mr. Cuellar, some 24,000 proposals happen on Valentine's Day each year. So, if you're shopping for a ring - whether it's a surprise or she's helping to choose - be aware that trends and styles change, even for diamond solitaires.

If you're thinking Tiffany's, their most popular style is the six-prong Lucida engagement ring in platinum.

"Women tend to think they want an emerald cut," says store director Susanne Halmi. "But when they come in to the store, they usually end up picking the round cut," averaging around one carat in weight.

Some guidelines are ageless, but you still need to do your homework. Being an educated shopper will make all the difference when buying the ring of a lifetime.

Get a piece of the rock

Jewelry experts have advice for first-time diamond buyers. The first step is to find an established and trusted source, says Brian Merkley, co-owner of a Louisville-area jeweler, Merkley Kendrick.

"My best and most consistent advice is to know who you're buying the stone from," Mr. Merkley says. "You basically have to take a leap of faith that you trust the person across the counter."

Also, "you want to know the jeweler is going to be around in the future."

Louisville jeweler Rob Prince says many men simply don't know what to look for.

"The mistake I see that lasts a lifetime is buying a poorly cut stone," Mr. Prince says. Often the diamond looks big and shiny under a store's bright lights, but it soon gets dirty and turns hollow and flat-looking.

"You have to be careful to select a stone that is beautiful and full and lively throughout the stone," Mr. Prince adds.

He suggests that shoppers pick out the most beautiful stone in the case, regardless of whether it's the size you want, and use it for comparing the other stones. "Beauty is something that doesn't take an expert to see," he says.

It's important, too, to consider the shape of diamond that she'd like.

Princess cut, which is basically a square, is popular now, but round diamonds with an ideal cut are still the most popular, says Mark Redmon, a certified gemologist-appraiser.

It's also important to know whether she prefers white gold, yellow gold or platinum, which is the rave now in the Tristate.

"It is the hottest thing right now," says Mary Ann Andrews, owner of Mary Ann's Fine Jewelry in Crescent Springs. "Platinum is very durable and, as a custom jeweler, we can do more designs with it."

Ms. Andrews says the only drawbacks to platinum are the nicks and dings it sometimes incurs with use. She offers free buffing to her customers to smooth the rough spots, in the jewelry at least.

"Jewelers are the custodians of emotions, she says. "When a guy really involves himself in the buying of an engagement ring, it makes a clear statement to his beloved of how much he really loves her."

Buyer beware

Sometimes, all that glitters is not gold, and all that sparkles is not a quality diamond.

Diamonds were used as tools long before they became jewels.

Created at high pressures and temperatures deep in the Earth, diamonds are pure crystallized carbon and are the planet's hardest natural substance.

Sometimes "bort," a low-quality diamond worth using only in tools, gets sold from jewelry cases anyway.

"It's the junk of the world," says Louisville jeweler Benn Davis.

He warns shoppers that bort sells for about $100 a carat, which is tempting, Mr. Davis says, for someone looking for a bargain, but not for a gift of a lifetime.

"It will cut a mountain like butter, but it's not nice enough for jewelry," he says.

A girl's best friend

Jewelers say that although buying a diamond should be a joyous occasion, it can be stressful, too.

Keep in mind that you can change the style of the ring's mounting later, or add more diamonds or even birthstones or other colored gems to dress it up.

Many people "grow" their rings over the years, as their tastes - and incomes - change, Mr. Redmon says.

"It may not be her dream ring, but it's the effort of him trying to please her," he says. "I don't know that you can make a mistake if you make an honest effort."

Shopping tips

Look for transparency, brilliance and sparkle. A rule of thumb is to remember the four C's - cut (determines its shape and sparkle), color (generally, the whiter the better), clarity (the fewer blemishes, the better, though a flawless diamond is rare) and carat (its weight).

Bigger isn't always better. A small, high-clarity, high-color diamond can cost more than a larger but low-clarity, low-color diamond. Go for a good cut, too, over a larger size.

Shoppers should know that the Federal Trade Commission requires jewelers to disclose to consumers whether a diamond has been laser-drilled, which is sometimes done to remove flaws from inside a diamond.

Consumers are increasingly asking for certification of the stones they buy. The demand for certified diamonds, those with a proven color and clarity, increased tremendously in the last 10 years, and now more certificates are being offered as part of a standard selling procedure.

Jewelers should be able to provide a gem scope or microscope to view diamonds. They also should be able to supply an electronic scale and a report on each diamond from either the Gemological Institute of America or the American Gem Society. Always ask about a trade-in or return policy.

If you don't know her ring size, you can make an educated guess if you know her height and weight.

Whether it's an engagement ring, an anniversary present or just a gift for yourself, always buy jewelry for pleasure rather than solely for investment.

Source: How to Buy a Diamond: The Definitive, Practical, Money-saving Guide (Casablanca; $16.95) by Fred Cuellar

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