Gemstones 101: Buying a ring for your partner - MoneySense

Gemstones 101: Buying a ring for your partner

Buying an engagement ring is a rite of passage, but most of us know nothing about gemstones or precious metals. Here’s a crash course.


The year was 1998 and a younger version of myself trolled the rain-dappled streets of Cologne, Germany, looking for a strong cup of coffee. Instead, I found a mahogany-panelled jewellery store, and inside a white-gold ring glittering with tiny diamonds, brilliant and exquisitely designed. Could this be it, I wondered: the ring with which I would propose to my long-time girlfriend, who was waiting for me back in snowy Ottawa? I turned the ring in my hand, felt its heft. And then the creeping seeds of doubt. It was a bit thick, no? A tad mannish? And what if she preferred a diamond solitaire? What did I know, really, about any of these things?

And so I handed it back to the clerk and told him that I would think about it.

I’m not the only romantic who found it a nerve-racking experience to buy an engagement ring for a sweetheart. Heck, buying any jewellery, for woman or man, is fraught with challenges. It’s expensive. It’s highly personal. It’s difficult to gauge value for money.

Fear not. With expert help, we’ve compiled a number of tips and tricks to help your next jewellery purchase shine.

Forget the two months’ salary rule

That rule of thumb that a man should shell out two months’ salary for an engagement ring? That came from the marketing geniuses at De Beers, the same folks who came up with the slogans, “Diamonds are Forever” and “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.” The South African mining giant, needless to say, has a vested interest in promoting this “rule,” and there are obvious problems with the formula. To wit: if one earns $120,000 per year, dropping $20,000 on a ring seems, shall we say, generous. More to the point, with mortgages to be paid, RRSPs to fund, and possibly children to raise, spending that kind of money on an engagement ring is likely to forestall, rather than jump-start, the life you hope to build together.

So here’s a more realistic rule of thumb, courtesy of Toronto jewellery designer and consultant Leila Haikonen: “When it comes to engagement rings, don’t go into debt, and don’t spend more than you can comfortably afford.” Simple, right?

Buy with a little help from her friends

Will she love it? This, of course, is the crux of the matter, and the source of all that anxiety. It’s also the point where girlfriends—not yours, hers—can come in handy. “Her best friend can be your best ally,” says Haikonen. “That’s who girls confide in, tell their secrets and desires to.” Dragoon the friend into doing a little window shopping with you, or better yet, get her to gently mine your fiancée for information about what her dream ring might look like.

Ottawa designer Pamela Coulston, owner-operator of Disegno Fine Jewellery, has another strategy. “I encourage the guys to choose a gem that fits their budget. I package it in a nice custom box, and they go and propose to their beloved with the gem alone. Then they come back in and design the ring together. It works brilliantly, because women love to be part of the process, and she’s assured of getting exactly what she wants.”

The big C

When it comes to diamonds, many buyers have heard of the so-called Four Cs: cut, colour, clarity and carat weight. Taken together, these determine the quality, and hence price, of individual diamonds. What many people don’t ­realize, however, is that the Four Cs aren’t all created equal. “Cut is far and away the most important,” says Coulston. “I liken raw diamonds to exquisite cloth. In the hands of a master tailor, cloth can be turned into beautiful bespoke suits. In the hands of a home economics student, it’ll be turned into something less. The skill of a master cutter makes all the difference.”

The cut refers to the symmetry, proportioning and ­polish of a diamond, which will dramatically affect its appearance. A perfectly cut diamond will exhibit maximum brilliance and fire, whereas one cut with less skill will have dull-looking facets, poor symmetry, and will misdirect light.

“The cut accounts for fully half the price of the diamond,” says Howard Appotive, who for the last 45 years has been operating Howard’s Fine Jewellers in downtown Ottawa. “The best cut diamonds in the world, by far, are Hearts on Fire diamonds, where all 58 facets are cut to perfection. Put one next to another brilliant-cut diamond, and the Hearts on Fire stone will blow it out of the water.”

But how do you know?

Diamonds are graded and certified by independent, third-party organizations such as the American Gem Society (AGS), the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) and the European Gemological Laboratory (EGL). The problem, however, is that standards tend to vary between the organizations, creating confusion in the marketplace. A diamond certified as “excellent” by the EGL, might be graded much lower by the AGS or GIA, whose standards tend to be more stringent. “It’s impossible to get a true sense of comparative quality if you’re looking at diamonds certified by different agencies,” says Appotive.

That seems complicated, and it is. Which is why Coulston, ­Appotive, and Haikonen all stress the importance of buying from shops with accredited gemologists on staff. “There’s a lot to know,” admits Coulston. “I’ll take customers through each stone, get a chart out to show them the different grades of diamonds, show them how to look through the loupe,” she says, referring to the jeweller’s magnifying lens. “You can’t get that from a large chain store with students working the counters.”

Big box stores like Costco and Wal-Mart are still great options for budget-conscious shoppers, however. “Wal-Mart sells a ton of jewellery,” acknowledges Appotive. “It won’t be unique because it’s mass-produced, mostly in China and India, but because it costs a lot less to produce a thousand rings than it does to produce a single, custom ring, the prices are very reasonable.”

Coulson suggests that if you are shopping at a chain store you may be able to make an appointment in advance with the manager or staff gemologist. “Do some online research first,” Appotive recommends. “Get familiar with the terminology. That will help you understand what the gemologist is telling you, and it will speed up the decision-making process.”

If you’re buying an expensive piece from a big box or chain store, you may even want to have your jewellery appraised by an independent lab. “The point where people usually consider having pieces appraised is $1,000,” says Duncan Parker, a principal with the Toronto ­appraisal firm Harold Weinstein. “If you have a $200 ring, you’re not going to spend $75 getting it appraised, because it adds a third to the overall price.”

Not just diamonds

While diamonds may be forever, they don’t have to be for always. ­Despite what De Beers would have you believe, not all prospective brides are clamouring for bits of compressed carbon. Sometimes rubies, emeralds or sapphires are a girl’s best friend.

“Charles and Diana, and now Will and Kate, both chose sapphires for their engagement rings,” points out Coulston. “That’s kind of opened people’s eyes to the fact that diamonds aren’t the only option.”

Indeed, Coulston says that some of her favourite gemstones don’t even fall into the category of the aforementioned Big Four (diamonds, rubies, ­emeralds and sapphires). “I’m a big fan of garnets, which come in a much greater range than people realize. There are green garnets, called tsavorite, that rival emeralds, and bright orange garnets called spessarite that look really hot with green gold. Spinel is another of my favourites. Red spinel rivals ruby, and it also comes in stunning pinks and blues. Oh, and don’t forget pearls, they’re beautiful.”

Haikonen points to Tanzanite, black opal, and blue-green paraiba tourmaline as some of her favourite stones.

All that glitters

When it comes to settings, rings with high gold content are far and away the most popular. For the record, 24 karat is pure, unalloyed gold, and is virtually never used in jewellery design because it’s too soft to hold its shape. Eighteen-karat gold is 75% pure (18 parts gold, six parts alloy), 14-karat is 58% pure (14 parts gold, 10 parts alloy), and so on.

“I use 18-karat gold in the majority of my designs,” says Coulston. “You don’t want to go much cheaper than that. If you’re putting a lot of money into the gem, and you’re going to be wearing the ring for ­decades, then you should have a proper setting.”

If you don’t mind spending a little more, platinum is another popular choice. “Platinum has come down in price as gold has gone up,” says Coulston. In fact, when measured by the ounce, platinum is cheaper. “When it comes to jewellery, though, platinum still costs more because it’s 95% pure, versus 75% for ­18-karat gold.” That said, because platinum is so much harder than gold, designers can create much finer settings than they can with gold. That reduces the amount of precious metal they use in a ring, which brings down the cost.

Broach the subject

Earrings. Pendants. Broaches. Bracelets. There are a lot of places to wear jewellery that don’t involve the second finger from the left. The key to ensuring your gift will be well received is to understand the preference of the recipient. “Some women only wear stud earrings, some wear dangling earrings,” says Coulston. “Some prefer dainty, filigreed designs, others clean architectural looks. Pay attention to her. Figure out what she’s already wearing, and buy something in the same style and colour combinations.”

And for the boys?

“Men are easy,” laughs Appotive. “Gold chains, gold rings and watches.” And when it comes to the latter, Rolex is the undisputed gold standard. “Rolex watches start at $5,000 and rise to $100,000 or more.” If you can’t afford that, but still want to wow the man in your life, he recommends Tudor watches, which start at $1,500 and top out at about $4,000. “Tudor is made by Rolex—it’s kind of Rolex’s junior brand. Dollar for dollar, they are the best watches on the market.”