In a sunlit office on the 23rd floor of the World Diamond Tower, overlooking the corner where 47th Street runs into Fifth Avenue in New York City, men, occasionally couples and sometimes entire extended families sit at a small white table and make one of the biggest financial and emotional decisions of their and their significant others’ lives. Welcome to custom ring designer Jade Lustig’s office. Please step in.
It’s sometimes said that within the Diamond District, that stretch of 47th Street spanning between Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue, operates the world’s highest concentration of small business owners. With obvious exceptions being iconic retailers like Tiffany & Co., with their gray flagship store only 10 blocks north of Lustig’s, and online giants like Blue Nile, the person-to-person sale of engagement rings has remained a very viable business for small business.
The reason is simple: this is a transaction premised on personal relationships and trust. Lustig offers something that can’t be easily replicated online or from a cheaper operation abroad. A ring is a decision that leads to a starter home, minivans, fights, family dinners and vacation days. In many cases, when jewelers sell an engagement ring they earn a lifelong customer. After all, after marriage comes anniversaries, birthdays and surprise gifts for when you’ve fucked up. You want someone you trust. Please sit.
There’s a “sex appeal of the stone that isn’t on a certificate,” she said.
Jade Lustig’s family, the Traus, have been in the diamond industry since Jade’s great great grandfather started selling rose cuts in 1880. Then, after World War II, Lustig’s grandfather’s eldest brother, a Belgian POW, became a sight-holder of a De Beers mine as part of war reparations, giving the family access to rough diamonds 10 times a year. Lustig’s been in the jewelry world herself for 17 years. She got her start ensuring that cuts were done precisely and now, with her husband, she owns and operates Jade Trau, a boutique custom jeweler in NYC.
The first question Lustig asks her clients is always the same: How much do you know? “I always prefer when they have a bit of education so they feel confident,” she says. Then the questions move along: “Do you have an idea of the shape?” “What sort of ring?” “What’s your budget?” “What’s your timeline?” With these questions answered, Lustig says the sky’s the limit. That’s the truth not just at Lustig’s shop, but wherever a customer chooses to go. Engagement ring options exist online, in stores with iconic blue boxes and historic names, or in any of the offices down the hall from Lustig. We spoke with Lustig and other industry experts to mine the knowledge required to make the big decision confidently, whether that be one of the more traditional rings that Lustig designs, or something different. The options are near infinite, and this guide is designed to start you down a stressful and rewarding path.
The Journey of a Diamond Ring, a Film
Film by Sung Han
Tradition & History
The diamond set on a typical ring was formed over a billion years ago by the intense heat and pressure of the Earth’s mantel. Carbon molecules with enough energy to bond into a lattice structure formed one of the hardest natural materials on Earth. First discovered in India in the fourth century BC, the stones were extremely rare and associated with royalty until the late 1800s, when productive mine discoveries in South Africa flooded the market. Then De Beers, a name now synonymous with the rocks, bought up all the mines in South Africa and pushed up prices, increasing the diamonds’ value. But it wasn’t until the 1930s that diamonds were associated with engagement rings, right around the time that the Great Depression and a World War made them unaffordable to many young couples.
“In some parts of world the diamond is a symbol of purity, so clarity is most important thing,” said Lustig, before adding, “In America it’s about size, obviously.”
Then in 1947 an advertising campaign changed the industry. Copywriter Frances Gerety coined the famous slogan, “A diamond is forever,” linking the rocks and love, while magazines showed celebrities and movie stars in cocktail dresses with sparkling fingers, ears and necklines. By 1965, 80 percent of all new brides in the United States were wearing diamonds at their wedding, according to the American Gem Society (AGS). Since then, diamonds have remained firmly in the minds of Americans as being synonymous with marriage. The Rapaport Diamond Index, which has measured diamond prices since 1978, shows that, with the exception of the 1980 diamond bubble, the real value of diamonds has remained largely constant in America.
It’s therefore natural that the first step in designing an engagement ring is selecting the diamond — the main event. Everything else about a ring makes up the supporting cast, designed to secure the diamond structurally and highlight its aesthetics without stealing the show. In the case of a man choosing a ring for his spouse, Lustig says to come prepared. “It’s good to do a little recon. If [the woman] doesn’t have a sister or a confidant to ask, or he wants it to be complete surprise, I ask for pictures of the girlfriend, or her outfits, or other jewelry,” said Lustig. “Sneak in and get a random picture. It gives me a little indication of who they are.” But what are men deciding between?
Roughly $13 billion in diamonds are mined each year. Of these, 30 percent are considered gem quality and make it to jewelers. But for high-end engagement rings, like the ones Lustig designs, the diamonds are much, much rarer. Many of the diamonds that she carries are Forevermark, a brand from the De Beers Group of Companies. Of all the diamonds mined today, Forevermark claims that only one percent meet their standards to carry the brand name.
“Cut is the most important thing, unequivocally.”
To use Forevermark as an example: the diamonds are all in the color range of “D” to “L”, in the clarity range of “FL” to “SI2”, and carry the cut rating of “Very Good” to “Excellent” on the Forevermark Grading Report. These are the types of letters and numbers that face consumers looking at rings — the four C’s of Cut, Clarity, Carats and Color — and they mean little to most people. The confusion increases when the choice comes down to two diamonds that are identically graded on paper — a report from GIA (Gemological Institute of America) or a similar grading organization — but look very different. Lustig says a more rational buyer will have a hard time deciding between the stones, but “at the end of the day this is something that comes out of the ground…they differ a lot from stone to stone.”
To decide, Lustig says you need to pick the one that speaks to you. There’s a “sex appeal of the stone that isn’t on a certificate,” she said. But first, what does the certificate mean? Below is an overview of the most common factors in deciding between a ring, before we explore options for those looking to get more creative with their choices.
The Four C’s (and an S)
“Cut is the most important thing, unequivocally. That’s something I always open with,” said Lustig, explaining that of all the C’s, you should never look to a worse cut to save money. A great cut can make a bad stone sparkle, and in the end, sparkle is vital. Lustig keeps on hand an extreme example: two brilliantly cut round diamonds, one nearly flawless and the other full of inclusions and flaws. One costs $25,000 and the other $8,000, but from across the room they both sparkle the same amount.
In the ’40s and ’50s, the GIA developed the International Diamond Grading System, which allowed for comparison between jewelers and a uniform way of speaking about the diamonds. Then in 2005, the institute released the GIA cut scale, a uniform system which it uses to determine the grade of round-cut diamonds. There’s currently no internationally accepted system for grading fancy cut diamonds, so grades for these diamonds are more subjective, but still reliable. The scale ranges from Excellent, at the top end, all the way down to Poor, and is a reflection of the “brilliance (the total light reflected from a diamond), fire (the dispersion of light into the colors of the spectrum), and scintillation (the pattern of light and dark areas and the flashes of light, or sparkle, when a diamond is moved).” Because weight (and therefore money) is shaved off of a diamond to form the angles required for a top-tier cut, not all diamonds are cut to the highest standard.
Besides GIA, the AGS grading system is also highly regarded, ranging from “Ideal”, down to “Poor”. As GIA and AGS are the only not-for-profit diamond rating institutions, it’s highly recommended to get your diamond evaluated by their labs.
“Color is the biggest misnomer,” said Lustig. “People come in and say ‘Oh I want a white diamond.’ But in reality they want a sparkly diamond, one that has life.” The color grade refers to how little color is in the stone. The scale starts at D, a colorless “white diamond”, and ranges all the way to the light yellow or brown of a Z-colored diamond. (According to GIA, the scale starts at D in order to differentiate itself from other scales at the time, which usually started with A.) Lustig said that if you were to compare a D and a G diamond under normal light, the stones would appear nearly identical, but the D would cost significantly more. In order to show color, Lustig flips the diamond over and shines light through the stone while it sits on a white envelope. Only then do the differences become clear. “Generally speaking I like J-plus color,” said Lustig, referring to scores in the “Colorless” or “Near Colorless” categories.
“In some parts of world the diamond is a symbol of purity, so clarity is the most important thing,” said Lustig, before adding, “In America it’s about size, obviously.” Clarity refers to how uniformly the carbon molecules aligned in their lattice when the diamond was formed. Any hiccups occurring on the inside of the diamond are called inclusions; on the outside they are called blemishes. These imperfections are usually difficult to see and are judged by viewing the diamond through a 10x magnifying loupe. The exact location of flaws are noted in the diamond’s grading reports. The top-tier stones are deemed “Flawless” diamonds, which are extremely rare, even to jewelers. The scale then drops to Very Slightly Included at the mid-tier and Included at the bottom. Lustig encourages anything above an SI2+ (Slightly Included or above).
A carat is unit of mass equal to 0.2 grams. Like all aspects of diamonds, there are trends in carat weight selection. “I see movement towards a little diamond that’s centered,” said Mark Moeller, owner of RF Moeller Jeweler in Minnesota. “10 years ago…you couldn’t sell a diamond then that was under a carat.”
Diamonds are priced per carat, but this pricing jumps up based on the diamond’s weight category. In other words, the difference in price between a 0.98 and a 0.99 carat diamond is small compared to the difference in price between a 0.99 diamond and a 1.00 carat diamond. These “benchmark” categories exist at weights like 0.5, 0.7, 0.9 and 1.0 carats. (For a much more detailed explanation of pricing structure, look here.)
According to the GIA, 80 percent of diamonds sold are round cut. The reason for this popularity is simple: if diamonds are forever, buyers want something that’s forever in style. “I feel that [the ring] should exist in a classic landscape because you should be able to wear it forever and stay current,” says Lustig. The other shapes, called fancy cuts, trend depending on the decades, and the wearer’s age and location. Lustig says she can’t sell some cuts to older clients who recognize them from their mother’s finger, while Moeller said jewelers in the Midwest don’t see trends that originate on the coasts until much later. “Things are slow to come around; by the time princess cuts were popular here in the Midwest, they’d been popular on the East and West Coasts for years,” he said.
The most popular shapes are round, princess, oval, marquise, heart, emerald, pear, Asscher, cushion and radiant. This is a matter of style, but it’s good to note that cuts like Marquise, Pear and Oval make a diamond look larger compared to a similar-sized round cut, due of the elongated axis. Conversely, Cushion cuts tend to look smaller than similarly weighted round cuts. These fancy cuts are representative of a small portion of engagement rings, always fighting for second place behind round cuts. But the trend toward alternative engagement rings is strong, especially among millennials who value personalization and less expensive options.
Anna Sheffield began designing jewelry as a hobby. A few small, miniature designs for friends and family grew into a small boutique in the Lower East Side of New York, where she sells traditional engagement rings alongside more modern rings, her tattooed arms ending in the same bracelets and rings she keeps under lights in glass cases. While many jewelers push white diamonds and traditional silver or gold bands, Sheffield uses terms like “walnut brown” and “cream soda vibe” to describe her diamonds, which are a rarity in themselves because few mines seek to produce off-color diamonds.
Although what we think of as a “traditional” wedding ring is a relatively recent phenomenon, many of the rings Sheffield sells are thought to be more alternative, purchased by customers who want something more personal to them or their relationship. “They want something a little bit different. Maybe they feel like their love is a little different or their lifestyle, their taste,” said Sheffield. “There are so many different reasons why people get married. I think more now than ever people are not thinking of [love] in a static way, so why use this static symbol to represent it?”
“There are so many different reasons why people get married. I think more now than ever people are not thinking of [love] in a static way, so why use this static symbol to represent it?”
The variation on ring design found behind Sheffield’s glass is vast. Stones such as morganite, pink tourmaline, and moonstone in peach or rainbow are centered on a ring of rose gold and white gold, flanked by blue sapphire, tiny black diamonds, emerald or rubies. Sheffield’s most popular ring is her Hazeline solitaire setting, which has aspects of tradition mixed with the more alternative choices, like antique stones.
When speaking of antique stones, Sheffield says they add value because of their story; for all the jewelers we spoke with, the story of the ring is becoming increasingly important, especially to millenials. “They’ve been cut by an individual generally during a time period when the technical implications were different. So now every modern stone is cut to precise angles with a very specific set of facets and they all to me look very similar which is the idea,” she said. “But with an antique you’re really getting something that looks completely unique because of the person that cut it and the decisions they made.”
But whether you choose alternative or traditional, Sheffield’s advice was the same as Lustig’s. Get a ring that’s big enough to fit her finger. “I mean nobody wants to be in that moment, down on one knee and it’s a size 2 and it won’t go over [her] fingernail.”
In the age of the internet, many intimate aspects of our lives have migrated online, including ring purchasing. For some, online will be the obvious option. As Sheffield puts it, this business is a business of “discretion”, in which the finances and emotional nuances of the marrying couple are required to be known by all parties involved — and going online offers complete privacy. Online is also much cheaper. Diamonds from brick-and-mortar retail stores can be around 30 percent more expensive than the same diamonds purchased online. If you are buying online, we highly suggest checking out the Diamond Pro, a fantastic resource for wading through the online market.
The biggest paradox of engagement rings comes at the intersection of reason and emotion.
The first entrant in the current wave of online retailers was Blue Nile. The site, which began 15 years ago, sells engagement rings via an online store where customers mix and match stones and settings. The rings are then shipped directly to customers and, if they don’t like it, shipped back at no cost. While customers can view all the information about a ring, this purchasing of a ring “sight unseen” is one thing that Ruth Batson, CEO of the American Gem Society, warns against. “So I have an analogy for buying diamonds online. Imagine we are on the dating game. There are three women behind the curtain. Each has blue eyes, etc.; they have the same thing on their piece of paper [describing themselves]. Would you pick your date with just that information?” she asked. “No, because you know that they look completely different.” It’s for this reason that, despite the ability of online to better many other purchasing decisions, only about 12 percent of engagement ring sales occur online, according to Mark Keeney from Ritani, an online retailer that launched in the fall of 2012 and is attempting to fix the online model.
Ritani’s main demographic is the millennial generation, who are used to huge selections and trust online outlets but are also wary of the bullshit of online shopping. To solve this conflict, Ritani offers a huge selection of rings and diamonds online, and once a purchase is made, instead of shipping the ring to the customer’s home, Ritani ships to a local jeweler in the customer’s area. The customer then goes to a trusted jeweler to walk through their ring and complete the purchase. Currently about 60 percent of US customers live within a reasonable distance of Ritani’s partner locations.
They are also expanding the capabilities of online decision-making. “So let’s say you’re looking at diamonds and you can’t tell between a couple. Well, you can have an appointment with one of our nine commissioned gemologists,” said Keenley. “Think of it as a private Skype session where you can pull up high-definition photography and video of the two diamonds that you’re considering, and the gemologist will walk you through what are the [differences].” Ritani hopes to expand their network of partnered brick-and-mortar jewelers in order to expand this new model.
The biggest paradox of engagement rings comes at the intersection of reason and emotion. Considering the potential lifetime of the ring, the selection made when you are young has to be something you’ll be happy with when your age, when your fashion, when your taste and when your paycheck have all changed. Like tattoos, this is a decision that’s a commitment to yourself, and a visible sign to everyone around you. And any purchase equalling one or more monthly paychecks requires the type of neurotic decision-making associated with buyer’s remorse and heartburn.
Conversely, from an emotional perspective, the numbers and grading report don’t matter. Diamonds have never been considered to have any return on investment for the individual buyer, and for everyone else who sees the ring, it all comes down to whether it looks nice, not what the paper says. A knowledgeable jeweler can help decipher and simplify the numbers, leaving you with that small selection of stones and rings you’d actually be wise to purchase and allowing you take it from there.
Keeney calls this “the last 24 inches”. He means the space across the counter, buyer to seller. For those who know what they want, shopping online is a great money-saving tool and a very legitimate way to purchase. But for those who want a little guidance, or who want to begin a long relationship with someone from whom they will look for all of their jewelry needs, we recommend a small boutique or custom designer. It doesn’t necessarily need to be expensive, just a mom-and-pop store that knows you by face.
As Lustig put it when we chatted over fine black felt and $90,000 diamonds: “This is a business about personal relationships. I know of a store in suburban Chicago. A woman has a little main-street store. She knows every one of her clients like the back of her hand. As soon as they walk in she leads them to exactly what they want. Nine times out of 10 she hits the nail on the head.”
Resources & Sources
Jade Lustig — Creative Designer | Jade Trau Jewelry
Mark Moeller — Owner | RF Moeller Jeweler
Anna Sheffield — Owner/Creative Director | Anna Sheffield Jewelry
Ruth Batson — CEO | American Gem Society
Mark Keeney — Vice President, Marketing | Ritani
Kristin Mahan and Stephen Morisseau — Public Relations | Gemological Institute of America
Amanda Vasilikos at Forevermark for supplying the diamonds
Patricia Syvrud — Executive Director | World Diamond Council
Directory of AGS Certified Jewelers
The GIA Encyclopedia of Gems
Submitting a Gem for GIA Certification
More Advanced Reading from The Diamond Pro
The Industry Standard for Diamond Pricing — The Rapaport Report