back to the Black Table

So you found the woman you want to spend your life with, and you're looking to buy a diamond engagement ring. You poor bastard.

Don't feel too bad. You never stood a chance against the greatest marketing effort in the history of mankind. If you love your woman and you want her to marry you -- it doesn't matter if you're a high rollin' Wall Streeter or a hand-to-mouth hot dog vendor -- you're dropping two months' salary on a diamond ring. They command it in the ad.

Those diamond salespeople charge one pricey admission ticket to reach Step One on the Warpath to Marriage, even though a fine ruby is actually rarer in nature than the finest of diamonds.

I recently bought an engagement ring for my girlfriend. (She said yes.) So believe me, I know what it's like to hinge my life savings and the prospect of marrying the woman I love on a single piece of jewelry. A diamond piece of jewlery, and you can't talk your way out of it.

There's no need to bone up on the diamond trade's role in Africa's bloody rebel wars. Preparing a treatise on how it's all an archaic dowry tradition anyway are useless. And what are you gonna say, really? "Baby! Why must I donate my life's savings to the already rich and powerful diamond industry just to prove my love for you?"

You go and do that.

No matter what she says when you start dating, when you've reached the point where she's telling her family and friends that you finally found the sack to propose, she wants ice before she says "yes." And nine times out of 10, the first thing her father's going to ask is: "Did he get you a ring?" It's worth your life savings to have that answer be:"Yes, Daddy."

So how do you find an engagement ring that produces a swoon commensurate with the dent to your bank account? How do you deal with the fact that every time you walk into a jewelry store, you feel like salesmen are falling down to grab the sucker?

Well, my soon-to-be penniless friend, you're in luck, because I am about to share a few simple things I learned as a reporter covering the diamond industry (and a recent shopper) that will make the whole getting a ring thing a helluva lot easier.


Before you glance at a display case, make sure you're looking at certified diamonds. The "cert" you're looking for contains all the essential information about a diamond, like color, proportions, weight, even a little diagram with the imperfections marked off, similar to the way a car rental company will mark dents on a picture of the car you're renting.

Any honest jeweler or diamond dealer sells certified stones, and unless you are a gemologist who can grade a diamond, the certificate is the only way to know that you're getting what's advertised.

A good place to start your search is at one of the online stores, like This way you can get sticker shock at home, and not in the store in front of the sales guy.


There are a few basic things you can play with: Size, color, clarity and cut. The bigger the stone, the more impressed she's going to be, right? So to get the most bang for your buck, you want to pick a larger rock of a lower quality. However, there are ways to gain size without sacrificing anything you'll be able to discern with the naked eye.



The square-shaped princess cut is at left.
The round brilliant is at right.


First off, diamonds come in different shapes. A safe, easy choice is the "round brilliant", although the popularity of the "square-shaped princess cut" is growing fast. Round is the classic shape associated with a diamond and every store or dealer will have several for you to look at.




Color classifications start at D. (A, B and C were reserved for stones of a higher quality. None have been found yet.) At D we have the Cadillac of diamonds: A colorless stone. E is a little worse and so on, all the way down the line, as the stones gradually take on a yellow tint. For the most part, it's almost impossible to tell the difference between a D and a G with the naked eye, except for the price tag. G's are much cheaper than D's. Anything under J is pretty nice, really. Look at different stones next to each other against a white background to spot the color variations.

A tip on color: Set the diamond in white gold or platinum, though platinum will set you back a few hundred more than white gold. Either way, setting the stone against silver will make it look clearer than if it's against yellow gold. More important, only 40-something Jersey chicks and Midwest trailer trash wear yellow gold these days. Check to make sure you are neither of those and ignore yellow gold. This is not debatable.

As for size, one carat is totally acceptable, but don't go smaller. A nice quality one-carat stone can be had for about five grand. (Carat: "A unit of weight for precious stones, equal to 200 milligrams.") If you don't think your wife-to-be will mind a cloudy yellow stone or one with black spots all over it, you can probably get one closer to a carat-and-a-half for the same money.

A tip on size: How big the diamond looks in a setting has a lot to do with the proportion of the stone referred to as "table diameter," which is marked on every certificate as a percentage. The "table," in this case, is the flat part of the diamond facing up. The carats and price tage may be the same but the stone with the larger table diameter will look much bigger.


Ah, dammit! There had to be a catch! You have to make sure the large table doesn't throw off the proportions too much. Then the diamond loses brilliance, which is the sparkle or "fire" that makes everyone melt.

Certs list an overall grade for the stone's proportions, but don't go below "Good." Once you get down to "Fair," you're dealing with a rock that fails to properly reflect the light that shines into it, which means it loses fire. Look for a diamond that has "Very Good," "Premium" or "Good" grades in proportion, because the naked eye really can't distinguish between "Very Good" and "Ideal." Make sure the table is up near 60% so the stone looks bigger. And keep shopping until you find one of these diamonds, because you'll get a lot more flash for your cash.



This is what inclusions look like under 10x magnification.



The last major consideration is clarity. The SI2 grade is the best value becuase the stone has inclusions, or black shit, that you can barely see with the unaided eye. The SI means "Slightly Included" and I only looked at SI2's. My stone had tiny inclusions that I couldn't see without 10x magnification. The small black dots I saw were off on the edges of the diamond, and my jeweler partially covered one spot with a prong from the setting. You can go with a higher clarity (SI1, VS2, and so forth), but you'll sacrifice size or color. If the store doesn't have any decent SI2s, find another, because there are tons of nice ones out there -- and it makes a big difference in price.


So hey, congratulations! You're going to get married! And now you're equipped with the requisite knowledge to get a good deal on the diamond to make that happen.

Two final tips: Walk in with a firm budget and a good idea of what you're going to see in your price range. Avoid high-end Tiffany-like stores. Don't pay for a stinking blue box that your stunned girlfriend won't even notice during your proposal.

Now all you have left to think about is popping the question, enjoying the superb first-time fiancé sex and saving up for the 10-year anniversary diamond size-up purchase.



In a darker age, Mike Bruno was a senior editor at the Rapaport Diamond Report, where he covered the industry's many gripping issues in detail. And yes, he recently got engaged. Send congratulations here.