Diamonds really are forever -- eons older than dinosaur fossils (not to mention a lot more alluring). "They are special, mystical, and no two are exactly alike," says Rebecca Aubert, senior gemologist for De Beers. "Just think: Each has survived billions of years to grace your finger." And although you'll be wearing your engagement ring for mere decades, the financial -- and sentimental -- investment you make in it means it makes sense to spend some time understanding what makes a diamond valuable. Lucky for you, we happen to have everything you need to know about your other lifelong companion.


Popular shapes, clockwise from top left: round; Asscher; pear; princess; heart; cushion; emerald; oval; marquise

The Virtues of Getting a Good Cut

Here's where the bling comes in: Just as a good haircut can do wonders for your appearance, the cut of a diamond can compensate for small size or imperfect color or clarity. How? The more symmetrical and precise the facets, the more dazzling the diamond. In the hands of a skilled craftsman, a so-so stone can be elevated to stunning showstopper purely by dint of its cut (the angles and proportions of the facets). On the flip side, "A diamond might be fabulous on paper, but it's dead if it isn't cut properly," says Aubert. For optimal light refraction, try the round brilliant cut with its 58 facets. "It's the ideal cut," says Aubert. "You can't get more sparkle from a diamond."

In the end, of course, it all comes down to taste. "Women select rings to represent their persona," says Peter Schneirla, chief gemologist at Tiffany & Co. Or as Elizabeth Paddock, Cartier's bridal specialist, says, "You have to fall in love with the ring. You're not wearing a GIA [Gemological Institute of America] certificate on your finger." Side note: Cut, in common parlance, has also come to mean shape, but when you're talking about the four Cs (cut, clarity, color, and carat), it strictly refers to the quality of the facets.

For Clarity's Sake

Clarity is determined by the number and size of a diamond's internal flaws (technically called inclusions) -- like cloudy or dark spots, or feathery lines -- and surface imperfections (called blemishes) in the form of scratches, nicks, or pits. The majority of inclusions and blemishes are microscopic. "It's only really a negative when you can see them with the naked eye. Humans see color much more easily than clarity, so for most, color is more of an issue," says Aubert.

As long as you avoid diamonds that fall into the I1, I2, and I3 clarity grades -- which signify visible inclusions (the eight levels above these categories measure only microscopic flaws) -- you're in the clear, so to speak. Of course, if you are buying for investment purposes, you'll want the best ranking you can afford. After all, the fewer the defects, the more rare and valuable the stone. (The priciest diamonds are those that fall into the FL -- flawless -- category, which have no flaws even under magnification.)

All that said, although inclusions and blemishes detract from the financial value of a diamond, they can also act as its fingerprint; since no two stones are alike, a "plot" of your diamond's flaws (which is included in your GIA certificate) offers proof that the stone you purchased is the same one you take home.

Color: The Good and the Bad

The GIA rates color on a scale from D to Z. A perfectly white, colorless diamond (grade D) is most valuable. As you move from D toward Z, diamonds begin to show traces of yellow, gray, and brown. In general, stones graded D to I appear colorless to the untrained eye (D, E, and F diamonds are very rare). "Fancy" diamonds -- yellow, pink, blue, and other naturally colored diamonds -- are graded on their own scale, ranging from Faint to Fancy Vivid: the more saturated and intense the color, the more rare and expensive the stone. Gemologists often use color combinations to describe these diamonds (for example, purplish red or yellowish green). With fancies, clarity is secondary to color. Notes Rebecca Aubert: "Most pink diamonds have a lot of inclusions, and that's fine. It's a bonus if it's a clean stone, but you're buying the color."

Not All Carats Are Created Equal

Next time you ask how big a friend's rock is, realize her answer has nothing to do with its resemblance to a doorknob. Carat refers to a stone's weight but is often thought to mean its size. Even more confusing: Certain shapes appear bigger than others despite weighing the same. A two-carat oval-cut diamond, for instance, will look larger than a two-carat round one. Emerald, marquise, and pear shapes also appear larger.

The true-to-scale carat chart below shows how round diamonds of different weights stack up against one another. Just keep in mind that this is a rough estimate. If you happen to have a round one-carat stone that looks smaller or bigger than what's below, it's because two stones of the same carat and shape can still appear to be different sizes, depending on how they're cut.

A Ring Made Just for You

If you're contemplating designing your own ring, be aware of this potential pitfall: "What's in your mind's eye and what ends up on your finger can turn out to be two different things," says Elizabeth Paddock. "The process is expensive and precarious." And since you most likely won't be able to return a customized ring, you'll want to tread carefully. Below, tips for the design-it-yourself bride and groom:

1. Do your homework. Start by visiting jewelry and antiques stores. Try on styles you naturally gravitate toward so you can learn what suits your hand and reflects your personality.

2. Clip photos from magazines, and approach your jeweler with a very strong point of view. A picture truly is worth a thousand words.

3. Few of us are qualified to create the piece on our own: Collaborate with a professional designer. (Larger design houses often have jewelers on staff who do custom work.) Expect the commissioned project to take between three months and a year. Renderings, wax models, and patience are all part of the process.

4. If you want to design your own ring but feel too nervous about the high cost and uncertain outcome, a number of design houses offer semicustom services. For example, Cartier's "Set for You" program lets you pair loose diamonds with established settings. This allows couples who like the idea of a customized ring but are on a tight budget to be creative and selective, says Paddock. "And you don't need to reinvent the wheel."

Metal Winners

Platinum is one of the strongest metals in which to set a diamond. "And out of all jewelry metals, it's the whitest -- important because you don't want the diamond to be tainted by another color," says Michael O'Connor, a consultant at Platinum Guild International. If you prefer the price of white gold, know that it is plated with rhodium to make it whiter and will need to be replated after years of wear. For yellow or white gold, choose 18 karat; 24 karat is pure gold but too soft. A hip alternative: steel, which exudes a strong, modern vibe.

All About Bands

"Your engagement ring and wedding band celebrate two different occasions in your life, so they don't need to be one cohesive look," says Paddock. That said, take an initial cue from your engagement ring, but realize that this duo simply needs to complement -- not necessarily match -- each other. Neither do the two rings need to sit flush against each other. When your hands move, your rings will, too.

Although there are few hard-and-fast rules, thin styles do look sweet on small hands; and broader ones on bigger hands. Metal bands are a sophisticated classic, and diamond eternity bands are no longer just for benchmark anniversaries. Some couples are even buying two bands for the bride: a diamond one to go with the engagement ring for daily wear and a metal one to wear to the gym or on a hike. In fact, the band is even becoming a popular alternative to the solitaire engagement ring. At the altar, the bride can slip on a second one for stacking.


Settings from left to right: prong; bezel; pave

What's the Right Setting for You?

Just as important as the four Cs is the setting in which your diamond will rest. Four- and six-prong settings are popular for good reason: Small metal claws lift the diamond away from the band, allowing in maximum light. Bezel settings feature a rim of metal that wraps around the solitaire. A cluster setting, whereby a larger center stone is surrounded by smaller stones (often creating a flower shape), has great vintage appeal. A channel setting showcases a row of diamonds with no metal separating them; they're essentially "channeled" between the two metal lips of a band. Pave settings, in which tiny round diamonds are placed in small holes drilled into the surface of the ring and held in place by little metal beads, are very au courant -- Aubert suggests pave settings to set off a fancy diamond -- as are modern-looking flush settings, in which diamonds lie level with the surface. Another tip from Aubert: If you're working with a stone that isn't quite on a par with the Hope Diamond, consider a bolder setting (like bezel) to shift focus from the diamond. But if your diamond is exquisite and sizable, keep it simple, she says: "It's almost upsetting to see a beautiful cut in a fancy setting."


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