A modern primer on engagement ring shopping

From ethical diamonds to recycled gold, top experts share everything we need to consider.

From ethical diamonds to recycled gold, top experts share everything we need to consider

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

On the lookout for the perfect engagement ring this month? You wouldn't be alone — according to a survey on wedding trends in Canada by Weddingbells magazine, one in five proposals take place in December, and 35 per cent of engagements occur between December and February. 

Whether you're planning to pop the question, or have recently gotten engaged and are now ring-shopping together, there's a lot to consider before making the big purchase (it can be a significant financial commitment; the average engagement ring is expected to cost $3,125, according to the same survey). 

First, you'll need to think about budget and learn about the "four c's" of diamond shopping, all of which will significantly affect the ring price: carat, cut, clarity and colour. Then, you'll need to consider whether you want to buy a ready-made ring, customize an existing style to your needs, or go the truly custom route. Other important decisions to be made along the way include the type of diamond you're looking for (if you want a diamond and not another gemstone) — options today can include natural, coloured, lab-grown and vintage — and, beyond ensuring that they're ethically-mined and conflict-free, whether the country of origin and precise traceability are important for you. Finally, there are material and style trends to consider; for example, recycled gold is becoming more popular, and some buyers are forgoing a solitaire design in favour of smaller, stackable rings.

To help you select the right engagement-ring, we asked three industry experts — Alison McGill, editor-in-chief of Weddingbells and editorial director of Mariage Quebec, Tonia Guerrera, director of bridal and prestige jewelry at Birks, and Melissa Gobeil, goldsmith and co-founder of Attic — to share their insider insights and must-know tips for navigating this big purchase. 

Know the basics

A diamond's cut, clarity, colour and shape are all important factors that will affect the price when you're shopping for an engagement ring. But according to Guerrera, the cut is the most important element to consider, "It's what you really need to look for, because you don't want to compromise on the cut; you want to maximize the brilliance and the beauty of the diamond." And keep in mind that if a retailer or jeweler doesn't have the exact style and type of gemstone you're looking for in stock, you can always request it by special order. "50 per cent of our bridal sales comes from special orders," says Guerrera.

Selecting natural diamonds

With natural white diamonds, ideally you're looking at a conflict-free, ethical diamond where you have some idea of its origin. While every jeweler and retailer may use diamonds from different sources, a diamond's supplier and country of origin can provide invaluable information. "When you know the origin of your gemstone, you have a better or clearer picture of the manner in which the stone was mined, and the social conditions under which it was mined," says Gobeil. (According to her, some good gemstone options when it comes to meeting higher environmental and social standards are Montana sapphires from the United States, sapphires from Sri Lanka, Canadian diamonds, and diamonds from alluvial (or stream bed) mines in Australia.) 

"If you're shopping for a diamond engagement ring, you should be asking about the origin of the stone if you can," says Gobeil. For a white diamond, she recommends Canadian stones, which are responsibly mined and "upheld to the highest ethical and social standards." Attic works with CanadaMark diamonds mined in the Northwest Territories, says Gobeil, adding that the supplier recently began offering tracing even for smaller diamonds (under half a carat in weight).

"All of our vendors that we get our diamonds from [at Birks] have to comply to the Kimberley Process," says Guerrera. "It's a process to make sure that everything was conflict-free [and] ethically sourced." And all Canadian diamonds purchased at Birks are traceable to the mine where they come from; clients can look up this information online, Guerrera notes.

The industry is still developing in terms of traceability, but knowing the origin of your stone can be helpful in helping you make "the social, the environmental decisions you want to make," explains Gobeil. And this type of information should become more accessible soon — the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), for example, just launched a new Diamond Origin program where, Gobeil says, "they work with major mining companies to scientifically cross reference the rough diamond with finished or polished stones to authenticate its origin."

The buzzy alternatives: other precious stones and vintage, coloured, and lab-grown diamonds

All three experts all agree that colourful diamonds, diamonds with unique quirks (such as "salt and pepper" diamonds) and alternative precious stones are becoming popular alternatives to the classic white diamond. "We're seeing a lot of fancy stones like yellow diamonds, sapphires of all colours, rubies, garnets," says McGill. "I like to see rings that are different and very reflective of the person, and I think you can really do that with a coloured stone."

Vintage diamonds are another option — at Birks, for example, there's a bespoke program where you can design a ring with a custom gemstone inside, which could be a vintage or heirloom stone. "When we're talking about vintage pieces, generally speaking what I have experienced is they're heirloom pieces, so there's some sort of sentimental and personal connection which I think is really nice," says McGill. It's a sustainable choice, because you're reusing an existing piece in a new way, though it's worth having them checked for scratches, chips and other damage.

And lab-created diamonds (which are structurally and visually identical to mined diamonds) are beginning to gain some acceptance in the fine jewelry market, at least internationally. De Beers has started selling synthetic diamonds in stores and several direct-to-consumer brands focused on lab-grown diamonds have launched worldwide. "[Lab-grown diamonds] is really an emerging topic that I think people are getting educated about, and it's really becoming a conversation point," says McGill. "Definitely people are very curious about it … from an ethical and sustainability perspective." Ultimately, she suggests doing your research and asking a jeweler if you want to know more about the differences between natural and lab-grown diamonds. "Don't be afraid to ask these questions when you are looking at a diamond, because you want to feel confident about what you're buying and where your stone is coming from," says McGill.

Currently, Canadian fine jewelers like Birks and Attic are not offering lab-grown diamonds, but that could change in the future. "We have definitely been receiving requests, but it's not something that we are exploring at this time," says Gobeil.

Choosing a metal

Once you have a design and stone in mind, you'll want to choose a metal for the setting. According to Guerrera, platinum and white gold continue to be the top choices for rings (the former has a slightly more matte finish), but yellow and rose gold are "picking up" in popularity.  Birks only carries 18-karat gold. "You see it in the weight and the quality," says Guerrera. "It has more of a substance and more of a look [compared to 14- or 10-karat gold]."

"For durability, our material of choice is 14-karat. It's very beautiful and complementary on a lot of skin tones," says Gobeil, noting that Attic does offer pieces in 18k gold upon request and for custom designs. The company also offers pieces in post-consumer recycled gold, which they purchase from an Ontario refinery. "It's the same quality [as new gold] and there is no price difference," says Gobeil. 

The newest trends

"It's an interesting time because just like weddings have become kind of anything goes, so have engagement rings, and there's really not one cookie cutter model for everyone," says McGill. While classic designs such as the iconic radiant-cut or princess-cut solitaire ring and the halo setting (which features smaller gemstones set around a large center stone) continue to be dominant, McGill notes that she's "seeing people move towards really individual designs that really suit them." Three-star rings, band stacking and more minimalistic designs are other rising styles that McGill has noticed recently. 

Other emerging trends in the space include "fancy shape gems" such as oval, marquise and pear-cut stones, says Gobeil, noting that some of her clients are forgoing the classic solitaire ring in favour of stacking designs or even sets of rings. 

The experts' top shopping tips

"Engagement ring shopping is kind of like shopping for a wedding dress," says McGill. "Everybody always tells you, explore things that you might not have explored before … you may have your heart set on a round-cut diamond, but maybe an oval looks better on your hand, or maybe a coloured stone looks great with your skin tone." There are many options in the market, and she recommends taking the time to look, try on, and consider. 

"Wherever you go, ensure that the retailer has a reliable after-sale program," advises Guerrera. "It's a long term relationship with the retailer that you're dealing with […] at Birks, we have a 90-day return policy, free sizing, free engraving, lifetime diamond warranty, a trade-up policy, a GIA certification on the diamond and on the shank that matches to make sure that nothing gets switched in."

Gobeil suggests that you "go simple" and "invest in classics: timeless, quality pieces," and notes that word-of-mouth recommendations can come in handy when it comes to jewelry shopping. "Book a meeting and sit down with the jeweler, and use your feelers. I think that it's really important if you can to do that," says Gobeil. "It's a big purchase and you want to feel good about all the steps that it takes. It's a very fun process, but you have to find the right match."

Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.