Everything you need to know about getting a custom engagement ring designed
Going bespoke doesn’t have to drain your bank account, plus more need-to-know info from a Canadian jeweller
Merry Engagement Season! 'Tis the time when our social media feeds are flooded with a very specific kind of sparkle: that of engagement rings. The apparent influx of proposals in and around the holidays isn't merely anecdotal. Recent surveys by Brides and Wedding Wire both (separately) found that December is the most popular time to pop the question by far. So if you've been thinking about proposing to your partner, you might be deep in the planning process or about to plunge right into it.
There are two main paths people take when searching for the perfect engagement ring: heading straight to a jewelry counter, or finding an artisan who can create a custom piece. Since there isn't a ton of information out there on how to approach the intimidating-from-the-outside process of commissioning a bespoke ring, we reached out to Toronto-based jewelry designer and goldsmith Eden Philippa, who's known for her timeless, vintage-inspired designs. Philippa designed the engagement ring that now lives on my finger, though I was not involved in the design or purchasing process. She and my fiancé got it so right, however, that I thought she was the perfect person to give us a full primer on what's involved.
Here are her thoughts on why going custom can be so special, what to keep in mind before you commit (to the process, not your partner), and how it all actually goes down.
Why go custom?
The most obvious benefit of opting for a custom engagement ring over something from a collection is knowing that you're leaving with an entirely one-of-a-kind piece that can't be found on anyone else's finger or feed. It allows a very specific vision to be realized and for unique touches, whether that's playing with styles, metals and stones that aren't typically seen in engagement rings (coloured stones are a personal fave for Philippa, who does a lot of work with teal-tinged Montana Sapphires), or by integrating family stones that may carry a special meaning or history for you or your partner. If you are hoping to use family stones in a custom piece, Philippa recommends getting them appraised ahead of time. "Sometimes if your stone has been sitting in a setting for 100 years or 50 years it might not be as intact as a newly cut stone," she says. "There could be chips or there could be scratches; I just don't recommend using [damaged] stones in a new piece."
In addition to those aesthetic accommodations, a jeweller can help you with more practical concerns and decisions as well. For example, if your partner works with their hands but still wants to be able to wear their ring on a day-to-day basis, "I would recommend a certain style of setting," Philippa explains, "maybe a bezel setting, something that is more secure and protects all the edges of the stone." Likewise, if your partner doesn't wear a ton of jewelry, or finds it to be uncomfortable and irksome, a jeweller can work to create a more discreet design that won't feel bulky or get in the way. "If they find jewelry to be uncomfortable, usually they don't want something that's going to stick up really high, or they don't want a solitaire setting where the stone is very high," Philippa says. "Or they might not want a claw setting that can catch in their hair or on things."
On a larger scale, the custom process makes for a more intimate, one-on-one relationship between you and the artisan, which can be helpful if you've got a revolving door of questions. For example, you may really want to ensure the stones being used in the design were mined or created in an ethical, eco-friendly way. Philippa notes that many jewellers today, including herself, work with recycled or lab-grown diamonds, and often stones can be traced from mine to market. So if these things matter to you, having a direct line of communication with the person putting all the pieces together can be incredibly valuable.
The budget for bespoke
Naturally, one of the biggest sticking points for people when making the decision to go bespoke is budget. But while tailor-made pieces do tend to run pricier than items that are part of an existing collection, that doesn't mean you need to start multiplying your monthly income to plan accordingly for your purchase. "People think that you need a huge budget for a custom piece or you even need a huge budget for an engagement ring in general," Philippa tells us, "that's definitely the misconception that I clear up the most." It actually is possible go custom while keeping the price down — it just all boils down to the stone you choose. If you're on a budget, Philippa recommends opting for stones like white sapphire or moissanite (a diamond alternative that's mainly lab-grown today), which can be far less expensive than a traditional diamond — and may sparkle slightly differently — but shine just as brightly.
The engagement ring isn't the only piece of jewelry you'll need to budget for when going the custom route, Philippa tells us. A lot of people don't realize that "a custom ring isn't going to sit with a wedding band from collection," she says. "So that means they're going to have to design a custom [band], and with all the costs associated with a wedding, when it comes to time to choosing [one], most couples don't budget enough." To avoid that unpleasant surprise right in the middle of wedding crunch time, be sure to ask your jeweller about their wedding band pricing during the initial engagement ring design conversations. That way, you'll have your ducks in a row, making it easier to account for the extra spend within your overall wedding budget.
Another big thing to keep in mind when going custom: you probably won't be able to return or substantially alter the ring, meaning your options are a little limited if your partner says 'no' or doesn't love what you've picked out. Most independent jewellers have no-return policies on made-to-order items like engagement rings, so be sure to read the fine print and seek feedback from your partner, or someone close to them like their mom or BFF, before settling on a design and handing over your credit card.
How it all actually works
Once you've decided you're ready to take the marital plunge and have landed on 'custom' as your ring route, the best way to start is by finding out what your partner actually wants in an engagement ring — they're the ones who'll be wearing it indefinitely, after all. But sometimes our penchant for surprises, or the desire to make the engagement process as special as possible, can take over. Philippa says one of the biggest mistakes she sees people make is "not paying attention to hints or what their partner likes. I definitely encourage all my clients to come with as much information on their partner's taste and preferences, and from there we have an excellent road map for designing the most beautiful piece."
Philippa also assures us that the days of engagement ring details being shrouded in secrecy until the moment of the proposal are kind of over, so if you're worried about accurately conveying your partner's wants and needs to your jeweller, why not tackle that part of the process together? "With custom work, I would say 75% [of the time] it's the woman coming to me first… or if I'm emailing with them, then they'll both be on the email thread," Philippa says. "I think a lot of women these days really want to have a say in what they're going to wear for the rest of their lives." And it's not too difficult to get the best of both worlds either; after the design is hammered out, the proposer can take over and begin planning the perfect way to pop the question, without the help of their partner.
Of course, whether you're going in alone or together, there are a few key details you should have ironed out before getting in touch with your jeweller of choice. "Once I get that initial inquiry, I like to get as much information as possible from the client… inspiration photos, stone type and size, budget and timeline," Philippa tells us. In terms of inspiration photos, a pared down Pinterest board or a small collection of Instagram screenshots is ideal. "It can get complicated if their partner has sent them 20 different photos and all the photos have really different elements," Philippa explains. "So if that does happen, then I'll just go through all the photos with them and sort of subtract all of the elements that are similar to each other." After all those big-picture aspects are all sorted, then come the sketches and quotes, and eventually a cemented design that everyone is happy with.
From there, the timing can vary, though Philippa says that typically 4-8 weeks is a safe range to bet on. "The design and the stock selection process can take anywhere from two weeks to a few months," she explains. "Some clients are dead set on having a specific colour or type of stone, which in some cases can take time to [find]... I recommend folks get in touch a few months before their desired date or trip." And, luckily, if you're working with a jeweller in a different province or country, you shouldn't have to account for additional wait time. "It doesn't really add much… like maybe a couple days for shipping, depending on where they are in the world," says Philippa.
However, after the question has been popped, and the proposee has said 'yes', there may be delays if the size of the ring needs to be adjusted. "Some designs are more accommodating to being resized, but generally I can size a ring up or down one size, and it takes about two weeks to complete," Philippa says. She also recommends bringing the ring back to the jeweller who designed it to have these adjustments made, whenever possible — even if that means sealing that precious stone in an envelope and sending it back across the country.
As we're wrapping up our chat, I somewhat cynically ask Philippa how much she's forced into the role of therapist, soothing the worries of anxious partners about to put their hearts on the line in a pretty vulnerable way. She laughs off my question before hitting me with perhaps the most comforting piece of information one can arm themselves with before jumping in: "Most people that reach out to me are doing this for the first time in their lives so... I provide a lot of education about the process. I don't really expect anyone to know anything except just what their partner is looking for." Whew.