One thing we can say about the 21st century is that rules don’t apply and tradition is what you make it — even, or maybe especially, when it comes to engagements and weddings. Anyone can propose, your non-denominational best friend can officiate your wedding, and thanks to Netflix, we can confirm Love Is Blind… sometimes… when the cameras are rolling.
While that toss-tradition-to-the-wind attitude is refreshing and much-needed (yes, gay marriage!), when it comes to engagement rings, we may need to slow our roll, just a little.
Meet the Experts
Todd Bracken is a master jeweler, gemologist, and watchmaker.
“Up until about 15 years ago, engagement ring styles were very traditional. It was the only ring you’d wear for the rest of your life,” says master jeweler, gemologist, and watchmaker Todd Bracken. “Now it’s less about a fiancée wanting the clearest, whitest, geologically finest diamond they can get, but more about the look of the ring. Today, there are popular engagement ring styles that 20, 30, or 50 years ago, would have been seen as junk.”
Case in point, the rose cut diamond trend, which peaked in popularity when Justin Theroux proposed to Jennifer Aniston with a Hollywood-sized version in 2012. “Rose cut diamonds have a naturalness to them, but they can be flawed and cloudy,” says Bracken. “It’s lower quality, but some people don’t care and just like that look.”
For Bracken, education and research are very important when couples are choosing an engagement ring. “I’m an old man. Life has changed and humans have changed,” he muses. “Like husbands and wives, engagement rings have become expendable. But the younger generation should still learn and know about craftsmanship and durability.”
Here are some of Bracken’s tips to make sure you get the engagement ring of your dreams — that lasts at least as long as your marriage.
D is for Durability (and Diamonds)
There’s a reason why diamonds are the go-to gem for an engagement ring: their hardness and durability. “On the Mohs hardness scale (which ranks minerals on their hardness), a diamond is 10,” says Bracken, “which means it won’t scratch as easily as other gemstones.”
Hence the expression, a diamond is forever, and why it’s traditionally used for a ring that should last a lifetime. Of course, the 4C’s of a diamond — cut, color, clarity, and carat — are essential to learn about when purchasing one. Luckily, there are many primers online and jewelry stores have specialists who’ll gladly teach you the basics.
Sapphires and rubies are historically used for engagement rings as well, but they’re still not as durable as diamonds. “Ruby and sapphire are 9 on the scale, but it’s not just one step up from 9 to 10,” Bracken explains. “A diamond is four times as hard as a sapphire or ruby.”
Amethysts are gaining in popularity, “but the surface will scratch, chip, and abrade in about a year,” warns Bracken.
And not just for the proposal. Bracken cites current trends for ring settings that are extremely dainty and fragile. “Wire shanks, thin bands, and halo settings are popular, but they won’t last,” he says. “Following style trends means that in about ten years, you’ll get tired of your ring and want something else.”
Bracken advises getting gold and platinum settings because silver is too soft, along with smoother, more classic designs with less prongs. Solitaire settings, like a Tiffany style, will be far more durable than prong settings that can easily bend.
“The halo is just not as durable,” he says. “Any time you have dozens of tiny diamonds with tiny prongs, you’re going to catch it on something like a sweater, and risk losing a stone.” A channel setting is far more secure for smaller diamonds.
Comfort is also important. This is a ring that’s often worn daily. It should be sized perfectly, be smooth, and have no rough edges that can catch.
Shop Around But Don’t Expect to Save
Hit all the stores, online and IRL, that you and your partner can handle. Bracken suggests scoping out everyone from Zales to Blue Nile to Cartier. Always go to a reputable jeweler, no matter your budget, and know what you’re getting. Zales may not give you the highest quality, but they are affordable.
“I recommend Tiffany. I used to be a contractor for their rings for many years,” says Bracken. “It is extremely expensive and you don’t get a lot for the money, but it’s top quality. You may see a style you like there and you can mimic it elsewhere — for less quality and money.”
While we all know the “three month salary rule” was a marketing ploy by DeBeers, Bracken agrees that engagement ring shopping is not a time to bargain hunt. “Actually, three months salary is a good rule of thumb,” he says. “It makes the giver freak out and the receiver’s eyes light up, but if they meet in the middle somewhere, it works. An engagement ring will almost always be more expensive than desired [by the giver], but you get what you pay for and you do want to get as high quality as possible.”
In other words, everyone needs to manage their expectations!
While being surprised with a ring and proposal is arguably romantic, Bracken has witnessed how the etiquette of ring shopping has completely changed. “Most people need their girlfriend’s help, whether it’s by showing 40 different pictures of her favorite style or by just having her choose,” he says. “It’s not going to be a surprise, but she’s getting what she wants. If you’re not letting your partner choose your blouse or shoes on their own, you probably don’t want them picking out your engagement ring without any input.”
If Bracken sees someone struggling in the process, he immediately encourages bringing in the future fiancée. “The best thing is to do it together,” he says. “Before you build your house and your family together, build your ring together. Make that romantic.”
Second Time’s the Charm
Bracken is a fan of second-time fiancées. “They know what they want and they go for it,” he says. “Usually, they’re older, they have more money and they’re more decisive so it’s a lot easier. They automatically go for quality.”
Bigger isn’t always better, but then sometimes it is. “Some women tell me they had a big diamond the first time around and want something less flashy,” he says. “Other times they say they always hated their marquis ring and want something much bigger.”
Like everything else in love and life, go get what you want!