LIKE MOST BACHELORS in love, Michael Pricone wanted to propose marriage to his sweetheart with the perfect ring. "I was very particular," he says. "My fianc e and I agreed that we weren't going to buy something [cheap] and upgrade it later."
With expectations high, the 33-year-old sales representative from Chicago was disappointed to learn that the rings he envisioned on his girlfriend's finger cost about $25,000 at local jewelry stores. But then he went on BlueNile.com, an online jewelry retailer, and found it a 1.3-carat center-stone diamond with two 0.5-carat side stones set in platinum for less than $15,000. On Sept. 3, Pricone took his girlfriend to her favorite restaurant in Naperville, Ill., and proposed with a ring that had come in the mail just two days earlier. His fianc e was thrilled.
"The diamonds are phenomenal," he says. "You can't even look at them in the sunlight without shielding your eyes."
Buying high-end jewelry online might sound like a risky proposition but a growing number of consumers are doing just that. Online jewelry sales wreached $2.45 billion in 2006, according to eMarketer, a market research company specializing in e-commerce.
For consumers, the appeal is simple: savings. Since online jewelry retailers don't have the overhead expenses of bricks-and-mortar stores, they can charge 20% to 40% less for their wares. At places like Tiffany and Cartier, of course, you'll pay a 20% to 60% premium compared with other retailers just for the name.
Of course, with online jewelers you're left with the responsibility of buying an expensive item sight unseen. Don't be dissuaded just yet with some research, you can find a great diamond online at an attractive price.
And remember: A little investigating is necessary wherever you buy jewelry. There's no way to know if you're dealing with a reputable seller unless you do your homework, says Alexander Angelle, spokesman for the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), a nonprofit industry group based in Carlsbad, Calif.
Here's an online survival guide.
We won't go into lengthy descriptions of each characteristic here for that, read GIA's Diamond Primer
The better each of those four characteristics, the more expensive the diamond will be. If you're on a limited budget, you'll have to prioritize. If you want to get a large stone, for example, but you can't quite afford that 2-carat flawless, colorless diamond, you might have to buy one that's lower on the color and clarity scale.
"If you understand the four Cs, you can understand how far you can go in the scales and still get an attractive diamond," says Angelle. "The person selling the diamond can help you with that. But if you're buying online, there's more onus on the purchaser to know the four Cs and be able to make those decisions."
A diamond's characteristics are listed in a grading report, which is basically a certificate issued by industry groups like the GIA or the American Gem Society Laboratories (AGSL). Never buy a diamond online without a grading report, preferably one issued by one of these two bodies.
2. Drill down for details
So you've been to Diamonds.com, BlueNile.com, WhiteFlash.com and a few others, and you've narrowed down your choices to a few diamonds with similar Cs. Problem is, there are still significant differences in cost, despite the stones' similarity on paper. How do you know which one to choose?
It's time to delve into the details that make up the most important C: cut. "The most important thing about a diamond is its proportions the cut because the cut dictates whether the diamond will be brilliant or not," says Louis Benowitz, a GIA graduate gemologist and jewelry designer whose company, RP Wax in Los Angeles, sells mainly to retailers. A diamond with good color and clarity grades might still look like "frozen spit" if its cut is off, Benowitz says.
When you're buying in person, it's relatively easy to compare one diamond with another. But online, all you have to judge a stone's brilliance are its table depth percentage, crown angle, pavilion depth percentage and other cryptic features. Sound Greek to you? Not to worry. An experienced jeweler will be able to give you a fairly good idea of a diamond's cut just by looking at these numbers.
Visit an online diamond forum such as www.pricescope.com and www.diamondtalk.com, where professional jewelers market their products and also give advice to consumers. Pricescope also has an online tool that lets you plug in those values and pull a brief report on the diamond's light performance.
3. Set your standards
Before you order, make sure you're dealing with a reputable merchant. "I could create a diamond selling business online within six hours, and the web site could look just like the web sites that BlueNile and the other big sellers operate," says GIA's Angelle. "That's what's scary."
Check with industry organizations like the Diamond Dealers Club and the Jewelers Vigilance Committee to see if there have been any complaints made against the merchants you're considering. "If you are a company selling diamonds, then the diamond industry will know who you are," Angelle says.
Make sure that whichever retailer you choose has a bullet-proof return policy. A retailer should give you at least 30 days to return the diamond, no questions asked. (You'll be responsible for the cost of shipping the jewelry back and any shipping insurance costs.)
Chances are you won't get the same ongoing customer service with an online retailer that you would with a high-end retail store. Sure, a good online retailer will be more than willing to answer any diamond-related questions you have. But it won't regularly clean your ring for free, like Tiffany and other big-name retailers do.
4. Make the grade
Once you receive your diamond jewelry, have it re-appraised to see if you got what you paid for. That, of course, will cost you money. The GIA grades only loose diamonds, so you might have to go to a local retailer to have your stones dismounted by a professional jeweler. Prices for GIA reports vary depending on the size of the diamond, but you can expect to pay $50 to $80 for small stones and $100 or more for larger ones, plus shipping, according to Angelle.
A Quick-and-Dirty Diamond Guide
1. Buy shy.
Diamond prices jump at the one- and half-carat marks, says John Baird, diamond and jewelry expert at BlueNile. You can save hundreds of dollars if you find a diamond that's just shy of that mark say 0.95 carat rather than a one-carat, or a 2.44 rather than a 2.5 while the difference in size is imperceptible. (If you're spending $10,000, you can save around $200 or $300, Baird says.)
2. Leave some color. Find a near-colorless diamond (G or H on the color scale) rather than a colorless (D, E or F on the color scale). Very few people are able to tell the difference in color even though the price difference is significant.
3. Be clear about clarity. The rarest and most expensive diamonds and those highest on the clarity scale, are "flawless" and "internally flawless." They're followed by "very, very slightly included" (VVS1 and VVS2); "very slightly included" (VS1 and VS2); "slightly included" (SI1 to SI3) and finally, "included diamonds" (I1 to I3). (The term "included" means imperfections.) The best value is in VS2 stones, which have slight inclusions visible only under 10X magnification. Once you get in the SI range, you may be able to see those cracks, and with I1 and lower, you'll likely see your ring's inclusions every time you look at it, Benowitz says.
4. Avoid ranges. Some retailers, like Overstock.com, list a range for a particular stone's measurements. For example, we recently pulled up a $3,599 diamond and were told it might range from 0.95 to 1.10 carats in size, have G-H color and I1-I2 clarity. Needless to say, getting the 0.95 H I2 stone will be a bummer compared to the 1.10 G I1, not to mention the difference in actual value.