Diamond Buying Guide on a Budget

Having been married for many years now, I’ve become quite an expert at buying diamonds. Not by choice, mind you. But when you screw up as often as I do and you have a bad back, you have to do something (anything) to get off of sleeping on the couch. Given my experience, here’s my diamond buying guide on a budget.

How About Cubic Zirconia?

First off, I’d like to say that if you’re looking for size and sparkle, nothing beats cubic zirconia! You know how gemologists can tell if it’s cubic zirconia? It’s because it’s too perfect. Virtually all diamonds have slight imperfections. If it looks too perfect, there’s a very good chance it’s cubic zirconia. That, and the edges aren’t as sharp because cubic zirconia isn’t as hard as diamond. So the problem with cubic zirconia isn’t the quality or sparkle. It’s going to be better than almost any diamond out there. It’s convincing your significant other that giving them a fake diamond isn’t equivalent to fake love. If you can do that, you have so much to teach me, wise one.

Diamond Buying Guide: Focus on The 5 C’s

The 5 C’s are the most important things when buying a diamond. They are, in order of importance: cost, carats, cut, clarity, and color.

Cost

Of course, the most important C is the cost of the diamond. A diamond won’t depreciate like a car, but you definitely won’t get back what you paid for it, if you decide to sell it in the future. So buy what you can afford, and don’t break the bank for one.

For engagement rings, supposedly the new “rule” is 3 month’s salary. It used to be 2 not too long ago. Remember that those guidelines were established by De Beers. If you’ve never heard of De Beers before, they used to have a monopoly in the diamond market. I’m sure they had everybody’s best interests in mind when they wanted people to spend more money on a product that they had total control over. Like if Apple suggested every man, woman, and child owned at least two iPhones and two iPads, each, because they were looking out for everybody’s best interests, and not their bottom line.

Remember, a diamond is supposed to signify your love, and that has absolutely nothing to do with how much a diamond costs. I tried explaining that to my wife, but she didn’t buy it. Maybe you’ll have better luck than me.

Diamond buying guide
Just think of it as a really expensive get out of jail free card.

Carats

This is the first thing anybody notices about a diamond. The size. Which is why it’s so important. If you’re going to spend on any of the 5 C’s, this should be it. Some say the bigger the better (my wife, for example), but you also want to keep everything proportional. If your wife has small hands, a 5 carat ring could look ridiculously large on her. I think making sure the size is proportional is more important with earrings, since it should look like she still has lobes. Unless you want her to look like a rapper. If you’re going for the rapper look, there’s no such thing as too large, especially with grillz. As long as the diamond can fit in your mouth, it’s all good.

I’ve heard some people suggest you buy a diamond just under a full carat size to save money. Like instead of buying 1.00 carats, you should buy 0.95. Or buying 2.95 instead of 3.00. I’ve never noticed prices that much cheaper at these sizes. Maybe this made sense at some point in the past, but the discount has become arbitraged out. Realistically, there’s not much size difference between a diamond that’s 0.95 carats and 1 carat. At this size, the difference is about 1mm in diameter. Going from 2.95 carats to 3.00 is almost indistinguishable. So the only difference is how you feel about having just under a full carat, and most people will just round up anyways (OMG, I just got a 0.97 carat diamond!)

Cut

The first thing people notice with a diamond is the size. The next is the sparkle. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a raw diamond before, but they’re not impressive. They basically look like a clear rock. It’s the cut that turns a dull diamond into something that sparkles with fire and brilliance. A proper cut lets light come into the diamond, refract inside, and then come back out to give it that sparkle.

rough diamond
A rough diamond looks like dull glass.

Cut is usually rated good, very good, and ideal. I never buy a diamond unless it has an ideal cut. You can probably get away with a diamond with a very good cut, but don’t risk getting one with just a good cut. If a diamond doesn’t sparkle, it’ll look cheap, even if all the other qualities are good.

Clarity

Like I was saying before, almost all natural diamonds have imperfections. Impurities within a diamond are called inclusions. The range for clarity starts with I. These diamonds have inclusions that are visible with the naked eye. Next is SI. This stands for Slightly Included. Any inclusions with SI will be difficult to see with the naked eye, but will be visible under 10x magnification (using a loupe). The next level up is VS, which stands for Very Slightly Included. These inclusions are only visible under 10x magnification. After that is VVS, or Very Very Slightly Included. This means the diamond has almost no imperfections. Last are IF, or Internally Flawless, and FL, or Flawless. These diamonds have no visible imperfections, even under 10x magnification. The difference between IF and FL is IF has no imperfections inside the stone, while FL has no imperfections, period.

For each category, with the exception of IF and FL, there is a sub-category of 2 and 1. 1 is the better quality diamond. For example, a diamond graded VS1 is better than one graded VS2.

If you’re trying to stay within a budget, look for diamonds in the SI1 or VS2 range. You don’t want clearly visible inclusions since they’ll affect the brilliance of the diamond. And you don’t want to pay up for IF or VVS. Those diamonds are very rare, so you’re really paying up for lack of supply rather than much better quality.

Color

Color is a funny one. In the past, everybody wanted to have the most colorless diamonds. Now, colored diamonds are the rage. When I refer to the color scale, I’m referring to colorless diamonds, since these are still the most common.

The highest grading for colorless diamonds is D. Diamonds with a slight yellow tint get graded subsequent letters, like E, F, G, H, and I. As you go through the alphabet, the diamonds get cheaper. So when you start from D, you go from expensive to cheaper, all the way to Z.

Grades D, E, and F are rated colorless. Grades G, H, I, and J are rated near colorless. Trust me, it’s very difficult to tell these different grades apart. When diamonds are graded, it’s under carefully controlled lab conditions. When your significant other is wearing the diamond, it won’t be under these conditions and it’ll be nearly impossible for anybody to distinguish between a colorless diamond and a near-colorless one.

I try to stay in the H and I range. You’ll get a near colorless diamond that will be virtually indistinguishable for most people, and you’ll pay a fraction of the price.

It Matters Who Grades the Diamonds

There are thee main gemological grading agencies that grade diamonds. They are the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), American Gemological Society (AGS), and European Gemological Laboratory (EGL).

Generally speaking, GIA tends to be the strictest when grading diamonds. Next comes AGS, and last is EGL. So something that EGL considers VS1 may be considered VS2 at GIA. This is important to know because when you’re comparing diamonds and their grades, you also need to consider who’s grading it. If two diamonds are graded equally, I would pay more for the one that’s graded by GIA.

I don’t know if this is true, although it makes sense: I’ve heard that owners of lower quality stones prefer going to EGL to get graded, especially when it’s on the threshold. People will pay quite a bit more for VS2 over SI1, and in that situation, they would prefer the more lax grader.

Where to Buy Diamonds

Where ever you go, don’t buy diamonds at the mall! The mark-ups at the mall are insane. When we went to the mall, the price for a ring comparable to what I bought my wife was 4x what I paid!

I’ve always had good experiences with Blue Nile. Shipping has always been fast and you can actually see the grading report online. If you go somewhere else, just make sure it’s a reputable place and that they’re not too pushy. Any diamond is an expensive purchase and you want to make sure you go to a place that will answer all your questions and make sure you’re comfortable with your purchase.

How Much Can You Save by Picking the Right Diamond?

Like I said before, you can save thousands of dollars by picking the right grades for a diamond. I’m going to use Blue Nile since they have a wide selection of loose diamonds. For a 2.00 carat, Ideal cut, SI1 clarity, I color diamond, you’ll pay around $13k. For the same sized 2.00 carat diamond, but with VVS2 clarity and F color, you’ll need to pay about twice as much, or $26k. If you want a near-perfect 2.00 carat diamond, graded FL and D color, it’ll be around $60k! All three diamonds are the same size, but the near-perfect one is 5x the cost of one that looks almost as good.

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