choosing an engagement ring

The first step a couple takes from dating into married life often begins with a ring.

Every proposal is different, but many modern lovers still present a ring to their intended when going down on one knee (literally or figuratively). Considering the engagement ring will hopefully be a treasured lifelong possession — and shown off to every BFF, parent, sibling, relative, college buddy, coworker, and Instagram follower — there’s a lot of pressure to find the perfect one to capture your beloved’s taste and symbolize your love together.

There will be more posts in the future breaking down each of these steps, but here are the basics of choosing a ring for that special question:

Set your budget

Rings can range widely in price. There is no “right” amount to spend.

Traditional wisdom says to budget two months of the buyer’s salary, but I’m not a fan of such arbitrary measurement. Figure out how much you can afford, what you’re comfortable spending, and what the types of ring you and your partner like typically cost. Also consider what your partner will be comfortable with. While some brides would boast about a stunning three carat investment, others (like me) are uncomfortable wearing anything that costs more than a few thousand dollars, especially on a daily basis.

Find the right style

Like hobbies, jobs, and cars, there’s a different style of engagement ring out there for everyone. Does your partner like an elegant vintage look? Or would they prefer something modern and minimalist? Consider your beloved’s style in other areas, like clothing and decor. Is there a trend towards classic choices or things more eclectic and unique? Compare the rings you’re looking at to other jewelry they wear, especially the favorite pieces they wear often. Or, if your partner rarely wears jewelry, it’s possible they’d like something simple and understated.

Design the ring

The basics of any ring include the setting, the metal, the stone(s), and the shape. (There’s also different widths of bands, measured in millimeters, but these choices often dictate which size you need.)

Setting

The setting is what holds the stone or stones. With engagement rings, traditionally there is one center diamond, possibly with other stones around it or along the band. The most common setting is prong, with small metal “claws” holding the stone in place. There are a few different kinds of prong settings, like solitaire or Tiffany.

Other settings include bezel, a thin metal rim; tension, where the pressure of the metal band holds the stone; channel, a row of stones in the band; pavé, similar to channel but with tiny metal prongs; halo, small stones around the center stone; cathedral, using decorative arches of metal; bar, like channel but with exposed sides; the stone flush in the band; three stones next to each other with prongs; a cluster of small stones resembling one large stone; split shank bands that hold the stone like prongs would; and unique vintage and antique designs.

Every setting has its pros and cons, but we’ll get to that another day. Just know that some settings won’t work with certain gemstone shapes (see below) or require more frequent cleaning.

A square center stone — which I believe is aquamarine — in a four-pronged halo setting with a pavé band. This metal is probably white gold but may be platinum or silver. Photo courtesy of @andyjh07 on Unsplash.com.

Metal

The metal of a ring isn’t just about the look or color. Each metal varies in strength and durability. Some people also have skin reactions to certain metals, so make sure you know if your partner has any sensitivities or allergies before checking off this step.

Platinum is one of the most popular and durable choices for engagement rings, and looks silver in color. Yellow gold is most traditional. Gold also comes in rose gold, a romantic pink tint, or white gold, a stronger gold alloy with rhodium plating. Silver is great for smaller budgets. Titanium is especially durable. Other metals include palladium, zirconium, tungsten, and steel.

Stone

The traditional and most popular stone is a diamond. If that’s what you want, you’ll need to learn about the 4Cs: cut, color, clarity, and carat.

Cut is the most important. That’s the shape your diamond was cut in, and it has the biggest effect on the stone’s sparkle. Color is next. Diamonds usually have some natural color or tint. The less color in your stone, the more “perfect” it’s considered. Clarity refers to the amount of tiny imperfections inside the stone, but these are often unnoticeable to the naked eye. Carat is the measurement of a gemstone’s weight, used to describe size. The average engagement diamond is one carat — much larger than most people realize. Diamonds of the same carat with a different cut will look different sizes, though, so remember that the right cut is more important than the carat.

Plenty of couples in recent decades have opted for non-diamond engagement rings. If you’re looking to keep costs down, a white sapphire, moissanite, or even cubic zirconia will look just like a diamond for a fraction of the price.

If you want something with color, nature has quite the selection. Sapphires come in almost any color and are durable enough to withstand most lifetime daily wear. Plenty of colors are also available in sturdy topaz. Emeralds and rubies are valuable, durable options with brilliant colors. The light pink morganite has become a recent favorite on Pinterest. Aquamarine offers a more subtle blue. Bold red garnet and bright green tourmaline are beautiful and unique.

Don’t be afraid to mix it up and use multiple stones. A center diamond with smaller colored gemstones or a beautiful mix of colored stones can create a truly one-of-a-kind ring.

Stones like pearls, lapis lazulis, and opals can also be beautiful, but are softer on the Mohs scale and more likely to get scratched and need polishing, cleaning, or replacing. Make sure to consider the durability of your gemstone when making this choice, since many beautiful or more budget-friendly gems are softer and will require more upkeep as time passes.

A tall four-prong setting of a round diamond in what appears to be silver (possibly platinum) with a channel band. Photo courtesy of @chuttersnap on Unsplash.com.

Shape

Once you know which gemstone(s) you want, you’ll need to choose a shape.

To figure out which shape you and your partner will be happiest with, I recommend doing some Google and Pinterest searches. It’s easiest to get familiar with the shapes by looking through examples.

Your options include round, square, princess (aka square brilliant), emerald cut, baguette, cushion, heart, pear (aka drop/teardrop), oval, marquise, octagon, and trilliant (triangular). The most popular in my experience are round, princess, and cushion shapes, but emerald, pear, and marquise are also seen often.

Find out your partner’s ring size

This can be the trickiest part. You’ll want to make sure the ring fits before attempting to slide it on your lover’s finger.

If your partner is a heavy sleeper, one online suggestion is to tie a string around their ring finger while they sleep and then slip it off to measure. Personally, I’m not sure how much I’d trust this trick!

The same fingers on each hand can often be different sizes, but one idea that may work is to (secretly) borrow and measure a ring they wear on their right ring finger. That measurement should be an accurate estimate, give or take a half size.

If you’ve been together a long time and this proposal isn’t really a Big Surprise, it’s possible your partner has “let slip” their ring size to a friend. Maybe a private conversation with the besties will get you the information you need.

When in doubt, err up. It’s usually much easier (and cheaper) to re-size a ring to a smaller size than a larger one, and your partner can always wear a ring guard until they’re ready to get the re-sizing done. Be aware that intricate band designs may not allow for re-sizing, however. Make sure to talk to your jeweler before buying if you have any doubts about the size.

Don’t forget insurance

I know this guide is long, and I commend you if you’ve read this far. One last note before you go: an engagement ring is a major investment, not only financially but emotionally as well. Like the other most important possessions in your life, you’ll want to consider insuring your engagement ring, in case it gets lost, damaged, or stolen.

So there you have it: a compact guide to the basics of engagement rings. I’ll write more about specific elements in the future, but at least this overview gives you a starting point.

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